Where Were You When John F. Kennedy Was Shot? Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78) Remembers

Below is a poem I wrote about that occasion, trying to capture how it was for us, my family.  My father was a pastor exiled after a disastrous personal and professional failure in an inner city church to a remote rural parish in Coshocton County, Ohio.  We were placed in a drafty, beat-up old parsonage in a godforsaken little burg cruelly named Blissfield.  My 23-year-old sister was troubled and miserable and living with us even though she was engaged to be married to a rather strange little man in another town.  My mother took to her bed most days and was in rampaging change-of-life.

limo2Then JFK got killed. Even though we were Republicans and had opposed his election, it affected us deeply in that already desperately gloomy time.  I was taking the school bus every day into a small high school in Warsaw, Ohio, where I actually enjoyed myself — I think it was a needed escape. I was in World Geography class when we got the word, sitting next to my best friend Mary Jo — we thought we were the smartest kids in the school and we loved each other.  And do to this day.  I might have been the only one in the family that November who had any hopes. But as my poem states, somehow my family got through it, and things got better.

My sister just died last week and so our life together and memories of many difficult times are fresh in my memory.


Still wired from second shift at Rubbermaid, my grown sister
Slept angrily on the bottom bunk, fists keeping the pillows awake
For hours.  She was an accident, no partner to my smart dreams.
Kin whispered she lost oxygen at birth. Sodden bunkmate,
she sweated nightmares and gasped asthmatic tears.
I hated her Noxema, too-sweet perfume and Elvis 45s.
She was the hillbilly I could not avoid, though
I thought I was bound for glory.  But she got inside.
It took years to see I was her, fouled and befuddled by the world,
Crazy for solutions, not knowing the score.

My mother, furious with me for being 13, gave up on style.
We watched Kennedy’s cortege in a cramped living room, black
And white, black and white; she never shed one tear.  It was all
Mixed up – JFK, her life, JFK.  Once she drove alone to town on
The road lacing Killbuck Creek.  Six deer leaped from the brown scrub
And danced for her, stopped and looked at her, she said, with pity.
She could have abandoned everything. If miracles happen
She would have left the car behind and gone.

My father’s angina.  Less than the remarkable heart attack
He might have preferred, it grabbed him, protest squeezed down
In his windpipe.  We said he was making it up again, gave him
Milky tea with a grudge and soothed his forehead with smug hands.
The three of us in it together — my mother despairing of escape,
My sister in on this one joke, me smirking like the visiting scholar
Who has to get back to her true milieu.  My father questioned
The Lord, then questioned him again.

Every season ached.  While August’s fat heat blistered and nettled
The Blissfield house, we sweltered inside.  In autumn, we huddled
Like immigrants on the uneven floors; not a single door shut true.
My mother dreamed and my sister hoarded pots and pans for
Marriage.  Late recalcitrant winter, I stayed awake nights
Scraping letters on window frost with a fingernail:  SOS.  When
Killbuck Creek swelled and we dragged our measly goods upstairs,
The whole house groaned.  But it held up while the creek roiled
In, smelling of catfish and chemicals, while my father wrote
A sermon people still recall.  Something grew, spring came.

Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78) is retiring in December as director of the Thompson Center janfor Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan – Flint, where she also has been a writing teacher for two decades.  She and her husband Ted Nelson (Turkey 1964-67) met in Peace Corps and reconnected in 2001, eventually marrying, in 2005.  She wrote the Peace Corps novel Night Blind.


Leave a comment
  • Thank you for posting this truly & credibly and great poem, clearly a masterwork by Jan Worth-Nelson (i have to write her name here because i want to always remember this writer of FROM THE BLISSFIELD PARSONAGE:NOVEMBER 1963). edward mycue

  • Very good, Jan. I like the poem but really enjoyed the memoir. Plus it’s great to hear from you again. Do you still remember your visit to the Finnish university in Hancock in the U P? I’ll be retiring soon too–after nine books. Cheers. Lauri

  • Of course I remember you, Lauri! Greetings. I loved that evening in Hancock. Congrats on the latest book.

  • What a strong poem … with a mighty downdraft close to despair. And yet see what a productive life the poet has had after emerging from that terrible time and place. I would like to meet her to express admiration more directly. I don’t know anything about her novel Night Blind. I should probably get hold of it and read it.

  • Thank you, Larry. Would love to hear your reaction to Night Blind — there’s actually a lot of “Ohio” in it, even thought it takes place in The Kingdom of Tonga. I guess that’s how it is in Peace Corps, isn’t it? No matter how far away we go, we take our history with us and do the best we can.

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