You know those dreams? The ones where you wake up and say, “Oh my! You won’t believe what I dreamed last night!”
Then you describe the craziness: You and your husband are on the Kennedy compound with your pals and a bunch of folks you recognize, all walking around, coming and going from Joe and Rose Kennedy's home in Hyannis Port, Mass. You recognize it as the one you’ve seen your whole life on those home movies depicting young Joe Jr., Jack, Bobby, Ted, Eunice, and the rest of the nine sibs enjoying their summer home on the Atlantic coast with the parents looking on, smiling that Kennedy smile.
Each time I see those home movies, I can't look away. So much life and promise. They have no idea what's ahead.
Then the scene changes to the kitchen that looks like your grandmother’s kitchen from the 1940s, smaller than you would have guessed, well-used, not done up with the latest appliances or granite countertops you might expect from your notion of how rich people live.
There’s Rose Kennedy’s china, dining room table, piano and all the rest. Yeah, you even go into JFK’s childhood bedroom, frozen in decor from the time of his horrendous death.
Then you shake your head and think: Yeah right! Like that could happen in a million years! Me? In the Kennedy home?
Only it happened to us earlier this week.
Brian, friends Tom and Char, and I had the privilege of being part of the Tom and Sue Saunders’ travel group this past week. This time, the American-history-themed trip centered on Boston, Quincy, and more Cape Cod destinations of Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis and yes, Hyannis Port.
Our group visited the Kennedy compound, courtesy of Tom Saunders’ magic wand and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute which now owns the historic home. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s widow, Vicki, arranged for two guides from the Boston-based Institute, which we also visited, to give us a tour. The home is used now for special events and don’t you suppose, Tom imagined, that one day it will be open to the public as are other prime presidential sites throughout the U.S.
No photos are allowed inside the home, purchased by Joe and Rose Kennedy in the 1920s, and donated to the Institute by the Kennedys. But we were treated to have one taken (by one of our Institute guides, no less) as we gathered around the living room fireplace and bookcases brimming with Kennedy belongings. It was the exact same spot as a famous picture that included JFK’s siblings, wife and parents the morning after he was elected President. (Give it a Google. Note the mirror which is easily identified in the famous photo.)
I had always imagined that the compound was located off to itself, something like the Bush mansion at Kennebunkport is set apart from the city of Kennebunk, island-like, not a home that’s easy to approach.
The Kennedy compound is in a neighborhood, past Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s home, where she still lives. There's plenty of security, including a guard who has watched over the compound for decades. We couldn't have been on the property without an invite and appointment. (So if you are thinking of a visit, you'll need to contact the Institute first for sure.)
You think of the fun, games, family meals, and those lawn football games that took place there. And you imagine more: The horrendous grief for those parents and siblings when they endured the sudden unimaginable losses of their children and other family heartaches.
Whatever your politics, it doesn’t matter; you feel for their personal pain, the kind you may know from rough and tragic times in your own lives. You think back to being 5 years old and remembering where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated. The same way you remember 9/11.
Is there any American political or celebrity family so well known, followed, written about and discussed? I would say none are even close. But what you quickly understand is that they were very real people, living very real lives and this was a place for the whole gang to gather and be family.
Originally, the Kennedys lived at the home seasonally, and later in life, Joe and Rose were there most all the time. You see the elevator that transported Joe after his stroke in the early 1960s. Ted and Vicki lived several years at the home up to the Senator's death.
Our Institute guide spoke of how the cook would lay out four spoons for the Senator to taste test what was for dinner upon his arrival home for the evening. Unless they had company, he and Vicki would eat in the kitchen. He sailed most days, right up to just before his death.
Our guide explained that the neighborhood, which sits near the water, was a draw for wealthy folks to come and relax back in the day. She said it wasn’t that the Kennedy family set out to develop an enclave, but through the years, more homes were bought by family, such as the one where Ethel lives now—next door. Another Kennedy also lives in the area, one of the grandkids.
She spoke of how Rose liked to keep up with whatever was current for young people. She would listen to rock music and read what the kids were reading. And, she challenged those who sat at the dining room table, which remains there today. If you were over 16 you were upgraded from the children’s table to the adult table. There was a topic posted for the daily discussion and everyone was expected to have input.
Those who came to dinner were expected to dress, be on time, and be prepared to discuss the day’s topic.
When he lived there in his later years, Sen. Ted Kennedy continued the format of a topic of the day for discussion. The Kennedys always hosted Thanksgiving. Often, the family sat on the porch where they read the newspapers and clipped items out for each other to read.
Music was a big part of the house and Rose’s grand piano was at the ready in the living room for the family to gather round and sing. There are 14 bedrooms in the amazingly comfortable, lived-in family home where generations gathered and relaxed.
Our Institute guide said that when Jack was elected president, Rose decided to hire someone to “fancy up” the home. Indeed, JFK even hosted staff there, and a small table was pointed out as where they met. A cardinal – who later became Pope – visited the home and the sofa he sat on remains there. Rose had a plaque made for the back of the piece to indicate that the pope sat there.
Our group descended the steep stairs where the basement is like basements of old, not designed for hosting guests. Rose kept her doll collection there that came from all over the world, now relocated to climate-controlled storage. Photos of the dolls remain. There is a small movie theater, very utilitarian, with a pull-down screen, and a room nearby holds a collection of old movie equipment.
Following the tour, we went into Hyannis and visited the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, and also St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church to which Rose walked daily, and where extended-family Kennedys worshiped while in town.
In Boston, we toured the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, along with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, located right across from the president’s library. The Institute has a full-sized replica of the Senate floor where visitors can sit, learn about the Senate and hear guest speakers and programs.
There is also a replica of Sen. Kennedy’s Senate office.
Our thanks to Tom and Sue, to the Kennedy Institute, and to Patti with the Hyannis Chamber of Commerce for wonderful opportunities.
Unless I wake up soon, it appears that none of this was a dream.
Note: This post covers only the Kennedy aspect of our trip. I’ll do another post or two on other parts of our adventure which includes dining at the oldest restaurant in America, and visiting the home of two more presidents. Not sure when though. Real life is calling.