Dinner with Eleanor
Eleanor Roosevelt came to dine with us in the summer of 1962 at our home in Poughkeepsie, New York. She arrived at our front door in a battered old station wagon driven by the handy man from Val Kill, her Hudson Valley home. Although she didn´t know it at the time, it was the last year of her life.
Every corner of our simple house, cleaned and scrubbed, shone for the occasion. My sister and I wore new dresses, and my mother prepared her special occasion dinner: standing rib roast, salad, green bean casserole, baked potatoes, and her signature Jell-O mold. When the former First Lady walked into our home, we immediately understood the gift of intimacy she bestowed upon us. This homely woman with penetrating lively eyes, a warm gracious smile and regal bearing had dined with heads of state-- and yet here she was, enjoying our hospitality. The evening flew by as she displayed as much interest in our lives as though she were a grandparent-- and we responded in kind.
Excited about my upcoming bat mitzvah, I shared my speech with our guest. I´d written about Deuteronomy Chapter 30, in which we are reminded that God has given us the opportunity to choose between good and evil, life and death. Solemnly, I read to an attentive Mrs. Roosevelt. Weeks later, a thank you note arrived from Val Kill. I still treasure that note, for she once again praised my words. You can be sure I have never forgotten the message of Deuteronomy!
My eight-year-old sister Laurie Ellen had sent the invitation after our neighbor, President of Hadassah, entertained Mrs. Roosevelt in preparation for a speech before that group. My family had stood along our property line to catch a glimpse of this famous lady. Mommy was particularly excited-- she venerated the former First Lady and had regaled us with tales of her work in human rights and other areas. Waiting outside our neighbor´s home, Laurie Ellen had asked, “Why can´t Eleanor Roosevelt come to dinner at our house?” Seeing this as another educational opportunity, Mommy´s face lit up. She suggested writing for just that purpose, never imagining the invitation would be accepted. Of course, Laurie Ellen forever felt she had achieved something extraordinary at a very young age.
I saw Eleanor Roosevelt as a bold, fearless woman of action and accomplishment. An awkward, sensitive girl, with glasses, braces and curly hair, I realized her looks were simply irrelevant. Moreover, she took me seriously, giving me encouragement to take myself seriously as well.
Decades later, asked to speak at the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Training Institute as part of a panel of women in government, I shared my life experience with eager young women. It was my turn to encourage girls to take themselves seriously and make a difference. I continue to talk about Eleanor and her influence on me. And during March, Women´s History Month, I am reminded that it isn´t just "famous" women we should celebrate. We should also take time to honor those, like Mrs. Roosevelt, who remained open to responding to the invitation of an eight-year-old child.