I don’t know what hole I crawled into this week but I was just driving and passed one of those electronic billboards which suddenly flashed “Sargent Shriver, In Memoriam, 1915-2011.” I was talking to my sister on the phone using my hands-free device, of course, but I still almost crashed my car when I saw the sign. “What? Sargent Shriver died?” “You didn’t know?” asked my sister. “Where the hell have you been?” she said, amazed that I hadn’t heard of Shriver’s death considering my obsession with the Kennedy family and how sad I was when Eunice Kennedy Shriver died on August 11, 2009. I remember the date because it was the day before Charlie's due date. We were going on four months in the NICU and I spent a lot of time at Charlie’s bedside that week thinking of the Shrivers and Kennedys and how they weathered the frequent adversity and trauma in their lives.
As I wrote back then, and earlier in another rumination about the service-oriented Shrivers, my family had a few roundabout connections with that famous American clan. For almost thirty years, my mother had been the receptionist at the Kennedy-owned Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Eunice Shriver was always my favorite of the Kennedy sisters and I met her once when she visited the Mart. (In later years my mother’s boss was Chris Kennedy, Robert and Ethel’s eighth child. I believe he’s still there even though the Kennedys sold the building long ago.) When Eunice arrived at the Mart that day, I remember that she asked the doorman to pay for her taxi fare because she never carried any cash. I don’t think any Kennedys did.
Years earlier, Sargent Shriver had been the General Manager of the Merchandise Mart, appointed by Joseph Kennedy, Sr. One summer in the 1970s when I was working as a mail boy at the Mart, I found a pile of dusty boxes in a back corner of an old storeroom that were filled with items from Shriver’s former office. There were original photographs of President Kennedy at Mart functions and a series of Time magazine covers from the 1950s that were each autographed by the person on the cover (ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Groucho Marx to Albert Einstein). I looked in vain for Eunice’s wedding dress which was rumored to be lost somewhere in the bowels of the Merchandise Mart but I never found it.
I always admired how the Shrivers (like the Kennedys) were so committed to public service, but a 2005 Oprah interview with Eunice and Maria Shriver made me doubtful that I could have ever lived up to the pressures of being in that family. I’m sure it wasn’t the intention but by the end of the show I felt like the biggest slackard on the planet. Imagine growing up with the man who started the Peace Corps and Head Start, among many other worthwhile organizations, and the woman who founded the Special Olympics. At the nightly dinner table the Shrivers talked about how to make the world a better place. Their guests would always have to answer Sargent Shriver’s favorite question: “What are you going to do to make a difference in the world?” What were we talking about at my family’s dinner table? The “I Love Lucy” rerun we were watching?
All around their house the Shrivers hung pictures of starving children in Africa, disabled kids, and children living in institutions so that they could discuss how their work was affecting people’s lives and brainstorm what else they could do to make an impact. Every Thursday night Eunice would plop down a piggy bank in the center of the dining room table and serve her large brood cereal for dinner so they could donate what they would have spent on food that night to the poor. Although they were richer than Midas, they tried to focus on ideas rather than possessions. You go, Shrivers!
I’m surprised those kids didn’t crumble under the weight of such high ideals and expectations. Maybe some of them did. Even Oprah said that when she first used to go to dinner at the Shrivers’ house she would hide in the closet when she heard Sargent questioning their guests about how they were going to change the world. On a visit to her parents before the Oprah interview, Maria said her father asked her what she was working on. “I’m promoting my book that was just published,” she replied. “No, that’s in the past, what are you going to do next?” Oy, Sargent, can the woman please have a few weeks to rest on her laurels? I’m still trying to rest on the laurels of my sixth grade science fair project!
Some of the Shrivers’ claims defied credulity. Maria and Eunice told Oprah back in 2005 that they had never, ever, had a single fight. Is that even possible (or desirable)? Eunice said how important it is for family members to eat dinner together every night. I agree with that but she then said, “when I was growing up, I never saw my father go out to dinner in a restaurant once in our whole life.” Um, Eunice, forgive me, but does Gloria Swanson’s dressing room count as a restaurant if the butler serves them caviar and champagne in candlelight?
During those difficult five months in the hospital, and in the 16 months since Charlie came home, I’ve often thought of the loss the Kennedy and Shriver families have endured through the years, including Sargent Shriver’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis years ago. While I don’t subscribe to the traditional Kennedy stoicism when it comes to grief, I admire the way they all carried on with their lives after their seemingly endless spate of tragedies.
Today I’m thinking about Maria Shriver and her siblings who have lost both of their parents in such a short span of time. I’m thinking of my McGovern/ Shriver bumper sticker that is still affixed to the back of my bedroom door at my dad’s house. I really don't mean to idealize the Kennedys and Shrivers—the families are far from perfect, we all know that. But I do hope I am able to impart some of their values to Leah and Charlie without putting pressure on them to achieve “big” things. They may never be elected to public office, start a nonprofit organization, or travel to Third World countries, but there’s no big or small when it comes to thinking about others and standing up for what you believe is right. Finally freed from the fog of his debilitating disease, and reunited with his life partner, I’m sure Sarge and Eunice will soon be doing great work for disadvantaged entities on the other side.