Miss Eleanor Roosevelt

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She had no later remembrance of her mother’s calling her Granny during her first visit to Hyde Park when she was only two, but she did remember all her life other occasions when her mother did so, and wounded her by doing it. She was the oldest child of Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt. She had two brothers: Elliott (“Ellie”), a couple of years younger than she, and Hall (“Josh”), nearly six years younger. And she never forgot how, when the three children were with their mother for a children’s hour in the late afternoons, she suffered always a sense of alienation from the others. Josh, the baby, cuddled and caressed, sat happily on his mother’s lap. Ellie, adoring his mother and obviously adored by her in turn, responded with laughter and gay chatter to his mother’s advances. But the little girl felt herself excluded from this circle of love by “a curious barrier,” as she later recorded. They were together; she was alone. She knew that her mother not only did not love her as she did the others but actually found her unattractive in appearance and personality—knew, or sensed, that the emotion she aroused in her mother was a mingling of pity with disappointment, irritation, embarrassment, even shame—and knew, too, that it was partly out of a sense of guilt for feeling this way that her mother “made a great effort” on her behalf. And all this came to a focus of pain on days when her mother, entertaining visitors, saw her hesitating in the doorway, a forbidden finger in her mouth, and called to her in a voice that had an edge of exasperation: “Come in, Granny!” Often then the mother would turn to her visitors and say: “She is such a funny child, so old-fashioned, that we always call her ‘Granny.’” Eleanor on such occasions “wanted to sink through the floor in shame.”

 

The hurt was all the greater because she so admired her mother for the beauty and charm that were recognized (the little girl early learned) throughout New York society, a society her mother deemed Important. She longed for her mother’s affection, or at least approval. She never received it. On the contrary, “I was always disgracing my mother.”

Often she did so through a “habit of lying” rooted in her fears, her insecurities, her craving for acceptance. When she was five she was taken with brother Ellie to Europe by her parents, toured Italy with them, and was then placed in a French convent for several months while her father entered a sanitarium and her mother took a house in Neuilly, just outside Paris. She was put in the convent because her mother, expecting a baby (Josh was born early that summer), sought to protect her innocence against all knowledge of how children come into the world. She was terribly lonely there. She knew herself to be plain-faced and ill-mannered, and she would have been isolated in any case from the other little girls by differences of language and religion. One day a girl there swallowed a penny and thereby made herself the focus of excited attention, arousing Eleanor’s envy; and so, sometime later, she, Eleanor, went to the sisters saying that she, too, had swallowed a penny. She hadn’t, of course. The sisters knew she hadn’t. But she persisted in saying she had until her mother was sent for and took her home in disgrace. She acquired thus a label, an identity, by which her mother and (consequently) she herself were horrified: she was a liar! And she was confirmed in this identity by being found out in other lies as the years of childhood passed —about eating sugar and candy, for instance, when these were forbidden her by the family doctor.

The long angry scoldings she received for these offenses were far more dreadful to her than “swift punishment of any kind,” so dreadful that her fear of them sometimes encouraged the evil they were meant to correct. “I could cheerfully lie any time to escape a scolding, whereas if I had known that I would simply be put to bed or be spanked I probably would have told the truth,” she later remembered.

Almost the only loving contact she ever had with her mother was when Anna took to bed with a sick headache. These headaches were frequent and severe; and when they came the little girl would sit at the head of the bed stroking her mother’s throbbing temples and forehead and neck for hours on end. She was grateful for being allowed to sit there, but at the core of her gratitude was the happy knowledge that her mother’s willingness was not merely permissive. She could feel her love flowing out through her caressing hands into her mother’s beautiful head, alleviating pain, bringing peace; she knew that her presence was, for a change, truly welcome. She was being useful. And in her childhood the rare “feeling that I was useful was perhaps the greatest joy I experienced.”