Remembering Mrs. Roosevelt

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On a summer Sunday evening some New York State Democratic party committeemen were coming to Hyde Park and hoped to stay the night. I think Mrs. Roosevelt could sleep seventeen in her cottage, but this time she found she had just two unoccupied beds in one room. Four committeemen arrived at dinnertime. We all inwardly winced. Mrs. Roosevelt solved the problem without a second’s hesitation: “Which two of you gentlemen are staying the night?” she asked. She had a way of moving guests along, too. She would say, “So-and-so, you’re going the same direction as so-and-so. Would you be good enough to see her out the door?” Time wasn’t wasted and nobody was offended.

Yet she managed to be gracious to everyone whom she met .

Extraordinarily gracious. Her definition of courtesy was sensitivity to others. The trouble she went to for her guests went beyond what good hostesses do. She cut and arranged the flowers herself for her guests’ rooms at Hyde Park. She placed certain books and fruit or candy in their rooms to suit their tastes. You left after a summer weekend with flowers in the trunk of your car wrapped in dampened paper to keep them fresh, vegetables from the garden, jars of cooked rhubarb.

I remember a crowded U.S. Embassy reception in Moscow during our 1958 visit to the U.S.S.R. My husband was eagerly speaking in Russian to the invited Soviet physicians and scientists. Mrs. Roosevelt was surrounded by Americans and others surprised and delighted to see her. If I happened to be standing alone for a moment, or if I appeared to her not entirely at ease, she was immediately by my side. When she saw I was interestingly engaged, she vanished. All subtle. All caring. Typical of her. It’s a very maternal thing to be so giving.

It seems odd that she adopted such a maternal attitude. Her own mother had paid so little attention to her.

I once talked to a psychiatrist friend about her. He said that if a person has been essentially motherless, the one thing she craves in her life, the most wonderful thing to her, is to have a mother. And so when she gets a chance, she can go one of two ways. She will either become a bitter and rejecting person, or she herself can become the giving, loving “mother” for whom she had longed.

One of the things that comes through is that with all her kindness and caring, she was also very strong.

She had to learn to be strong. She willed it. And she had an extraordinary range of inner resources. She was utterly realistic. People who are as sensitive and tender as she was either give up and are demolished, or they decide to survive. She survived. She said to me that “obstacles are given us in life to grow strong on,” and I said, “Well, not everybody grows strong. Some people fall down.” “You’re not allowed to fall,” she said firmly. “You keep going.”

Mrs. Roosevelt decided rather early not to let criticism bother her too much. In fact, she used to say that if you made a mistake, and those who loved you understood your actions, the rest didn’t matter. It must have been hard to take gossip and rumors about her family, her children. She did grow stronger on obstacles. She felt things passionately, was deeply hurt and outraged at times, especially if any of her children were harmed. But she learned how to handle situations, how to use restraint. She understood human behavior; she could put herself into your skin.

Purpose and work were fundamental to her strength. The pages of her engagement books are awesomely crowded with activities. After she returned home at night, or guests were gone, or at the end of a long day on the road, she started another round of work at eleven-thirty and stayed at her desk till two, three, even four in the morning. She never needed a sleeping pill. She went to bed when she could no longer keep her eyes open, when the work was done. She was up at seven every morning.

Did she ever take a vacation?

Only twice that I know of. We went to Tucson directly from Washington for a rest after Kennedy’s Inauguration. We stayed at the Tucson Inn. It was very peaceful there. We played croquet. Mrs. Roosevelt always won. She played to win, but then was sorry to beat us. The hotel was filled, but to our surprise there were only the three of us in the large television room watching Kennedy’s first press conference. I recall Mrs. Roosevelt was intensely interested in it and thought the President handled it well.

Earlier, in 1959, David and I and Mrs. Roosevelt went to the Dorado Beach Hotel in Puerto Rico for a nine-day vacation. At the last minute Mrs. Roosevelt almost didn’t come along. Maureen, usually the soul of discretion, telephoned me one morning and hesitantly said, “When you come to dinner tonight, Edna, Mrs. Roosevelt is all prepared to tell you that she’s decided against going. She needs the vacation, but she’s afraid she will be intruding on you and David.” While Mrs. Roosevelt and I were having a Dubonnet and waiting for David to come home, I said to her, “Mrs. Roosevelt, I’m so glad you’re going to Puerto Rico with us.” She looked at me. I continued: “You know David is a difficult person to take away for a rest. He always has to be doing or exploring something, and if you are there, you will help me keep him interested.” She never said a word, and with the thought that she could be useful, she went. While we were there, she told me it was the “first time I’ve never done anything, never had to be responsible for meeting trains, planning meals, driving, seeing people—my first real vacation. ” She was seventy-five at the time.