In September of 2014, I had one of the most magical moments of my life.
I am a governor of The Ditchley Foundation and it is a great honour for me. It is a very well-respected institution that holds conferences with many leading academics, politicians, and policy experts from around the world — the people who help shape policy on the major international issues of the day.
There are about a dozen conferences a year and they are usually held in the beautiful Ditchley English manor that dates back to 1722. It has a wonderful history and Sir Winston Churchill paid many visits during the Second World War.
Once a year, the Ditchley Foundation holds a conference in either America or Canada. The September 2014 meeting of Ditchley was to be held at Greentree in New York. The topic, “The Global Role of the United States,” was of great interest to me and as Greentree was in Manhasset, very near where I’d grown up, I planned to visit my mother on the Sunday after it ended.
When I received the directions, I was enormously surprised to find that the address was right next to North Shore Hospital. It was a place my mother had sadly found herself quite frequently in the previous months.
We followed the directions and it was the most amazing experience. As we drew up the long driveway off the main road on which I had driven so many times in the past, a late 1900s home appeared. It was beautiful and had clearly been a horse farm at one time.
It turned out that this was Greentree – now a very little-known conference centre on the grounds of the Whitney Estate. I had always known the Whitney Estate was somewhere near my childhood home, but I’d never visited it. The heirs of Jock Whitney had donated Greentree to be used for conferences of the UN or other World Peace organisations, like Ditchley. It was literally 10 minutes from my mother’s apartment and I had never known it existed.
I was one of the earliest to arrive on Friday afternoon and happily walked into the house. A lovely lady manager took me up a nearby staircase into a very pretty but none too imposing bedroom (at least compared to those at English country houses). As I told her how pretty it was, she informed me that this was Mrs. Whitney’s bedroom and pointed out its bathroom, which had a door to Mr. Whitney’s bedroom as well as an ornate bath. She said she hoped that I would be comfortable and then left me to contemplate what had just happened. I felt a bit dazed with delight. All I could think of was that this beautiful house and beautiful bedroom were just fifteen minutes from where I grew up and ten minutes from where my mother lived now. Still, it was a million miles away from any reality I had ever known as a child.
I was so struck by the irony of it all. Here I was – little me – from the suburb down the road, which I always disliked and now never discuss.
There were many other people attending this conference. Many of them were more senior or more well known than I was, yet the organisers had chosen to give me this very special room. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I really wanted to tell someone who would understand. Sadly, however, my mother was living with dementia and was therefore incapable of understanding. Even if she were her old self, she probably wouldn’t have understood what it meant to me. Although she taught me to be a lawyer, she was still a generation behind where we are today. I always urge mothers to teach their girls that it’s not enough to want to be a doctor — you should want to be the chief medical officer. Don’t aspire to the Senate, aspire to the Presidency. Teach your daughters that whatever they do, they should want to be the boss.
Anyway, I did call my son – who kind of got it – but not really. The only person who could really understand the unreality of the situation was my husband Allen – so I called him – and left a message on his mobile phone.
I always said that Allen was the only person I ever knew who really “got it”. We were on the same wavelength so much of the time, and he understood my insecurities and fears as well as my hopes, dreams and ambitions because he shared many of them with me.
After a while, he returned the call and I told him about where I was staying and how amazing it was. This was his response:
“A few miles and 100 years away. She is a person of the past, you are a person succeeding in the present by your own hard work. Be proud of what you have accomplished, a successful modern woman in a tough new world. You earned that stay by being smart, determined and focused. She just married the right man.”
Well, there you have it – me – Little Barbara – in Mrs. Whitney’s bedroom, a house to which I would never have been invited when I was younger, but where I evidently was completely welcome now.
I was so struck by the whole experience that it still lingers in my memory as one of the highs of recent years. To me, it was one of those all-too-rare moments when you get to step back from your life and appreciate all you’ve done and seen.
Oh yes – and the lesson; it’s not obvious but I guess it is, “Never give up your dreams and ambitions. Each one is a future miracle in the making.”