Franklin D. Roosevelt's (he was president from 1933-1945) family built a summer home on Campobello, which is now an international park. There are several afternoon teas each day where guests are served delicious tea and homemade cookies, and treated to a talk about President Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor.
I was saddened to discover the very troubling childhood of Eleanor. Her mother, Anna, was a great beauty who was disappointed with the physical appearance of her only daughter. Anna nicknamed Eleanor "Granny" and complained about her looks in front of her. Eleanor didn't suffer her Mother's emotional abuse for very long, as Anna died when her daughter was eight years old.
In contrast, Eleanor's father, Elliott, showed her a lot of love. However, Elliott was an alcoholic and suffered from mental illness. He passed away when Eleanor was ten years old, after jumping out a window in the sanitarium where he was confined.
Understandably, such a traumatic childhood left horrible psychological scars on Eleanor. It is a testament to her spirit that she focused on her mind, reading all the books she could to accumulate new ideas and knowledge. But although Eleanor thrived intellectually, her insecurity remained her entire life and gave her the ability to be especially considerate of others.
Out of the many delightful stories that were told about Eleanor during the tea, Charles and I discovered how down to earth she was. During summers spent at Campobello, Eleanor would invite all the children on the island for afternoon tea parties with her children, not wanting anyone to be left out. She attended local dances wearing dresses from Sears and Robuck, a store where the average woman shopped.
A famous local Campobello story tells of a woman who was appointed to a committee that Eleanor Roosevelt was on. The lady couldn't afford any new clothes, so she attended her first committee meeting in a skirt suit that was twenty years old. Eleanor showed up at the meeting wearing the same suit. The lady was mortified that Eleanor would know her suit was twenty years old (and in her insecurity she never thought about Mrs. Roosevelt also wearing a suit that was two decades old!). Eleanor walked right up to the woman and said with a warm smile, "This suit wears well, doesn't it?"
Making other people feel comfortable was a true gift that Eleanor had, even though due to shyness she herself felt uncomfortable in social situations. But through determination she was able to overcome her natural disposition to be shy, by focusing more on others than on her own timidity. This was a quality that was only enhanced after the breakdown of Eleanor and Franklin's marriage.
In another surprising new piece of knowledge, we learned about President Roosevelt's approximately thirty-year affair with Lucy Mercer. This began shortly after 1914 when Lucy was hired as Eleanor's secretary, and continued until President Roosevelt died in Lucy's arms in 1945 (Eleanor was noticeably absent during the time of his passing). Franklin and Eleanor's children have confirmed that their parent's marriage, while continuing in name, ended in 1918 when Eleanor learned about Lucy.
Sometimes in tragic circumstances, we find the strength we never knew we had. Shy Eleanor began her public life when her private one was ruined. Having lost her role as a wife, Eleanor found her place as a champion for those trying to rise above their own unfortunate circumstances.
Many times when someone has been greatly hurt, they hurt someone else as a way of easing their own pain. It would have been understandable for Eleanor - after suffering the rejection of her mother, the loss of her father, and then the abandonment of her husband - to become bitter and hurtful toward others. It would have been easy for her to harm herself and drown her sorrows through an addiction.
But Eleanor made the decision to make a positive difference in people's lives. She knew what it was like to feel rejected, but she didn't want others to feel the same. So Eleanor dedicated her life to accepting people as they were and caring about them just the same. Despite many challenges, this is the legacy of Eleanor that is most remembered.
The ultimate in manners is not what fork one uses but in making others feel wanted, welcome, and comfortable. In this, Eleanor Roosevelt was the ultimate etiquette queen.
Resources for my Readers:
1. For those interested in visiting, here is a link to Roosevelt Campobello International Park.
2. Here is a link to "The Love Shirts," which are the tee shirts that Charles and I are wearing in the picture above. (We have no affiliation with The Love Shirts and will not receive a penny should any dear reader make a purchase. These are simply products that we personally wear and highly recommend.)