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MY LOST CAMELOT
When John F. Kennedy, Jr. was tragically killed in the Piper Saratoga single engine
plane he was flying, I reacted the same way as I did when Princess Diana died in a
Paris tunnel in a senseless car accident. I watched television coverage of the
respective events around the clock, and bought and read all the magazines and
newspapers I could find on the subject.
My husband, an American born, was interested and saddened by the two tragic
losses, but didn’t react in the same way I did. He thought the media coverage was
overdone and that the press was too intrusive on the private grief of the Kennedy
and Bessette families. I disagreed with him in that I was grateful for all the media
coverage because it brought me closer to the center of grief so that I could mourn
along with the family members and people who were on the scene.
As a former British subject, I felt close to the Diana tragedy. I identified with her
pain and the struggle of her alienation from the royal family, as she was forced to
participate in a constricting lifestyle. Then in an instant, it was all tragically over,
when she was far too young.
When I was thirteen years old, I left South Africa and immigrated to the United
States with my parents and two sisters. I experienced the sudden and irreplaceable
loss of my family, culture and heritage. The tragic deaths of Princess Diana and
JFK, Jr. evoked feelings of agony within me that began in my adolescence and took
thirty long years to work through. I had the precious gift of time not afforded to
Princess Diana or JFK Jr. Neither was this gift of time allotted to Kennedy’s wife
Carolyn and her sister, Lauren, who both died on the plane with him.
In an attempt to make sense of the monumental changes in my life I became a
writer, since the act of putting words on paper is a tangible and focused way to
unravel the threads of one’s experience and in sharing them with others, one
creates a sense of validation and comfort.
When I arrived in New York in 1966, I was a white Jewish child of the South African
Apartheid era. I was suddenly thrust into an American society that was experiencing
the political upheavals of the sixties the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and
his brother Robert, black freedom marches and the subsequent assassination of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. There was a moratorium in my high school against the
Vietnam War, riots on college campuses across the country, and students at Kent
State University being beaten to death by police during a riot.
Teenagers were rebelling in schools and bucking parental and teachers’ authority.
I had come out of an all-girls high school in Johannesburg where we wore navy
blue uniforms replete with white panama hats. Adherence to rules and respect for
authority were ingrained into us with corporal punishment that was meted out
liberally by our teachers who were heeded and obeyed without question.
Education was spoonfed to us out of textbooks and intelligence was measured
by our ability to regurgitate facts accurately. Creativity was seldom nurtured and
intellectual curiosity was stifled.
Being suddenly thrust into a world of flower children and hippies sitting in class
with their feet on the desks, answering our teachers in a disrespectful manner, was
more than I, as a pristine, over-protected young girl, could endure. In South Africa we
had been sheltered from the news. We didn’t have television this was a direct ploy by
the government to keep us uninformed and cut off from the rest of the world. I was
completely unaware of the Sharpeville massacre in which blacks were gunned
down by police for trying to change the racist system of being forced to carry a pass
wherever they went. This historic event took place a mere twenty miles from my
The Sharpeville massacre was the pivotal reason that my father and thousands of
other whites fled South Africa. They foresaw the coming holocaust and wanted to
take their families out of the country and into safer environments which were
culturally and intellectually free. I was not informed of the massacre because
children of my generation were to be “seen and not heard.” We never discussed
anything of importanc especially not political issues. My parents visited the
United States in 1965 and a few months after returning, told us children that my
father, a physician, had accepted a position in the New Rochelle Hospital, in
Westchester County, New York.
We left our home a stately mansion on an acre of beautiful gardens, fruit orchard
and swimming pool only two streets away from where Nelson Mandela now lives in
his presidential palace. In an instant, it was all gone and we were living in a small house in Eastchester, in two feet of snow away from the sunny skies of South Africa,
where we often didn’t wear a coat in the four months of a usually mild winter.
Then, my favorite uncle died the only person in my life who had nurtured my
creativity and questioning mind. He was the same uncle who flew to London
when we emigrated from South Africa, met our ship at the Southampton Dock, and
spent a week with us in England before we sailed to New York and our new life.
My parents took my four-year old sister, Jennifer, and “jumped a plane” to South
Africa. Throughout the decades following I would become familiar with this term in
reference to grief and the burial of relatives who were twelve thousand miles
away. I was left alone for a week with my fifteen-year old sister, Wendy, in our
little house on Hilburn Road in Eastchester. I had no one else with whom to grieve,
and I remember telling a girl in my class that my uncle had died. She was, like me,
only thirteen years old, and her “I’m sorry” didn’t register positively with me.
I remember to this day, standing in the hallway of Eastchester Junior High,
with students rushing by me to get to their classes. After my schoolmate who had
never known my uncle or what he meant to me or the great loss in my life. . . had
said, “I’m sorry” vacantly as any thirteen year old acquaintance would be expected to, I
remember a sudden feeling of dizzyness in my head, and a queasy, pressure in my
stomach. How could one mourn amongst strangers? Without a funeral and the
traditional Jewish week of shiva, there could be no sense of sharing of grief or
Through the decades I missed family Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. I would
be forty-six before I finally had the experience of standing over an open grave the
grave of my husband’s grandmother. As I peered into the open chasm and watched
her coffin being expertly lowered in, I felt a sense not of sadness, but rather of
healing for all the graves of my grandparents, aunts and uncles that I will never
We had our own Camelot in Johannesburg. My fondest memories are of beaches
and swimming pools and beautiful gardens. These were all shared by our close-knit
family that was torn apart by multiple emigrations to the United States, Canada, Israel,
Australia, England, and other countries. Many of my family are still in South Africa.
When the tragedies befell Princess Diana and JFK, Jr., it brought back all the
heartache and memories of my lost youth, family and heritage. My youngest sister
Jennifer, spent four years at Brown University with JFK, Jr. She was in his
graduating class in 1983. As he reached the end of the processional line, I watched
as John F. Kennedy, Jr. doffed his cap, only a few feet away from where I was
standing. During the week following his death, JFK, Jr.’s life was splashed across
the television screen on a daily basis. Every time I saw him marching in his Brown
graduation ceremony, I caught a few seconds of my sister and her roommate
walking behind him. As I focused my eyes on the crowd of bystanders, I saw my own
mother standing behind Jackie Onassis, to her left.
When I saw my sister and mother walking and standing alongside American history
and knowing that I was also on the scene that day I realized that after all these
years my family had finally become woven into the fabric of American society.
Copyright 1999 by Gillian Lynn Katz
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.