05 Jun

Remembering, I will Let Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Speak For Me

The Delta in Our Home

Baltimore, June 5, 2008

THE spring Saturday was lovely. I was on the rope swing, waiting for my father to come home and for all of us to be called to dinner. Usually, on such a warm weekend day, our family would eat outdoors. My father would grill steaks smothered in mustard. But he was returning late from a trip to the Mississippi Delta, where he’d been conducting Senate hearings on hunger. It was 1967, and I was 15.

After the bell rang, I got to the dining room before the others. The long table was set with linen, silver and crystal. Painted portraits of my brothers and sisters hung on the walls. And suddenly, my father entered. He looked haunted and started talking to me, shaking his head in distress as he described the people he’d met in the Delta. “I was with a family who live in a shack the size of this dining room,” he told me. “The children’s stomachs were distended and had sores all over them. They were starving.” He was outraged that this could happen in the world’s richest country.

“Do you know how lucky you are?” he asked me, and then repeated, “Do you know how lucky you are? You have a great responsibility. Do something for these children. Do something for our country.”

I can’t remember what I said. I’m afraid I may have asked how hunger could make people’s stomachs larger. I wanted to think about how I might act on his advice, but for the moment felt only the importance of his giving it.

I thought of another time when he’d given me very personal advice, in a letter after his brother Jack was killed. “Dear Kathleen,” he’d written then. “You seem to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a special responsibility. A responsibility … to be kind to others and work for our country. Love, Daddy.”

After our brief exchange, he went upstairs to change. During dinner, he spoke again at length about the families he’d met in the Delta. He reiterated his message of personal responsibility, which was familiar to the whole family. My father had often quoted St. Luke, that from those who have been given much, much will be expected. And he made a point to take us to places where people lived in circumstances that were far different from ours — on Indian reservations, in Harlem, in Appalachia.

But on that evening his outrage was especially obvious, his sense of injustice palpable. And he wanted his children to feel the desperation of those children the way he had — and to see the need to do something positive about it.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

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