Thursday, March 19, 2009

generational topography

He remains third in rankings of our most successful presidents (following Lincoln and Washington).

In Hyde Park along the Hudson River, Ed and I listen to a recording of the first Franklin D Roosevelt fireside chat – spoken to a people who were glued to radios, hoping to regain hope. They got it. The next room of the FDR presidential library is plastered with letters of thanks, written to FDR immediately after the radio show.

two chats came from his study here; FDR's mom insisted on the placement of her portrait in the room

For all that you could say about FDR’s programs and ideas, for all the astonishing New Deal successes (I am a huge fan) and some arguably astonishing failures (I was, after all, raised in Poland, in the aftermath of Yalta), you have to be impressed with his leadership in the face of enormous challenges.


I had been to Hyde Park once before. I was a kid and my sister and I came here with my parents for one of our dutifully executed Sunday outings. My mother was experiencing a personal loss and she was in a bad mood. I have a photo of her standing on the back stairs of FDR’s residence (or, more accurately, Franklin’s mother’s -- Sara Roosevelt’s -- residence). My mother’s eyes are hidden behind huge sunglasses and no one could tell that she was closed off to the world that day. But we could tell.


Today, early in the morning, Ed and I are in a large warehouse in Brewster, New York. This is why we are here this week. Ed is opening one of 18 crates of his mother’s belongings, sorting through everything in this particular one, deciding what to take home.

looking at an arrangement of old photos

I never met Ed’s mother – she died a couple of years before he and I started occasionally traveling together, but I’ve come to collect stories about her, in the way one does about people who are close to your ... occasional traveling companions. Ed’s mother was an artist – a painter, a sculptress – and the crate is filled with her life’s work.

What do you do with the art of a person who loved you and whom you loved as well? Ed was to Edith as Franklin was to Sara. And I’m told Edith was as formidable to the world as Sara was. It’s odd, but the passing of formidable people rarely brings peace to those who tangled with them when they were alive. But to the handful who, for whatever reason, could live with the spice and brazen nature, recollections after they are gone trigger a smile.

I think about my (Polish) family entanglements and how unsimple they are, surprisingly so, given that generations are shifting and there really isn’t much to feel stormy about anymore.

When you walk through the exhibits at the FDR library, at every turn you see the influence of Franklin’s family – especially the generation of Roosevelts that came just before him. The man sailed because his father taught him to love sailing (in much the same way that Ed learned to sail with his dad).

Franklin D Roosevelt knew how to dispose of his property and Eleanor helped hurry along the task of converting Hyde Park to a public place, managed now by the National Park Service. It’s easy if you’re a four-term president: no one wants to ditch a single piece of scribble you left behind. It’s harder when your mother has died (even if her death was nearly a half dozen years ago) and you are the sole arbiter of what stays and what goes.

I see a sentimental side to Ed today. I’ve seen it before, but it’s a rare thing. The man learned guy talk fluently. My long-studied French is foreign sounding by comparison. But in Brewster, I am the task master. I nudge him to decide, I offer my opinion unabashedly, I urge him to move to the next cardboard box and the next one, until finally, we are done.

In Hyde Park, we never take that walk by the Hudson River as planned. When we travel, Ed rarely has a preference as to what we should do. But here, he has a preference. Let’s skip the Hudson. You’ve seen the river, I’ve seen the river, it’s just a river. And so we stay with the texts, photos and film clips in the library and we listen to the historian who tours the house with us. The only glimpse of the river you’ll have here is from the back stairs of the Roosevelt residence, the stairs on which my mother once stood, behind her huge sunglasses.


But as the afternoon fades and we are driving back to Kent, we make a stop that reels us back to the present. They say Franklin liked his evening coctail. Perhaps in his day, New York State wines weren’t much to brag about. Now, New York has a firm spot on the American wine making map and we pause at a winery that has done especially well – the Millbrook estate.


The vines cover hills in gentle folds. No buds yet. Too early for that. But, there is a deliberateness, a care about a well tended field of vines even now, in near-spring. A bad season can, of course, break a harvest. A good one may push the wine to new heights. A series of bad season may make it impossible to turn things around and so the wine will have a generational stamp of failed expectations. A series of good ones – with care and good weather – and the wine may become the source of family pride.


At breakfast this morning our host at the Starbuck Inn talks about his transition to the quiet of country life (he lived most of his adult life in DC). I think about how much I like the quiet now and how Ed absolutely thrives on it. You’ve picked a nice time to come here, Peter Starbuck tells us. It’s empty and the trees are empty so that you can see beyond them. You get to understand the topography.

In Brewster, Ed flips on his computer. Downloads of This American Life will accompany his drive home. I catch a train to New York, from where I fly back to Madison. This week-end, I expect Ed will unload the art we had so quickly selected to haul back. I’m sure he’ll take the topper off the truck, so that he can begin thinking about hauling a load of wood chips for his yard as the weather grows warmer

leaving New York and the Hudson River