"Among her myriad efforts for her children, she tried to imbue us with a love for justice and an indignation when our country falls short of its ideals," her son wrote

By Adam Carlson
April 13, 2020 04:16 PM
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Robert F. Kennedy Jr./Instagram

It’s been a life of many ups and many downs for Ethel Kennedy, the dynastic family’s matriarch who turned 92 on Saturday.

“She, herself, is a template for reckless courage,” son Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in a birthday tribute on Sunday along with several photos of his mom throughout her storied life, including with her late husband, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

“Her buoyant personality, generosity, abiding sense of fun, competitive spirit, athleticism and her love for sports, games and people make her an irresistible companion,” her son wrote on Instagram. “Among her myriad efforts for her children, she tried to imbue us with a love for justice and an indignation when our country falls short of its ideals. For all these gifts, I’m grateful.”

The Kennedy clan had already gathered remotely on a video call on Saturday for a very different reason: to mourn the deaths of Ethel’s granddaughter Maeve McKean and McKean’s son Gideon, both of whom died in a canoe accident on April 2 in the Chesapeake Bay.

“You’re still our fearless leader,” son-in-law Mark Bailey said at the memorial.

Ethel spoke briefly as well.

“God bless Maeve and Gideon, who are up there in heaven with Grandpa, David, Michael, Mary and Saorise,” she said, referring to other Kennedys who died prematurely. “You have all my love — and you are in my heart and my arms are around you.”

Stoic and faithful, Ethel has long been accustomed to the obligations of her family name: the fame from their decades of public service, the enduring bond from their sprawling generations as well as the misery from a long list of tragedies, accidents and killings, including her husband’s assassination five years after his brother was also gunned down.

“It’s never-ending for her. She has lost her husband, two of her children, her nephew John and now two of her grandchildren and a great grandchild,” a close family friend told PEOPLE recently. “It’s unimaginable.”

Ethel Kennedy (center) at granddaughter Saoirse Kennedy Hill’s funeral in 2019
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty

“Certainly in private I’m sure the sadness and the burdens could overtake her, but she’s so strong and she understands what needs to be done and how to buckle up every morning,” the friend says. “Strength, for her, it’s her faith — I know sometimes it’s a misused term and it’s a cliché, but Ethel it’s not.”

“She remains strong, keeps her feelings intact and helps the rest of the family cope,” says a second source.

And so it always has been: In a 1998 PEOPLE profile after the death of her son Michael in a skiing accident, Ethel was described this way by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo:

“I suspect when she’s at mass and alone in a pew that she allows herself a tear. But she won’t allow herself a tear with you. She doesn’t make her problem your problem. It’s probably harder in her life than anyone else’s to find the evidence that God is good. Yet she believes it.”

Daughter Kerry Kennedy said then: “She goes to mass every day of her life. She prays on her knees before church, prays before every meal and prays on her knees before going to bed.” (At the time, some of those around Ethel said she’d been softening after some accounts that she could be sensitive about the family and temperamental, liable to lash out.)

“She’s the greatest source of strength to all of us,” daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is also McKean’s mother, told PEOPLE in ’98. “She’s filled with love. She makes people feel special. She has a terrific sense of humor. She’s a doer.”

RELATED VIDEO: Body of Robert F. Kennedy’s Granddaughter Found 4 Days After She Went Missing with Son in Canoe Accident

Ethel Kennedy (center in white) at the grave of former President John F. Kennedy in 2018
Leigh Vogel/Getty

“She has changed from the old days and become more open, mellow and friendly,” journalist Sally Quinn, a fixture of Washington, D.C., told PEOPLE in ’98. “She likes to tease and be teased — that’s a Kennedy trait.”

In an interview with PEOPLE in 2012, Ethel looked back at some of the key moments from her life: sunburst successes, like President John F. Kennedy‘s election, and black periods of grief.

“I was blessed with faith,” she said. “And it’s as real to me as that chair.”

Of her legacy, she said then: “I hope the children live full and happy lives and that they think about other people and
help those that are less fortunate.”

• With reporting by LINDA MARX and LIZ McNEIL