Monday, November 28, 2016

The Garden of Moving On: Finding National Inspiration at Eleanor's Val-Kill

             What should we do, as human beings, to respond to the selection of a fool with the temperament of a tinpot dictator and the instincts of a bully for a position of infinite dangers.
            We should go on doing the things that make us authentic human beings with the instincts of a caring friend and family member and the ability to think for ourselves.
            And so last weekend we visited Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's home and little piece of earth on the extensive Roosevelt family Hyde Park, New York property. The large home on the property, occupied by FDR, was "presided over" (as the National Park Service puts it) by Sara Delano Roosevelt, "Franklin’s strong-willed mother" until her death in 1941.  
            In the early 1920s FDR recognized that Eleanor needed some space of her own to entertain (and house) her friends as she wished. He proposed building her a house on a beautiful wooded site where the R's commonly enjoyed picnicking. This plan turned into two buildings, the Stone Cottage and Val-Kill Cottage.
            They put in a swimming pool, mostly for Franklin's benefit. The Val-Kill Cottage began as a shop for Val-Kill Industries, training workers and producing handmade furniture and other crafts. The building served Eleanor's vision of economic development based on social cooperation. Local farmers were taught woodworking skills and helped to set up a business to bring work and income to a rural region where few employment opportunities outside of farming existed.
            After the business lapsed in the Depression 1930s, Eleanor turned the building into her own residence, with comfortable, people-friendly furniture, pictures, a study with her desk, and a crowded dining room where she hosted foreign leaders and neighbors.
            The Stone Cottage served as the home for a couple of Eleanor's close female activist friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, who were partners in the cooperative craft business and the vision that it served.
             There are many reasons to visit Vall-Kill, and many kinds of goodness to take from it. The Park Service trumpets that it's the only National Historic Site dedicated to a first lady. But even before you set foot on the site, an important part of the experience is that anyone can go there because of what it is: a National Park site. The place is part of the national experience, part of America, and you and I and everyone else can go there because the government of the United States preserves sites and sources of civic inspirations -- places that show, to use the current phrase, what makes America "great."
            You don't have to go out West and visit the flagships of the National Park system, the famous nature palaces such as Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, to benefit from the park system. We have plenty of sites on the East Coast, including Acadia National Park in Maine, the Boston harbor islands, the old fort in St. Augustine, Florida, Fort Sumter in Charleston, The Adams National Park in Quincy, the port of New Bedford, the Monuments of the National Mall.
            The second point of particular contemporary relevance is the preservation of a collection of small buildings created for a First Lady explores the importance of women in America's civic life. Women had been voting for only five years when the first stones were laid for Val-Kill. Political change was in the air, even as the somnolent Coolidge and Hoover administrations sleep-walked into National Breakdown.  
            The Park's website puts it this way:
            "In the 1920s, Eleanor Roosevelt joined a group of independent-minded women dedicated to shaping politics and policy.... [They] created jobs, influenced party politics, and advanced social reforms. Val-Kill embodies their pioneering spirit."
             Eleanor was not only the first politically influential First Lady, she was the first American woman to play an important public role in national politics. She addressed national party conventions. After FDR's death Truman appointed her as America's first representative to the United Nations, calling her "First Lady to the world." Candidates nervously knocked on her door, seeking endorsements. The National Park tour tells the story of young candidate John F. Kennedy anxiously visiting the cottage to seek support for his presidential run. Eleanor kept him on the hook until he agreed to take a stronger stand for civil rights.
            One of the place's best photos shows Winston Churchill at the cottage's modest doorstep, wearing a hat and holding a cigar and looking like he's wondering whether he was in the right place. ER turned Val-Kill into the right place for a wide range of people. Visitors such as India's Nehru and Israel's Ben-Gurion came there to talk international politics. Hyde Park neighbors were invited to dinner as well. Her homey, cramped, family-style dining room served heads of state and the local grocer at the same sitting. She had a resourceful, flexible cook, but the place wasn't about fancy dining. The park ranger's tour tells us, "She cared less for what was on the table than for the people sitting around it."
            In another room, her study, Park visitors see the desk where ER worked and wrote her daily newspaper column "My Day." Even when she was not touring a Depression-fighting nation or a new nation overseas, Eleanor had full days. The tour also shows the homey living room, packed with comfortable chairs, its walls decked with photos, paintings and mementos.
            You can also learn more about the Eleanor Roosevelt story though an exhibit in the roomier, handsome interior of the Stone Cottage, titled "Eleanor Roosevelt and Val-Kill: Emergence of a Political Leader."