Sometimes presence is the best of presents.
‘The country was deeply divided, neighbors looking upon each other with suspicion and distrust.’
I’ve been spending many of these cold winter evenings curled up on the couch with a dog (or two) and one of my Christmas books. Most recently, that was David Michaelis’ excellent biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. The quote above described the situation on the West Coast at the start of WWII, when many Japanese Americans were consigned to ‘relocation camps’. For what it’s worth, Eleanor tried to convince FDR that this was a horrible and inhumane idea. She did not prevail and had to settle for visiting the camps and advocating for better conditions.
Eleanor is-of course- a fascinating character. Wife of FDR, but a skilled politician in her own right, she became one of the world’s most widely admired and powerful women. She was born into economic and social privilege, but both her parents died before she was 10; she was raised by a rotating cast of grandmothers and aunts. She had a fine, sharp mind and a desire to be useful, but women of her class were expected only to be decorative and to marry well. Her mother and aunts had been great beauties, but her Aunt Pussie said to Eleanor, ” You’re so homely, no man will ever want to marry you”. She ends up marrying her distant cousin. Stuck in a relationship complicated by politics, illness, and infidelity, Eleanor could have retreated. Instead, she dug in and started solving problems.
ER’s ability to use her native intelligence, appetite for hard work, and understanding of the value of compromise served her-and our nation-well. Asked by President Truman to serve at the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, she was not exactly welcomed by her fellow delegates. But she persevered and earned their regard. And when someone had to stand up to the Soviets over the refugee problem, the task fell to Eleanor. The Soviets wanted all refugees returned to their homelands, regardless of possible persecution or hardship. Taking on Andrei Vishinsky, legal architect of Stalin’s Great Purge, Eleanor persuaded the council to reject the Russian proposals.
Then she went a step further. She crossed the room, shook Vishinsky’s hand, and said, “I hope the day will come when you and I are on the same side of a dispute, for I admire your fighting qualities.” Vishinsky replied, “And I yours”. She had won his respect, if grudgingly. That ability for empathy and humility became an ER trademark; she preferred expanding the tent to recognize all.
If your tent needs a good book, I’d highly recommend Eleanor. It goes well a nice glass of wine and some dogs.