Love surfaces while canoeing the Potomac

Alice Outwater

Following my Vassar graduation the lively pace increased. Jackie Bouvier (Kennedy Onassis) drifted in and out of my life. Her job as a roving photographer meant rushing around town wearing huge sunglasses while lugging her over-sized black camera. Stores did not have many ready-to-wear clothes. My friends and I stumbled upon a talented dressmaker who could whip up all manner of items. We would buy material, bring a pattern or a photo and make an appointment.

It was pesky that Jackie had already discovered the seamstress. We realized if her fancy car was there our orders would be put on hold. John F. Kennedy had come into Jackie’s life, and they attended big to-dos. One elaborate evening dress had layers of fabric circling the skirt and needed to be completed by the dressmaker SOON. A few days later she and JFK were on the front pages of the Boston papers, she looking gorgeous in that very dress.

Washington had numerous exclusive clubs, and I was delighted when a current beau, an aspiring correspondent, invited me to the F Street Club for dinner. Ten of us sat at a round table. Jackie was opposite me with her date. We smiled and we nodded to each other. As the evening proceeded, her whispery voice meant every single male had to stretch across the table to hear her. She mesmerized them. There wasn’t a chance of being part of the conversation. I had to acknowledge there was no question: Jackie was out of my league.

After she married JFK, I always felt a close kinship with her. She was suddenly thrust into the limelight, losing her privacy, yet handling it with quiet grace. She took her duties seriously, managing her many losses and widowed in an untimely way. And crafted a life for her remaining years.

I had many one-of-a-kind experiences that year and was fortunate to have known or brushed against a variety of people. It was as if we all had two degrees of separation between us. My sister Kitty and her husband often invited me to their gatherings. They were 13 years older than I, so their friends were professionally established. I was fascinated by Potter Stewart, who later became a Supreme Court Justice and later famously said about the press: “I’m not a part of the furniture and I’m not a part of the family.” I became enamored with Washington and became acquainted with peers who later became prominent in the government and on the international scene. It seems just as apt today.

I soon met my John, and he began courting me, adding to the excitement but also containing serious decisions, including marriage. I had spent months studying for the Foreign Service exams and longed to work in an overseas embassy, grandly picturing myself as an ambassadress. I wished for a few more years of being single as I was just beginning to take off. But in my heart I knew I would never meet the likes of John. Being six years older, a Ph.D. and having a job at Dupont, he was ready to settle down—and was not willing to wait. He wanted to teach and do research at a university and was so captivating and bright. He never stopped overflowing with ideas.

John had been brought up in England of American parents, had gone to Cambridge University, majored in engineering and was in the British India Army during World War II. He spoke with the most engaging British accent. He implored, “Oh Ali, I’ve been introduced to every eligible girl from Oslo to London to New York and not one holds a candle to you. That first evening we met, I wanted to marry you. I know what might happen: You’ll meet someone else . . . I can’t bear to let you slip away. We’ll have a superlative life together and I promise, we’ll travel the world. I’ll always take good care of you.”

Underneath my angst I wondered if I was the best mate for him. Of course, the more time we had together, the more deeply I fell in love. We spent weekends at the museums, canoeing on the Potomac, hiking with picnics and attending concerts. For suppers we discovered Georgetown bistros where we danced into the night. Nothing too fancy but always magical. He was also full of kindness. So I finally decided to follow my heart and we married. My family was thrilled.

Through our 56 years together I knew my decision had been right—and still feel blessed. Our format from those days followed through our marriage. We wove an extraordinary life together until he died in his 85th year. We had four children. The marriage continues to sustain me even though he’s no longer here.

Whatever you do, please don’t hunker down. Keep your eyes open, as you may surprise yourself. Perhaps a few hidden memories will surface that help restore some of your energies. Someone special may be in your future. And off you’d fly on an unexpected swashbuckling adventure. Who would want to miss that?