Eleanor Roosevelt is blowing my mind. I’m reading her slim book titled You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys to a More Fulfilling Life. Published in 1960 it could have been written sixteen minutes ago and would still resonate. It’s full of common sense, forward-facing ideas about what, she feels, contribute to making up a fulfilling life. It’s the book that gave us the quote that launched a thousand Etsy shops: “Do one thing that scares you each day.” El Roose also punches out these wisdom vittles: “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product” and “Failure comes to everyone, except when one does nothing at all, which is in itself a failure” (SNAP with a side of daaa-uuummn girl!).
She could have easily been mistaken for some time-traveling ninja when she talks about the scary, but necessary, responsibility of every person to speak up and speak out in the face of injustice and social wrongs. She gave me that “the call is coming from inside the house” feeling when she wrote passionately about taking part in our country’s democratic process. She writes, “The minimum, the very basic minimum, of a citizen’s duty is to cast a vote on election day. But if our chief obligation is to cast a vote, this carries with it a further duty—to vote intelligently. And here we hit a snag. How are you to acquire the ability to vote intelligently?” Hoo boy. And she was writing in 1960. I’m just going to file this under the “the more things change, the more they stay the same” category.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that Mrs. Roosevelt had always existed in the dim margins of my high school history. In my, somewhat weak, defense, I grew up in the 1980s where history books read something along the lines of “men made war and government while women produced more men to make more war and more government. But also there was Betsy Ross, who Martha Stewarted up a pretty sweet flag for the men, and that time when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and the men were all ‘Thanks Rosa! We’ll take it from here’ and then Civil Rights became a thing.” Paraphrasing, but basically accurate. What I did glean about El Roose as a kid came from our family trips to visit my grandparents in Hyde Park, New York—birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was there that he and Eleanor kept their permanent residences while he ran the country for a historic thirty-nine terms (it must have felt that way to his critics, though many of us would happily put his disembodied consciousness in office over the current president elect) and where Eleanor ran the family while also sort of running parts of the country in her own unassuming Wonder Woman kind of way.
My mom grew up in Hyde Park, which is a modest town in the Hudson Valley region of upstate New York. The valley jogs alongside the majestic Hudson River, offering up sweeping acres of farmland and mountain, interrupted by a freckling of towns and cities growing since the region was first settled by the Dutch in the 1600s. Truly old school territory. At least once a year, we’d make the pilgrimage back to my mom’s home town, which seemed like crossing the border to another country.
I remember staring out the car window at the great lengths of orchards and farms that followed us along winding roads. I was fascinated by the daisy chain of diners spread throughout the town. They looked like the kind on TV in cop shows set in New York and nothing at all resembling the crappy Denny’s anchoring the breakfast beat in our unremarkable suburban town. There was an actual drive-in movie theater that still operated. I tried to imagine my mom meeting up with friends to go see a movie or snugged into one of the red, leather diner booths having a Coke and hamburger after the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
The family had the main estate preserved following FDR’s passing in 1945. They established the nation’s first presidential library there and eventually made the house and grounds open to the public. My parents marshalled my brother and I through a trip to the estate one time. The rooms pleasantly mummified with original furniture, place settings, and personal items waiting for Franklin or Eleanor to breeze through and pick up a book or set down a vase of flowers. FDR’s personal and professional greatest hits were represented in small, informational storyboards in different areas throughout the estate. Eleanor made guest appearances in the historical timeline—pictured in photographs smiling at a family picnic held on the grounds or leaning over her husband working at his desk, reading a draft of one of his radio fireside chats. You know, wife stuff, but of the presidential variety.
As the family got to work enshrining Roosevelt’s legacy through his estate, Hyde Park got to work Roosevelting the entire town. Anything with a bit of surface and a few inches of space that could get claimed in the name of the deceased president did: The Roosevelt Inn and Motor Court, Roosevelt Blvd, FDR Park, Roosevelt Gifts & Antiques, Roosevelt High School. It was hard to blame them for seizing onto the legacy of a favorite, native son. After all, FDR was a pretty big deal, he got a few things done in his lifetime, he earned the right to have children and bowling alleys named after him.
The marquis of these places spoke volumes then and now. It was not the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Gym and Spa. Yet she was scrapping just as hard as FDR. In addition to doing all the things that ladies were “supposed” to do—supporting his career, tending to his health, having and raising his kids—El Roose went completely off the reservation involved in all kinds of civic and political endeavors: She wrote weekly news columns, held her own press conferences, hosted a weekly radio show, fought for women’s rights and civil rights, became one of the first delegates to the United Nations, and still managed to do the one thing that scared her each day! I mean, I feel accomplished just writing this paragraph.
I think that’s why You Learn By Living made my tongue hang out of the side of my mouth a little bit. El Roose could have easily filled up a hundred billboards detailing her singular contributions. Instead, she let those things recede in order to speak plainly and authentically about what she had learned as a woman trying to carve out a life like anyone else with the same fundamental tools—her mind, her conscience, her beliefs, and her deep love for her country. Here’s what I know, she said to me across the space-time continuum, could this be true for you as well?
Reading about Eleanor’s efforts on a plaque next to a photograph of her shaking hands with the Prime Minister of England does nothing to get you closer to the woman behind the historical figure. It’s Eleanor’s voice that drew me into the book. It’s the way she sat down with me through the pages of her work, like meeting an old friend for dinner, to have the kind of conversation that you don’t want to end. No one rushing to reach for the check.
“It is a brave thing to have courage to be an individual,” she writes, “it is also, perhaps, a lonely thing. But it is better than not being an individual, which is to be nobody at all.”And you believe her, not because she’s Mrs. Roosevelt who did remarkable things, who was an extraordinary individual, but because she’s playing a game of trial and error along with the rest of us, because underneath the public persona, apart from the historical icon, she’s still just Eleanor.