My Father Was Born When JFK Was Elected President

Devin Meireles

© Copyright 2024 by Devin Meireles

Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash
Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

After hauling a grocery load back to the house, the group gathered for well-deserved rest and recuperation, satisfied to be in each other’s company. The ambiance was conducive to great memories. Each of them tended to some form of leisurely activity while the radio played in the background. It was an uncomplicated serenity that was not taken for granted. Those simple pleasures were some of their biggest victories since emigrating.

Bendito seja Deus (Blessed be God).

Avó, my grandmother, spent much of her time honing her crafts, transitioning to crochet as a new labour of love. The clack of knitting needles at a rapid pace calmed her, conceiving something from nothing more than a ball of yarn. She was leveraging her artifice in a new venture. Some of her recent creations were bite-size, and not for those in the household.

Who are those for?” my Aunt Juliette prodded one day, finding it curious that she was making clothes for what looked like an infant.

I’m just keeping myself busy.”

Are you pregnant, Mom?”

There was a short pause as she caught another loop with the thread. “That would be Deus’ will if I had another baby.”

So, are you?”

She garnered no response, but Juliette could read between the lines. The truth was that she was expecting another child but never once mentioned it. Surely the extended absence between the parents during the emigration heightened their libido. Avó found out the miraculous news not long after arriving in Canada. For unclear reasons, it remained unbeknownst to the kids. Perhaps to insulate the winds of change that engulfed them, but judging by her body language, it was an unplanned conception.

The pregnancy seemingly went well with no complications. Having experience on the matter, she knew what was coming. It was like a walk on the beach. She monitored the early stages until getting confirmation. There were more resources at her disposal with innovations in medicine for prenatal care. She was assigned to a clinic that monitored her progress. Avó was strong-willed to have concealed any evidence before it was abundantly clear. Still, it wasn’t openly discussed.

Signs of approaching labour were becoming apparent and intensified over the course of one autumn day. She felt like she could pop. It was the eve of Juliette’s thirteenth birthday and also election night south of the border. The Republicans vied to maintain power with the former Vice-President as their frontrunner against an admired opposition. Media outlets covered the race all day, repeating news like a broken record, “Who’ll win the presidency . . .”

That afternoon was typical at the house. Vovô, my grandfather, was absent, having left for work. The children were back from school, and time was drawing near for dinner prep. The evening would surely be decisive; everybody knew it. Pulling Juliette off to the side, Avó said, “I need your help tonight.”

What is it, Mom?”

I think that I’ll be staying overnight at the hospital.”

The teenager uttered in astonishment, “It’s almost time.”

Yes, querida (sweetheart).

Corroborating the forecast was an unfeigned moment between mother and daughter, both recognizing that things were about to shift. There was tension in the air. It was exciting but stressful. Juliette tackled some chores to lighten the load. Dependable as ever, her support went a long way into the evening by looking after her brothers and serving dinner to the family. Some beef croquettes were pan-fried with white rice on the side. Not exactly how it was usually made, but it was really close. The boys had no complaints.

After cleaning-up, the gang convened in the living space as tea and biscuits were brought out for dessert. Vovô would still not be home for many hours; his shift extended long after sunset. Meanwhile, news had broken that the polls were closed on the East Coast. Anticipation was building. They followed along on television as Kennedy and the Democrats opened with a large lead, and they felt the tides of change approach.

It was nearly bedtime when it finally happened. Avó’s water broke, and she went into labour. No provisions were set in place. They scrambled to coordinate a master plan. The most accessible hospital was fifteen minutes away on foot; the children proposed a taxicab, but she opted not to call.

Your father would kill me.”

How about we ask Mr. Machado upstairs?” Robert proposed.

No, let’s not bother the man so late.”

Alternatively, she left Juliette in charge while making an exit. Going off on her own without the support of anyone, she walked eastbound across Dundas Street West until north on University Avenue. She placed a knit blanket over her head for protection against the cold breeze. The elements rattled her willpower, but that was nothing compared to how she felt. Contractions hammered on as she got closer with each step, but she endured the stabbing pain.

This is Deus’ will. They have a plan for you.

Upon entry, she was swiftly admitted to the Birthing Unit at Toronto General Hospital, sweeping past the Nursing Station on a wheelchair. The staff were listening to votes being tallied on the radio. Nixon was starting to close the gap on Kennedy as polling stations closed in the Midwest, making for a tight race. She was brought down a long corridor into a delivery room and placed on a high bed.

