I’ve just finished David McCullough’s book, Mornings On Horseback (1981) about a young, romantic Theodore Roosevelt.
The by-line reads: The Story Of An Extraordinary Family, A Vanished Way of Life And The Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt.
What inspires me to write is not the story itself, but the poignant message I’ve come away with.
Teddy, who by the way hated that name, preferring Theodore, experienced tragedy enough for ten men.
He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881, spending his week in Albany, coming home to New York City on weekends.
He had married his first love, Alice Hathaway Lee, in 1880, after a very long, passionate pursuit. I always smile when I think, one of the reasons Alice didn’t respond right away, was because of Teddy’s distinct odor due to the taxidermy he performed in his rooms at Harvard. Kind of like a smoker who has no idea that he smells like a pool hall.
But since he was so bewitched, the word he used after meeting her, our Teddy was determined to make Alice his own, thus their engagement being announced on Valentine’s Day, 1880.
Alice, three years later, pregnant with their first child, had moved into the Roosevelt Family home at 6 West 57th Street to be with Theodore’s mother, Mittie, short for Martha, when her due date got closer. As unimaginable as it sounds, women had their babies at home without much fuss, often with a midwife rather than a doctor.
Teddy gets word while on the Assembly floor, Alice gave birth to a healthy baby girl, shaking hands, handing out cigars, till a second telegram comes saying, he better come home.
She had contracted Bright’s Disease, a post pregnancy inflammation of the kidneys common at the time. If you ever saw the Downton Abbey episode when Sybil dies after giving birth, it gives you an idea. One minute the mother is fine, the next, in a state of fatal flight.
Mittie, two floors up, after thinking it was merely a cold, was down with Typhoid Fever. Where an antibiotic would have cured her if they had existed, she was unable to fight her way back.
So on Valentine’s Day, 1884, four blissful years after their engagement…and I’ll quote from the book:
By the time he reached her bedside and took her in his arms, Alice barely knew who he was. He stayed there, holding her, until some time before three in the morning when he was told that if he wished to see his mother again, he must come at once.
Mittie died at three o’clock the morning of February 14, her four children at her bedside. Alice lingered on another eleven hours. She died at two in the afternoon, Theodore still holding her.
His diary entree that night: And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went out of my life forever.
Alice was but 22.
Thus, our noble Teddy lost both his mother and wife on the same day, in the blink of an eye.
The message this sent, and I’ll quote him again: The sole overwhelming lesson is (was) the awful brevity of life, the sense that the precipice awaited not just somewhere off down the road, but at any moment.
I’ve heard it said, God speaks through other people, so right now it’s Theodore Roosevelt from the ether, reminding us to live one day at a time as happily as possible, not concerned with tomorrow, since fate, alas, will have the final say.
History remains our greatest teacher.
Dedicated to Helen, who inspired this.