Eileen Rockefeller at her farm in Vermont. She credits her mother for her love of nature.Credit…Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times
Growing up Rockefeller is not all finger bowls and private islands in Maine, as Eileen Rockefeller writes in her new memoir, “Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself,” out this month from Blue Rider Press. (Reader, don’t be dismayed: there are those accouterments, too.) Ms. Rockefeller, the youngest of David and Peggy Rockefeller’s six children, and a great-granddaughter of John D., grew up between a town house in Manhattan, a farm in Tarrytown, N.Y., a house in St. Barts and another in Maine, and struggled with shyness and undiagnosed dyslexia. Yet the star of the memoir may be Ms. Rockefeller’s mother, Peggy, who battled depression and the exigencies of her role as a Rockefeller wife with an antic wit and a passion for rural life, both of which qualities she worked hard to instill in her children. After Peggy bought a 20-acre island in Maine for $300 from a lobsterman (private island alert), she and her three youngest children built a cabin there by themselves, along with an outhouse, stone wall and vegetable garden.
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The book did not come easily to Ms. Rockefeller, a philanthropist and co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, who said it took six years to write and three more to find a publisher, during which time she accrued 24 rejections. But she was moved to do so, she said, because “everyone comes from some family, and we all have the task of becoming ourselves. While material comforts are necessary, in the end I believe self worth is more important than net worth.”
Q. Of all those houses, the cabin you and your siblings built with your mother on Buckle Island seems to have had the most impact on you. What did the experience tell you about your mother, and what did it teach you?
A. It was only a place we went to stay a night or two. But it was a powerful place. My mother was trying to teach us the value of self-reliance, and through self-reliance one understands what it means to be normal. She wanted very much for us to work with our hands so we knew something of the handmade life. She felt that the handmade life and the life of the imagination were in combination with nature the greatest teachers of fundamental values.
Can you describe your home in New York City, and where is it, exactly?
My father still lives there, so let’s just say a double town house on the Upper East Side. There are four floors filled with museum-quality art, furnishings, china, rugs, you name it. The only place we could play ball was on the fourth floor, in a very narrow hallway. It’s not easy to roughhouse in a home that’s more like a museum. However I want to emphasize that despite the fact we couldn’t roughhouse, my mother made it the most cozy home. My mother would never hire decorators. She was an innate decorator. The second thing I wanted to say about how she helped us children deal with the constraints of fine art was that every single weekend without exception she insisted we were on the farm in the country. She taught us from the get-go that nature is the place to go to rebalance yourself, and caring for animals is what teaches empathy and compassion.
You now live on a working farm in Vermont with your husband, Paul Growald. Your mother, who died in 1996, must have been happy you were living a rural life.
She really appreciated the fact we had brought our sons to live there. The year she died was the year we moved full time from San Francisco, and began a five-month experiment in simple living. The children were 8 and 10, and we home-schooled them with the historical background of the 1840s, because that’s when our house was built, and because it was a great time for home crafts. I created lesson plans in the four basic areas of survival: food, shelter, clothing and community. The children helped us plant, weed and harvest our food. Then we made our own candles and used only candlelight or kerosene. We used no electricity. We cooked outside on a tripod because we didn’t have a wood stove. We boiled water and put it in a big harvest tub for their bathtub, which they would have in a mud room while I read them a book on Abraham Lincoln.
Didn’t they balk?
No, they seemed to love it. We made 19th-century patchwork pillows with 35 stitches to every inch. They carved their own yokes to carry water. There was a moment when our son, Adam, came running up to me. “Mommy, Mommy, I just thought of a metaphor.” He showed me how he had carved into the center of the wood, and seen how the heartwood is softer. He said, “I realized the deeper you go, the more heart you will find.” Danny, age 8, learned to blacksmith. He kept us thinking out of the box by doing such things as decorating cakes with string beans. It’s been a wonderful life. I did ask them later why they didn’t write about it for their college essays, and they said they didn’t think it was any different from any other summer.