My mother recently celebrated 100 years of life, and after the celebrations were over, I came across this piece I wrote while at University.
TWO DEGREES FROM ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
Jean Ditmars, my mother, was born during World War I, survived the Great Depression, learned to shoot in her late teens and once nearly emasculated her own father with a ricochet bullet when she hit a metal bulls-eye. She lost her first husband to World War II and her second to cancer. And despite being a petite woman no one has ever, ever, said no to her.
Most importantly, my mother is the essence of practicality. Not one to be idle, she always has some project on the go, even now at 94. In 1934 the Women’s Institute for my mother was an avenue for social activity, it gave her “things to do,” she said. She must have been a bored teenager because at 18 she started a junior branch of the Women’s Institute by getting the youth from the rural townships of Northwestern Ontario involved. “There was no advertising. It was strictly word of mouth,” she said. “Most of the women walked five or six miles to meetings.”
Because of this practicality, I always saw my mother’s life as uneventful. She has lived a quiet life, married, mourned her husbands, raised her children, and helped make the world a better place for those within her reach. She has not reached any level of notoriety beyond her home town nor did she brush shoulders with any celebrity. Or so I thought.
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At 36, my mother was making her way down the isle of the buzzing auditorium as the lights began to dim. Massey Hall, famous as a concert venue, was filled to capacity: my mother one in a crowd of 2700. This night it was not a famous musician the audience of mostly women had come to see, but a famous woman and humanitarian, known as “the first lady of the world.”
In Toronto for a provincial board meeting my mother and three other delegates of the Women’s Institute of Ontario took their seats, dressed simply in suits, hats and gloves. My mother looked around her and felt a flutter of excitement at how close their seats were to the stage as someone stepped forward to make introductory remarks.. There were other speakers on the agenda that night, but to my mother it was Mrs. Roosevelt, the widow of the late President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she came to hear.
Mrs. Roosevelt was speaking on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Tall and still imposing at 71, Mrs. Roosevelt, accustomed to addressing international audiences, spoke as always from her heart. The needs of the under-developed countries must be appreciated by the Western world, which has been living in a vacuum, Mrs. Roosevelt said. An element of force is still necessary in the world. In the future, she said, we must learn to use reason or else “die very quickly.” Her years of service with the United Nations gave authority to her address.
After she finished Mrs. Roosevelt gathered her note papers from the lectern and bowed. The audience, inspired by this woman who had conversed with world leaders, gave her a thunderous round of applause, rising to their feet in awe and respect. When Mrs. Roosevelt left the stage my mother and her three companions, still on their feet, looked at each other. The four of them discussed whether they might be able to meet her. With the lights of the stage reflected in my mother’s glasses, she turns to the three, “I say we pick up our nerve and see.”
The masses of people were gradually making their way up the auditorium’s aisles, the hum of their chatter filling the cavernous auditorium as they herded towards the exits. Against this flow of humanity my diminutive mother led the group as they navigated down towards the stage. An usher stood to the right of the stage where Mrs. Roosevelt had exited. He stood guard at a door that led to a mysterious world rarely seen by audience members. “We are delegates of the Women’s Institute of Ontario,” my mother stated, coming to a halt before him. “We were wondering if it would be possible to meet Mrs. Roosevelt?”
The usher in his crisp uniform, signifying an authority not supported by his years, nodded and directed them to follow. Behind him, one by one these four ladies passed through a portal to a more privileged world. They followed him past the stage level, where stage hands were clearing equipment, to a door that led behind the stage itself. When the door closed behind them, the buzz of the auditorium was left behind as they entered a tiled corridor. To their right they passed a couple of doors marked “dressing room.” Conductor like, the usher signalled his train to a stop and motioned for them to wait outside a door marked “green room.”
In that corridor, these women – who at home taught gardening and sewing in their rural communities far removed from international circles – waited. While unconsciously holding their breath, nervously they smoothed their skirts and tugged on the hems of their gloves. It seemed like forever, but barely a minute had passed when the door opened. The smiling usher said Mrs. Roosevelt would be happy to meet representatives of the Women’s Institute then he opened the door wide for them to enter the room.
To these women, and women everywhere Eleanor Roosevelt was many things: a civil rights activist; one who worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor around the world, and the person who guided an international committee to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To my mother she was all that and more. Mrs. Roosevelt was a woman to be admired, not just for her good works, but also for the woman she was, her accomplishments, and despite her very public life, never had a breath of scandal attached to her.
The four of them filed in and Mrs. Roosevelt shook each of their gloved hands. After the initial greetings, they were speechless but Mrs. Roosevelt stepped into the breach by asking where they were from and what they did with the Women’s institute. Her hospitable bearing allowed the women to relax and chat freely with her about their lives. It was not a long audience with the grand lady. Before they knew it they found themselves back in the corridor behind the stage once again following their trusty conductor who led them to the the exit.
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My mother sits slightly rocking in her recliner telling me her story. She said Eleanor Roosevelt was interested in the betterment of people, the young and children especially. As she contemplated her weathered hands my mother continued, “she was a very gracious woman, her spirit would come out and show, she didn’t put on airs.” I asked her what it meant to her to meet Eleanor Roosevelt compared to other events during her 40 years in the Women’s Institute, and she smiled, “meeting her was a highlight.”
When planning my mother’s birthday celebration I had many moments of reflection on the history my mother has experienced and she has really been an inspiration to me.
Is there a special woman who has inspired you?