Shaping History: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, photographed in her office at the State Department. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, December 2009
(June 10, 2014, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) In an excerpt from her new memoir, Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton remembers her mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham—the struggles she overcame and the lessons she passed along.
From the moment I first held Chelsea in my arms in the hospital in Little Rock, I knew my mission in life was to give her every opportunity to thrive. As she’s grown up and stepped out into the world in her own right, my responsibilities have changed. Now that she’s expecting a child of her own, I’m preparing for a new role that I’ve looked forward to for years: grandmother. And I’ve found myself thinking a lot about my relationship with my own mom, as an adult as well as in childhood, and what lessons I learned from her.
When I became Secretary of State, Mom was just about to turn 90. She had been living with us in Washington for the past few years, ever since being alone in her apartment overlooking the zoo on Connecticut Avenue became too much. Like so many Americans of my generation, I felt both blessed to have these extra years with an aging parent and very responsible for making sure she was comfortable and well cared for. Mom gave me so much unconditional love and support when I was growing up in Park Ridge, Illinois; now it was my turn to support her. Of course I never would have let her hear me describe it that way. Dorothy Howell Rodham was a fiercely independent woman. She couldn’t bear the thought of being a burden to anyone.
Having her so close became a source of great comfort to me, especially in the difficult period after the end of the 2008 campaign. I’d come home from a long day at the Senate or the State Department, slide in next to her at the small table in our breakfast nook, and let everything just pour out.
Mom loved mystery novels, Mexican food, Dancing with the Stars (we actually managed to get her to a taping of the show once), and most of all her grandchildren. My nephew Zach Rodham’s school was just five minutes away, and he came over many afternoons to visit her. Spending time with Fiona and Simon Rodham, her youngest grandchildren, was a precious delight for her. For Chelsea, her grandmother was one of the most important figures in her life. Mom helped Chelsea navigate the unique challenges of growing up in the public eye and, when she was ready, encouraged her to pursue her passion for service and philanthropy. Even in her 90s, Mom never lost her commitment to social justice, which did so much to mold and inspire me when I was growing up. I loved that she was able to do the same for Chelsea. And I’m not sure if I ever saw Mom happier than at Chelsea’s wedding. She proudly walked down the aisle on Zach’s arm and exulted over her joyful, radiant granddaughter.
After graduating from high school Mom moved back to Chicago in the hopes of reconnecting with her own mother. Sadly she was spurned yet again. Heartbroken, she spent the next five years working as a secretary before she met and married my father, Hugh Rodham. She built a new life as a homemaker, spending her days lavishing love on me and my two younger brothers.
When I got old enough to understand all this, I asked my mother how she survived abuse and abandonment without becoming embittered and emotionally stunted. How did she emerge from this lonely early life as such a loving and levelheaded woman? I’ll never forget how she replied. “At critical points in my life somebody showed me kindness,” she said. Sometimes it would seem so small, but it would mean so much—the teacher in elementary school who noticed that she never had money to buy milk, so every day would buy two cartons of milk and then say, “Dorothy, I can’t drink this other carton of milk. Would you like it?” Or the woman who hired her as a nanny and insisted that she go to high school. One day she noticed that Mom had only one blouse that she washed every day. “Dorothy, I can’t fit into this blouse anymore and I’d hate to throw it away. Would you like it?” she said.
Mom was amazingly energetic and positive even into her 90s. But her health started to fail her; she had trouble with her heart. By the fall of 2011 I was growing worried about leaving her alone. On the evening of October 31, another Halloween, I was preparing to leave for London and Turkey. My team was already on board the airplane at Andrews waiting for me to arrive so we could take off. That’s when I got the call that Mom had been rushed to George Washington University Hospital. I quickly canceled the trip and sped there. Bill, Chelsea, and Marc rushed down from New York, and my brothers and their wives, Hugh and Maria and Tony and Megan, arrived as quickly as they could. Mom was a fighter her entire life, but it was finally time to let go. I sat by her bedside and held her hand one last time. No one had a bigger influence on my life or did more to shape the person I became.
When I lost my father in 1993, it felt too soon, and I was consumed with sadness for all the things he would not live to see and do. This was different. Mom lived a long and full life. This time I wept not for what she would miss but for how much I would miss her. I spent the next few days going through her things at home, paging through a book, staring at an old photograph, caressing a piece of beloved jewelry. I found myself sitting next to her empty chair in the breakfast nook and wishing more than anything that I could have one more conversation, one more hug.
We held a small memorial service at the house with close family and friends. We asked Reverend Bill Shillady, who married Chelsea and Marc, to officiate. Chelsea spoke movingly, as did many of Mom’s friends and our family. I read a few lines from the poet Mary Oliver, whose work Mom and I both adored.
Standing there with Bill and Chelsea by my side, I tried to say a final goodbye. I remembered a piece of wisdom that an older friend of mine shared in her later years that perfectly captured how my mother lived her life and how I hoped to live mine: “I have loved and been loved; all the rest is background music.”
I looked at Chelsea and thought about how proud Mom was of her. Mom measured her own life by how much she was able to help us and serve others. I knew if she was still with us, she would be urging us to do the same. Never rest on your laurels. Never quit. Never stop working to make the world a better place. That’s our unfinished business.
Please visit the official website of the book
Please visit the official website of the book