Saturday, October 11, 2014

Women of a Certain Age

Like so many, I've been fascinated by Ken Burns' excellent series that PBS has been showing on the Roosevelt family and this week, I visited the FDR home in Hyde Park.  It wasn't exactly a pilgrimage since we were staying at a friend's home not too far away in Hudson anyway, but it had the feel of a pilgrimage none the less.  To my mind, anyplace that Eleanor lived is hallowed ground.
     Like any good pilgrim, I took away proof that I had visited.  I bought a wonderful brooch that crafts Eleanor in three colors of metal; cloche hat, skinny legs and overnight bag included at no extra cost.  I also acquired a wonderful denim ball cap with a quote from Eleanor reminding me that the only way to to begin is to begin.  I bought it for hiking, but I think it might be more useful sitting on my desk.
     Of course she was amazing, decades ahead of her time, brilliant, enlightened, all of that, but the thing that I really marvel at is the fact that most of this didn't come through until she was older.  Until she was in her middle years she led the life that was more or less expected of a woman of her station, but then she bloomed.  Tragedy, loss, betrayal and heartbreak descended, but she overcame it all to become a woman the likes of whom the world rarely, if ever had seen.

      In my novel Summerland Cecelia Cabot Adams had dedicated her life to preserving the memory and memorabilia of her illustrious ancestors while helping her widowed son to raise his daughter.  A woman who takes pride in never faltering from her self-imposed standards, she finds herself suddenly at odds with her country's involvement in Vietnam and is reminded that the ancestor's she has cherished were all revolutionaries and it is time for her to join their ranks. 

My grandmother lived five more years, I sometimes think more out of will than anything else. One month after I graduated from her beloved alma mater, Smith, she died, but there is more you need to know about her last years.
              My grandmother, look her up if you doubt me, became one of the most important people in the anti-war movement. She was on the stage with Joan Baez and she met with Nixon in the White House. She invited Jane Fonda up for the week-end and she was in Paris for the peace talks where she met with all the delegates although she’d really been hoping for a seat at the table. (For a while it looked like she’d have the seat because Kissinger found her intimidating.) Unlike some activists, she didn’t forget or disdain the men who had been in the war and visited the wounded in local VA hospital. She also lobbied for improved veteran’s benefits and argued with those who held the returning vets responsible for the war.
The kids, the hippies and the freaks took to calling her Granny Adams and it stuck. She loved the name although she’d always insisted that I call her Grandmother. I complied because anyone could call her Granny, but I was the only one who could call her Grandmother.     
She was confined to a wheelchair, the bullet shot by Marcus shattered her femur and even after therapy she simply couldn’t put weight on the leg, but she ignored it as best she could since she had so much she needed to do. I’m not sure how it happened, but Katy became her assistant and if you look for images of my grandmother, you will see pictures of Katy pushing my grandmother all over the map as they did their work.    
In some of the pictures Forty can be seen at their side. In his sweet, half-assed way, he became something of a service dog. He was happy to do some simple things for Grandmother like bring her the paper or her purse unless he was busy with a ball or a bone. I believe his intentions were good, but he simply lacked focus, but she didn’t seem to mind.
The night she died, the word had gotten out somehow. Remember that this was before cheap long-distance calls and no one except Al Gore had imagined the Internet, but the word got out all over the country and across Europe and even into Vietnam. All over, people stepped outside on that July night and lit candles and beamed their flashlights and started bonfires. They lit the way for her. They lit the way for that stubborn, sometimes amoral old woman who showed us all that it was never too late to change and never too late to make a stand for what you know to be right. They lit her way to Summerland.