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September 21, 2014

Learning from the Roosevelts

Photo, FDR Presidential Library
Ken Burns' team's seven-part documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" debuted this week on PBS. I can't recommend it highly enough. (You can watch it online at link above.) I believe it is Burns' finest work, and that's saying a lot. One of the first biographies I read in the third grade was about Eleanor Roosevelt. She died later that year. I remember clearly gazing at flags at half-mast and learning what that meant. She was my introduction to the Roosevelt dynasty. 

In this documentary, history came alive for me. I re-learned and remembered how much I owe the two President Roosevelts. They are not objects of hero worship for me. No president is. Rather, they are objects of my admiration. These two men initiated much of what we now take for granted as fairness and social and economic justice in this country. Although both were born to great fortunes and privilege, they had a heart for serving and recognizing the needs of others. 

About the Roosevelts and grief: This blog has numerous posts about loss, most of which are about experiencing one loss at a time. One thing I learned to admire about the Roosevelts was their ability to persist in the face of multiple losses and the ensuing grief. Eleanor's father died when she was young, as did her mother. She and Franklin lost one of their children in infancy. Theodore Roosevelt watched both his wife and mother die on the same night. He had lost his father, "the only person to whom I told everything," years before. Franklin Roosevelt's mother died on September 7, 1941. In the next 48 hours, Germany dropped bombs on a US vessel and Leningrad was under siege. The day after his mother's death, Franklin was in his office, working under a burden of stress that, for me, is unimaginable. When John F. Kennedy planned to see Eleanor Roosevelt during a campaign trip, he learned that one of the Roosevelt grandchildren fell from a horse and died from her injuries the day before he was to arrive. Eleanor kept her appointment with the president-to-be. No one could know better than she how hard it would be for JFK to change his schedule. She also lived to watch her younger brother die, and said it was one of the hardest things she had ever witnessed. 

Photo, FDR Presidential Library
The loss of mobility that FDR suffered brought yet more grief into this history.  FDR was cut down, literally, his legs taken out from under him overnight. He must have experienced intense, long-term grief over the part of him that was forever lost. 

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University
There is certainly evidence that grief drove Theodore Roosevelt to excesses. One has to wonder about his obsession with hunting, killing animals, and braving wars, necessary or not. In a time when the term "grief recovery" had not been invented, he sought physical outlets for sorrow, to stay not only occupied, but also challenged. The Harvard grad sought "solace" in the rough, rough life of the Dakotas, proving his merit as a true cowboy. One disadvantage to his "therapy" was his inability to relate to his infant daughter after the death of her mother. Their relationship remained difficult, and the core of that difficulty lay in Roosevelt's first wife's death. I know, as do many readers of this blog, what it is like to want to block out grief, ignore it, not discuss it or recognize it. Roosevelt's first daughter Alice paid quite the price for this. On the other hand, she spent meaningful time with her Aunt Bamie, an amazing woman, cultivated, courageous, and wise, who deserves her own documentary.

Photo, FDR Presidential Library
After watching this portrayal of the Roosevelts, I feel encouraged and challenged to redouble my efforts to be a person who perseveres in the face of loss. In the documentary's final installment, Eleanor Roosevelt says, "One most live life as it comes." There is no other way. Grief will come to us...if we love. And we will be called to live both it and the life that keeps pressing on at the same time. We will be called to keep our heads when our hearts are broken and not forget those still living who need us and whom we need. Among many other interesting lessons, I learned this from "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." As an American, I remain grateful for their capacity to persevere in the face of loss, to keep their heads (most of the time), and serve this country to the best of their talents and ability. 

The world is better for it.   

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