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When we were children we used to collect pine cones and paint them with airplane paint and then put sparkly things on them... She would burn them in the fireplace, and they made pretty colors when you burnt them. It was great! And she really just loved those things that children end up doing for you. It was the love that she loved coming from us.
There are moments of childhood that lodge in our memories and sometimes linger there tenaciously for the rest of our lives. This or that instant, rather than a million others, sheds light and glows warmly years after the moment. 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 in the early days of American Airlines 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. In fact, as happens so often with small children, the sheer pitch of the excitement of being once more in the thrilling atmosphere of Grandmère's home surrounded by an onslaught of cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and the occasional famous visitor would at times be overwhelming. But the return to Grandmère's Val-Kill was the highlight of many holidays. 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 endless 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 it was a time to be reunited with our father, who, after the divorce from my mother and subsequent remarriage, lived for a period at Top Cottage, just a short walk from Grandmère's through dense woods. But while that reunion was always a time anticipated, the real excitement lay just down the hill at Val-Kill.
For us children, Val-Kill was paradise. There were few rules and even fewer schedules, and we were left free to do practically whatever we wanted riding horses across the open fields and through the woods, boating in the Fall-Kill Pond, 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. She used to call me the "little cowboy" or "little Texas" because of my penchant for wearing cowboy boots and shorts, my favorite attire as a small child. And though I might have been a charming and engaging little boy, as some said, even then I was hardheaded and self-driven. Never one for napping in the afternoon like the other small children, I would spend hours playing outside and making up great adventures, and then I would tear through the house at great speeds to get to her bathroom (usually the closest to wherever I might be at the time of urgent discovery!), racing through the study where Grandmère might be quietly working with Tommy, or in later years Maureen Corr, or meeting with important people. It seems I always waited until the very last minute to make that urgent mad dash. She never scolded me or grew agitated in the least by the carryings on of her grandchildren, despite the fact that there were often many of us causing utter chaos. Of course, I'm certain even we could push the limits of her patience, but perhaps I have just forgotten those rare moments.
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. Minnewa Bell, my father's fourth wife, used to call her "Mother R," a salutation that many of her other daughters-in-law used as well.
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.