There are moments of childhood that lodge in our memories and sometimes linger there tenaciously for the rest of our lives. I have many such vivid memories pervaded by the presence of Grandmère. Though photographs exist of me as a small child sitting on my grandfather’s knee at the White House or at home in Texas, my earliest and most vivid memories are of holidays spent in unadulterated freedom at Grandmère ‘s Val-Kill, her beloved home and retreat from a hectic life in upstate New York.
An intense feeling of anticipation marked the beginning of school holidays, when I would fly from my family’s home in Fort Worth to New York, and then take the train up the Hudson River Valley to Poughkeepsie, where I was met by my father and stepmother and, of course, Grandmère. Perhaps because I lived so far away with my mother, sister and brother, the times spent with Grandmère were all the more special to me. For a small, ever-inquisitive child, the stream of activities and interesting people in her home made it the most absorbing, wonderful place imaginable.
Upon arriving at Val-Kill, I would be swept up into the busy, adventurous atmosphere that surrounded Grandmère. My older brother, Tony (Elliott Jr.), and my sister, Chandler, had that same sense of Val-Kill. For us children, Val-Kill was paradise. We were left free to do practically whatever we wanted — riding horses across the open fields and through the woods, carousing with cousins for endless hours, swimming in the pool, playing games or drawing on rainy days in the Playhouse. Grandmère was always attentive and warm, and we had the constant feeling that no matter what important person had come to see her or what her work demanded, her grandchildren always came first.
I think I must have been aware that Grandmère was an important person — surely I knew she was somehow special. But to me she was simply my grandmother, and I related to her in that warm, intimate way a small child does to someone who is consistently loving and attentive. She had an amazing facility for engaging even very small children in conversation. I remember her as always encouraging me to tell her about myself, the things I was doing and what interested me, no matter how young I was. I could go on walks with her if I wanted to talk about something special, or she would often invite me to go with her to run errands in the village of Hyde Park. We would go to the post office or grocery shopping, and local people would always greet her with “Good morning, Mrs. R.” or address her as “Mrs. Roosevelt.” To my memory, only a few of her closest friends and family ever called Grandmère by her first name, Eleanor, perhaps out of deep respect.
Grandmère’s Val-Kill was a very special place, not just to me but to practically everyone who visited there. I find it interesting today when I return to listen to the reactions of other visitors: “Why, it’s so simple, so unimposing, not at all what I would have expected!” Yet others will remark on its serenity, and immediately understand how it could be so important to Grandmère. For me, it is merely a place of so many memories, so many wonderful times spent with my grandmother — nothing more, nothing less.