Sunday, May 27, 2012

Discovering Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill

"You must do the thing you think you can not do."  
"Do one thing every day that scares you."
~Eleanor Roosevelt~

Standing inches behind Eleanor Roosevelt's chair -  her "favorite chair" -  according to the tour guide, I wished to turn back time.  I wanted to sit in the opposite chair, in this simply decorated cottage, and share a  cup of tea with a woman I admire, yet know so little about. . beyond the historical.

Val-Kill was Eleanor's home for seventeen years after her husband and the country's 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt, died. It had been a retreat for her in previous years, only two miles from Springwood, the family's main Hyde Park, New York home.

The unassuming stucco building, set among comforting trees and the stillness of pond waters, was the only home Eleanor ever personally owned.

What did she think about on a quiet evening as she sat looking out the windows?  What "one thing" had "scared" her that day, but she had done anyway?  What were the "thing(s)" she thought she could not do?

How did she become the person she was?

I've read biographical accounts of her upbringing, marriage to Franklin and his infidelity, their five children, her increased involvement in politics and societal issues following his contraction of polio, her  tireless travels and activities during World World II, her advocacy of civil rights, women's rights, and rights for all, as she chaired the United Nations' committee that drafted and approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She was respected worldwide, and named as one of the top ten Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century by Gallup in 1999. World leaders and future leaders, such as John Kennedy, knocked on her cottage door for inspiration, endorsement, for the pleasure of her company.

I can admire her for obvious reasons, but my trip to Val-Kill expanded my curiosity about the woman whose impressive resum√© provides few clues to her inner journey.  Unable to share that cup of tea with her, I must find other sources for learning what she can teach me.

Stopping at the gift shop on my way out, I asked a staff member for her recommendations of a book on Eleanor.  "The best way to learn more about her is through her own writing," she said.  "I suggest her autobiography," and she pointed to a paperback simply titled, The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt.

I take a sip of tea and open to the first page.

(Val-Kill, the only National Historic Site dedicated to a First Lady, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home, Library and Museum are located in Hyde Park, New York.  Take Metro North from Grand Central Station in NYC to Poughkeepsie Station, then a National Park Service shuttle to the park. The trip takes approximately 1 1/2 hours one way.)



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