This is destiny.

Then an English-speaking doctor entered with a Matron. Their medical attire looked terrifying, like something from a scary movie. With the hindering language barrier, almost everything was misunderstood. Their communication relied heavily on visual cues. Avó squared off in the face of dire straits with the esteem of a champion. The ensuing procedure was traumatic, unlike anything she had experienced before, but it was better organized than previous deliveries. Unfavourable as it was, she had to get on with it. Later that night, she gave birth to a son.

I love you more than you will ever know.

The baby was transported to the nursery for a newborn assessment. They had bright green eyes not resembling most of their relatives, truly phenomenal. All the results looked normal and within range, including weight, length, and head circumference. In the meantime, she was moved to the postnatal unit after childbearing. The nurses offered her some coffee, toast, and a light for a cigarette—none of which were taken up. She used the ward telephone to place an urgent call home to notify them.

Hello,” Juliette answered just after midnight.

He did it.”

I know, Kennedy won!”

No, your new brother.”

It’s a boy!?” The sister was delighted to hear and was excited that a baby was joining the household. By the grace of Deus, it was another glorious moment for the family.

Avó asked for her input on some name ideas; ‘Johnny’ was suggested, an inspiration stemming from a boy down the street whom Juliette babysat. The election winner must have had a subconscious influence as well. The Free World was riding high for the soon-to-be Democratic leader, and his first name was given thought prior to sharing the update with Vovô, who arrived home not too long after. He received the news in his predictable reticent fashion, feeling over the moon, but any fly-on-the-wall couldn’t tell the difference.

He and the kids reported to the hospital at the break of daylight, walking the same route that she had done the night before. A morning rush of warm bodies swarmed the sidewalks every which way. Newspaper stands featured the biggest headline of the day, with front pages plastered with a print of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the heading, “Elected.” They unswervingly blew past the open stalls with stacks of paper.

At the hospital, the gang rallied outside the nursery to look at the bundle of joy. They then met him in Avó’s room; she was fatigued, needing a lot of rest throughout the morning. They each took turns scooping him up in their cradled arms, smiling and talking to him with a warm, loving tone. The six of them got acquainted before getting discharged after noon.

The discharge papers were completed by their commander-in-chief. Vovô signed off on the paperwork with the help of his daughter. His new child’s name was picked as recommended, registering the name on the birth certificate as João Branco Meireles, Portuguese spelling and all. They called him Johnny. He was their Canadian baby, a symbol of opulence, their living testament to overcoming hardship against all odds. That little boy was my father, the baby of the family.

Juliette played an integral role in his upbringing. Ecstatic to have a new baby brother to take care of, she couldn’t wait to get off school to be with him. She spent more time at home than with her girlfriends, unearthing maternal instincts to find that she was just as nurturing and overprotective as Avó. She washed and fed him. She took him to regular checkups for vaccinations, even breaking down at the sight of his discomfort when being jabbed as she promised to keep him from harm. She loved him dearly. They all did. He was the best thing to happen to them since reaching Toronto.

By the end of the year, they had a new trajectory for life. Canada had been so good to them. They were finally together again for the holiday season and it was very different that year. The anticipation they had towards Christmas was more exciting than ever.

For the first time, their home was filled with lights, ornaments, and lots of presents under the tree. They attended the Santa Claus Day parade. It was a joyous spectacle with floats, buskers, and music. Storefronts on the main strip decorated their windows to mark the occasion, and the suspense of the event was hysterically building around them. The city was just as enthusiastic as back home, probably more so.

When it ultimately came, a white Christmas painted the streets. Sidewalks were coated with the fluffy stuff that crunched under their feet on the way to midnight Mass. They prayed for continued blessings and guidance. They were forever grateful. After church, there were a handful of surprises waiting at the house. Santa Claus was generous to them. The boys got toy guns instead of the typical yo-yos, and Avó got another appliance for the kitchen. Juliette got a new dress, and Vovô relished in all their wonder. There was something for everybody.

Merry Christmas!” the kids shouted, having the greatest time ever.

The parent’s stood arm in arm to see the pleasure in their children’s eyes. The evening was unforgettable, a significant celebration of their newfound prosperity. To think that their accomplishment all started “with a decision to try,” as quoted by JFK. They capped off a year that was an optimal start to the decade. What lay ahead was soon to be discovered with yet-to-be fulfilled hopes. They stood together on the edge of another frontier—the 1960s.

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