Let me think. What was it Jefferson Airplane co-founder said? Oh, yeah. “If you can remember anything from the 60s, then you weren’t really there.”
Well, don’t tell Peggy Kennedy. Albeit a young girl when the decade began, she was there alright, and she definitely remembers.
Unlike J.M. Barrie’s fictional character Peter Pan who enjoyed never-ending childhood, Peggy Kennedy, as she eloquently recounts in her candid memoir, Approaching Neverland, scarcely had time to be a kid.
September 1960: Five-year-old Peggy perches on a chrome chair, arms circling her cereal bowl. Fraught with first-day-of-school jitters, her feet nervously dangle above a zigzag sea of maroon, green and beige linoleum.
“She’s tired this morning,” her father says noticing Peggy looking for her mother. “She needs her rest.”
Heart heavy and hair tangled, Peggy stares at her Cheerios.
Arriving at school under the wings of four siblings, she lingers in the hall while her brother rakes a comb across her ponytail. In class, on best behavior, hands folded in her lap, she’s singled-out and escorted from the room. Her disheveled hair, it appears, betrays her family. It calls attention to the fact everything in the Kennedy home may not be as it seems. Peggy, however, knows the drill. She chokes back tears and the truth.
Home again, anxious to share her day, Peggy and her sisters and brothers are met with The Lone Ranger theme blaring, rooms topsy-turvy and their mother, Barbara, trotting around a “collection of objects, her head thrown back like an Indian circling a captured village.”
Thus the reader begins a powerful, chaotic journey with Peggy and her family through the veiled ravages of mental illness. Children quietly shuffled back and forth to family members. Hushed hospitalizations. Undisclosed attempts by Barbara to whisk them all off to “Neverland.” Once with near fatal consequences.
Such was the fate of a mental illness diagnosis 50 years ago. So little was understood by medical professionals, fearful patients and families knew only to secretly give it their best shot.
Best, however, does not trump loss. Peggy’s brave, beautiful and often humorous account of a family’s efforts to put the pieces back together, again and again, while continuing to endure more tragedy than anyone should ever have to, is a remarkable legacy to the people in her life and their capacity for love. Because, in spite of it all, time after time, even when love was not enough to change the circumstances, it triumphed.
Peter Pan’s youth was everlasting. Peggy, through a willingness to examine and move beyond misplaced childhood to life well-lived, also savors forever. Her closing sentiment in Approaching Neverland: “…sometimes, good things can last and last. And last.”
NEXT TIME ON WOOF! Interview with Peggy Kennedy!
A memoir of Epic Tragedy & Happily Ever After
By Peggy Kennedy
iUniverse, 259 pages