First Person: I’m Sorry, Aunt Eleanor

She was from another era, and I was young and modern. When she took a chance and entered my world, the social graces failed me.

By: Sophy Burnham

At the time, I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. Now I can’t get it off my heart.

Aunt Eleanor was the beauty of the family and a stickler for doing things properly. Did we write a thank-you note? Did we wait for the hostess to pick up her fork before we plunged into eating? Did we open the door for our grandmother, step back for elders, speak quietly? We were all a little frightened of Aunt Eleanor.

Then her husband, an admiral, retired, and she developed (when she was almost 70—ridiculous!) an ambition beyond the polish on the silver tea service and the luncheons she gave for Navy wives. She wanted to write.

It was 1975, and I was a writer myself, so she asked me for an introduction to Tom, a magazine editor I knew in DC. I was young, filled with self-importance. I’d been part of the civil-rights and women’s movements, bra-burning and blue jeans. Women cursed; men helped with the dishes. What could Aunt Eleanor possibly have to say? Nonetheless, I asked Tom to meet her: “Be good to her, okay?”

In hat, heels, and gloves, she stepped into the office crowded with desks, the writers and editors typing or talking on phones. Finally one girl glanced up. “I have an appointment at 11,” Aunt Eleanor announced, hiding her terror with a snap of her chin.

“He’s on the phone,” the girl said. “Go on in.”

Aunt Eleanor stepped to the door, and Tom, the phone at his ear, gestured to a chair. He leaned back, feet on his desk, as she removed the papers from the only other chair and sat down, manuscript in her lap. I don’t know what her article was about—perhaps her father, born in Washington before the Civil War, or something to do with being a Navy wife.

Tom was a burly Irishman, his tie askew. He joked into the phone, swiveling around occasionally to grab a paper from a file cabinet but always returning his feet to the desk, soles in my aunt’s face. He had no malice. He was playing his role in The Front Page, and Aunt Eleanor was the audience.

When she left, Tom was riffling through papers. When he noticed, he was instantly sorry. He hung up and walked to the outer office to ask about his guest, only to be told she’d departed without a word.

After that, she gave up writing.

Aunt Eleanor has died. Tom has died. At the time, I had no idea what courage it took for her to brave that world. I apologized to her on Tom’s behalf but never insisted he write a proper apology, ask for another meeting, give her an assignment.

She could have written about Washington when, as a little girl in black stockings and a sailor dress, she walked with her mother and sisters down 16th Street to leave a card at the White House for the President’s wife, who apparently had no social life. The card was turned down at the upper left-hand corner to show it had been delivered personally rather than by a servant. Later the First Lady sent a card inviting the family to a White House tea.

She could have written about riding her pony into Georgetown as a child to visit a friend, about seeing her parents off to a dinner party with the First Couple at Decatur House when it was still in private hands. About living in Ecuador with her naval-officer husband or in postwar Japan.

How arrogant I was to imagine that my aunt had no dreams, adventures, or skills. How I wish that I had it to do all over again—properly.

Sophy Burnham is the author of 13 books, including A Book of Angels and her most recent, The Art of Intuition. She can be reached through sophyburnham.com.

This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.