An Incident That Haunts My Life
Hom e About Eleanor Roosevelt About The Project Online Docum ents & Videos Publications ER, JFK, & the 1960 Election: A Mini-Edition The My Day Projects Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Teaching Hum an Rights Support The Project Contact The Project Search Go The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University by Eleanor Roosevelt Look 15 (June 19,1951): 54-56, 58. What you are in life results in great part from the influence exerted on you over the years by just a few people.
There have been seven people in my life whose influence on me did much to change my inner development as a person. The first were my mother and father. I suppose it is natural for any person to feel that the most vivid personalities in early youth were those of his parents. This was certainly so in my case. My mother always remained somewhat awe_inspiring. She was the most dignified and beautiful person. But she had such high standards of morals that it encouraged me to wrongdoing; I felt it was utterly impossible for me ever to live up to her!
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My father, on the other hand, was always a very close and warm personality. I think I knew that his standards were nowhere nearly as difficult to achieve and that he would look upon my shortcomings with a much more forgiving eye. He provided me with some badly needed reassurance, for in my earliest days I knew that I could never hope to achieve my mother’s beauty and I fell short in so many ways of what was expected of me. I needed my father’s warmth and devotion more perhaps than the average child, who would have taken love for ranted and not worried about it. My mother died when I was six. After my father’s death when I was eight years old, I did not have that sense of adequacy and of being cherished which he gave me until I met Mlle. Marie Souvestre when I was 15. The headmistress of the school I went to in England, she exerted perhaps the greatest influence on my girlhood. She was a very good_looking woman with a really massive head. The features were very fine, her white hair soft and wavy, though she was short and rather stout by the time I knew her.
She liked Americans and attributed to them qualities of character and intelligence, which shortly began to give me back some of the confidence that I had not felt since my father’s death. I had lived in a family with some very beautiful aunts and two attractive uncles who looked upon me as a child to whom they were always kind but about whom there was certainly nothing to admire. I was conscious of their pity because my looks fell so far below the family standards and I had no special gifts of any kind to redeem my looks. Mlle.
Souvestre, on the other hand, laid a great deal of stress on intellectual achievements, and there I felt I could hold my own. She took me traveling with her and evidently felt I was an adequate companion. That gave me a great sense of reassurance. For three years, I basked in her generous presence, and I think those three years did much to form my character and give me the confidence to go through some of the trials that awaited me when I returned to the United States. Fought Lost Causes As I look back, I realize that Mlle. Souvestre was rather an extraordinary character.
She often fought seemingly lost causes, but they were often won in the long run. The Dreyfus case was one of them. Captain Dreyfus was vindicated in the end, but for the years before he was declared innocent, we who were under Mlle. Souvestre’s influence heard every move in his case fought over and over again. I think I came to feel that the underdog was always the one to be championed! When the Boer War came along, Mlle. Souvestre was pro_Boer. She had a great many friends in government circles; in fact, one of her old pupils was the daughter of an Englishman high in the government at that time.
But that did not deter her from being a pro_Boer running a girls’ school in England or from her outspoken criticism of British politics. On the other hand, she was scrupulously fair and allowed the British girls to celebrate their victories in South Africa, though she would take the rest of us into her library and talk to us at length on the rights of small nations while the British celebration was going on! I realize now that it was a unique educational experience I was then given the opportunity to enjoy, and it certainly did me no harm to have my horizons so widened.
Eleanor’s Society Aunt The next important and stimulating person in my life was Mrs. W. Forbes (Hall) Morgan, the young aunt with whom I lived when I first came home from Europe. Aunt Pussie, as she was known in the family, was a good many years older that I was, and a great belle in New York society, which at that time was small enough to mean a great deal to those who had a place in it. It happened that my family was distinctly a part of what was then called society, not by virtue of having money, but because it had held a place in what might be called the Four Hundred for several generations.
People with money were beginning to be important, but the older families, without having to have money, still held their positions. This young aunt was full of charm and talent. If she had had to earn her living, she probably would have developed this talent into something useful professionally. But since she did not have to, she always remained an amateur. She was much sought after, and she could see little use in having to look after a very shy and overgrown girl who had to be introduced to the kind of society she herself understood and managed so well.
The result was that she was one of the first people who taught me discipline. I admired her inordinately, but I knew that I must not be a nuisance. After a none too happy childhood, I was lonely, friendless, shy and awkward and not a society success. For a Hall, that was not easy to understand, but it hardened me in much the way that steel is tempered. The fires through which I passed were none too gentle, but I gained from them nevertheless and each new ordeal was a step forward in the lessons of living.
The personalities of my husband and my mother_in_law, I am sure, exerted the greatest influence in my development. My mother_in_law was a lady of great character. She always knew what was right and what was wrong. She was kind and generous and loyal to the family through thick and thin. But it was hard to differ with her. She never gave up an idea she had, whether it was for herself or for you. And her methods of achieving her own ends at times seemed a bit ruthless if you were not in accord. She dominated me for years. But I finally developed within myself the power to resist.
Perhaps it was my husband’s teaching me that there was great strength in passive resistance. Perhaps it was that, having two such personalities as my husband and his mother, I had to develop willy_nilly into an individual myself. Each Sought Kingpin Role Both wanted to dominate their spheres of life, though they were enough alike to love each other dearly. My husband was just as determined as his mother, but hated to hurt people and never did so unless they really angered him. She won even with him sometimes, but usually he simply ignored any differences in their point of view.
His illness finally made me stand on my own feet in regard to my husband’s life, my own life and my children’s training. The alternative would have been to become a completely colorless echo of my husband and mother_in_law and be torn between them. I might have stayed a weak character forever if I had not found that out. In some ways, my husband was a remarkable teacher. His breadth of interests made him always a stimulating person to be with, and you could not live with him and fail to learn many things.
This happened not only to me but also to his children and many of his close associates. For instance, it was he who taught me to observe. Just sitting with him in the observation car at the end of a train, I learned how to watch the tracks and see their condition, how to look at the countryside and note whether there was soil erosion and what condition the forests and fields were in, and as we went through the outskirts of a town or village I soon learned to look at the clothes on the wash line and at the cars and to notice whether houses needed painting.
Little by little, I found I was able to answer my husband’s questions, after I had taken a trip alone, and give him the information he would have gathered had he taken the trip himself. Though I had always loved the country, I had had no real knowledge of forestry or flood control. But I could not live with my husband and not learn about those things. I not only learned what was before my eyes in my own country, but I earned what had happened in other countries of the world centuries ago and through their whole history, and why conditions were as they were in various countries throughout the world. My husband opened the windows of the world for me. As I think it over, he was perhaps the greatest teacher of the many who contributed to my education. The last person, probably, to have influenced me much as an individual was Louis Howe, my husband’s adviser. He pushed me, not for my own sake but for my husband’s, into taking an interest in public affairs.
This was a field I had carefully shunned, feeling that one member of the family with a knowledge of politics was all that one family could stand. But, little by little, I found myself beginning to understand why certain things were done and how they came about. Before I realized it, I was at least interested in the fields of domestic and of foreign affairs. I can remember no others who exerted enough real influence on me to change me. But I do know that much of what I am today is due to these seven people among the many I have known through the years of my life.