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The Roosevelts and Me

Like most of my generation, I hold a special place in my mind for FDR. The Boomers growing up and away from the shadow of war were familiar with the name of the disabled president, studied him in history class, later heard rumblings of his foibles and love affairs, but overall, considered him a persistent star that had lit the way back from the Nazi threat and on towards the free world.

In high school classes, we absorbed the names of Harry Hopkins, Louis Howe, Frances Perkins and the New Deal. Learning that a woman had been placed in his prestigious cabinet and that artists like Thomas Benton, Diego Rivera and so many others had been given jobs in the WPA made us feel proud. The Depression known through stories like The Grapes of Wrath imparted a whiff of those hard dark days and what it must have meant to truly not know where your next meal would arrive.

My father would retell how his own mother left the door ajar at night because she felt that if anyone were poorer than them, they deserved to come in- and even take what they needed. My father longed for brand new drafting tools, not broken, like inaccurate second hand ones that he had no choice but to use.

The symbol of those days seemed to me to be men riding the rails from town to town, seeking employment so they might support their families. Little blips in the world after the war overshadowed by the Cold War, but a world where a sanctuary meant ostensible things and trips and people with flashy money and few thoughts of destruction in spite of nuclear bombs.

Our teenage focus on Kennedy was all flash, big teeth, great hair and smiling extended families romping on the beach, footballs tucked into armpits: a beacon of security for teenagers who danced along with Dick Clark’s rock after school or hugged their pillows when Elvis sang Love Me Tender or madly screamed and fainted in their rapture of the Beatles. It was the light to the years of darkness where we chose not to ponder the piled high stacked bodies at Auschwitz or mountains of children’s forlorn shoes

Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelt, An Intimate History puts meat on the bones of the history classes and recollections of our grandparents; and so brilliantly teaches this generation the power of film and media as a supreme tool of education, one that is not dull, boring or patronizing. With experts such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough , the commentaries on events aid in explaining the Roosevelt presidents we thought we knew.

And our knowledge is deepened in a human way. For example, Teddy Roosevelt, fifth cousin of Franklin’s and the brother of Eleanor’s father, Elliot, was a sickly asthmatic. We are apprised that his prognosis for surviving beyond his baby and early years is grim, that his father carried him in his arms night after night as Teddy struggled to breath. We learned that all the Roosevelts fought depression : that Teddy’s way was what he called “ action”; and FDR’s was a false face to hide his true emotions.

The documentary pierces the real lives of the real people, rendering them less symbolic icons and more flesh like like us -with fragilities and doubts and loves lost and illnesses.

For me of course, the story resonates more personally painfully because of FDR’s polio. My mother once told the story of how they had asked my aunt for help so that they might go to Warm Springs, FDR’s place in Georgia so that my father could take the curatives of the spa waters and maybe regain some of his mobility destroyed by polio. The film reveals how passionately FDR worked towards creating a haven for children and adults, bringing physiotherapists, doctors, all manner of support and encouragement for those afflicted like himself. He interacts personally, listening to the stories of others. I think that, like FDR, my father never truly accepted that he would never walk unaided again. My aunt said no to the request and that was that.

My mother who left no opportunity to build my father’s resolve :whether a magical drug from Russia that claimed to restore muscles and nerves reported in the newspaper, or a stationary bicycle that promised to strengthen the destroyed muscles in his legs. She too, never really gave up on a way to improve his condition and build on the altered state of his ravaged body: likely her “ action” to slay her own personal demons. However, she deeply resented my aunt’s refusal, and my father even more so. No possibility of restoration, they must have thought, betrayed by his own family.

The documentary revealed that FDR threw himself into Warm Springs. It stated that he loved being in the water because he could stand without the crutches. My father built a small swimming pool in his house for the same reason. As well when Post-polio hit, he frequented the Sunnybrook pool where a contraption raised and lowered him into the water. I occasionally wondered how the slippery floors were managed by his crutches to avoid the wet that could cause him to loose control and fall, but I preferred not to know. So I never inquired, only happy he had had some time to stand and move without his crutches.

Burns’ film tells of FDR en route to nominating Wendel Wilkie and how he is somehow jostled and falls, unable to get up, and requiring many others to right him. My father occasionally tumbled as well, but determinedly refused the help of strangers, only accepting my frail mother’s assistance if she were near. If not he would crawl towards a wall, any upright structure so he could maneuver his dissipated limbs and prop and somehow push himself upwards.

We never saw our father fall although I do carry memories of him crawling occasionally. He was a proud man, a very handsome man who believed in his dark looks and brought up, a bit like FDR’s adoring mother Sara Delano, his mother Molly had told him he could do anything, favoring him with affection and special treats like sardines when he was a cocky kid.

Watching The Roosevelts, I am enlightened and gratified that such fine men with future looking policies lead the nation. From Teddy’s invitation to Booker T. Washington to the White House to FDR’s secret correspondences with Winston Churchill and his Lend-Lease plan for arms to battle Hitler, both Roosevelt men were unafraid to challenge their opponents.

Yet, I cannot help but watch with the eye of the daughter whose father was encased in those rigid braces and the gloom that spread over his face when he had to combat icy winters or a fight a flight of stairs with no bannister.

As a kid, you want to believe that your parents are invincible, no different than anyone else’s parents and you protect yourself by ignoring the realities of life that make every move difficult and challenging. Maybe you turn sarcastic or turn away from that parent and you feel their scorn that you do not excel at their expectations or that you cannot even communicate for more than a few minutes before an argument erupts. Maybe like two similar magnets you repel one another although beneath there is attraction more than just a familial one and a deep desire to be loved and understood and hugged. As a child, you cannot know or even try to break the bridge that connects them with the other sibling. You merely scoff and turn towards the other parent, sad, mad, longing for more, but not knowing how to facilitate a better interaction.

My sister says that when there is illness in a house, dynamics alter and change. I believe that is true. My mother was often reprimanded by my aunt for trying to pretend our life “ normal” when it was not. I think I must have followed in her footsteps, not giving an inch to my father’s disability. FDR is shown cutting himself off completely from his children after his polio. He turned outwards towards remedying the evils in the world. He turned away from Eleanor, too, but consulted her in matters of state and importance , however gaining emotional sustenance from Lucy, Missy and Daisy.

Eleanor grew in her own stature and FDR respected her, even having her give the speech in his place to nominate his vice president during his third term. Her words so powerful that his Liberal choice, formally rejected, was accepted after she spoke. My mother too was a giant who managed life much better than might have been expected. Roosevelt trusted, and believed in Eleanor but as known now, they lead parallel lives. FDR was father to the country, yet his own family was bereft: 19 divorces, 2 children who espied university education, one son even working in Filene’s basement.

In contrast, my mother kept our family together, my father adoring her always, even on his last stay in the hospital unable to speak, his eyes following her as she moved near his bed ( he was 68 when he died) and so our fortunes as children of a polio victim prospered: my sister a doctor, I a teacher;our family intact.

The Roosevelts open old wounds for me. In the Infatuations by Javier Marias, the protagonists laments that the dead do not stay dead, that they haunt us.

Yes, it is true. We carry such burdens from our past lives that can be easily awoken, actively bidden or not. I suppose this is the case for all: a tune, a smell, a photograph all remind us of past histories and catapult us to a place we would rather not be, yet remembering allows us to revisit lost memories and emotions-hopefully that can be unburdened when we let them go.- as here in my blog with you.

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