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Mildred Robbins Leet: 1922 2011
February 23, 2012 - By Jane Marla Robbins
PHOTO COURTESY OF JANE MARLA ROBBINS
Millie Leet was an accomplished woman with a sense of humor.
Mildred Robbins Leet, mother of Topangan Jane Marla Robbins, passed away in New York on May 3, 2011.
Leet was an American entrepreneur and philanthropist who, among her many lifetime accomplishments, was co-founder in 1979 of Trickle Up, a New York-based international non-governmental organization that set up 200,000 businesses for the poorest of the poor in 98 countries.
She was a co-founder and Chair Emerita of the Board of Directors of Trickle Up, dedicated to alleviating poverty.
One of the founders of United Cerebral Palsy in 1948, Mrs. Leet became the first President of its Womens Division. From 1957 to 1964 she was the United Nations (UN) Representative for the National Council of Women of the USA and served as President of the Council from 1964 to 1968, emphasizing civil rights, international peacekeeping and organizing the first Womens Conference on National Service. From 1968 to 1970 she was Vice President of the International Council of Women and became an active member on the Womens Advisory Committee on Poverty in the US Office of Economic Opportunity. She founded the UN Hospitality Information Service, resulting in the creation of the New York City Commission for UN and Consular Corps. From 1968 to 1974 she participated in the development of the International Peace Academy.
Millie, as she was known, visited Topanga on a number of occasions. In one of her holiday letters she wrote, Jane allowed us to see a lot of things for which Topanga is famous including an earthquake.
Following is a daughters tribute to her mothers life.
My Mother Dies, I Wear Her Clothes
I go back to New York to help empty my mothers apartment. I live in LA. I had made it back to New York in time to be with her when she died. She was eighty-eight.
Her apartment is full of sixty-seven years of files, clothes, objects and memories. My first job is to clean out her closets. Seven. I need friends with me, or I seem paralyzed.
Here, this will fit you, Natalie says. Its a long, fitted, maroon jacket with a mandarin collar. I try it on. When I do, it feels like my mother is dancing with me, the perfect partner. I miss her. Her energy is in the jacket, my memories of her wearing it are in the jacket. I feel like Ive gone back forty years, to a time when she was actually wearing it. Were we shopping? At a museum? At a restaurant? I have no idea. But my body knows and is there with her, remembering. And I miss her.
I dont know if I should take the jacket. I know I want the memories.
Actually I want my mother. Back. The jacket is probably too big. Her shoulders were broader than mine; her style wasnt mine. I wear lighter colors and flowing shapes. She was always more grounded, a leader, a general. But I take it.
I imagine she says, You take your time with my clothes: its about honoring my body and my life. I touched them, I lived with them and through them. I spoke at the UN in that jacket. You werent there. Take the jacket.
I missed a lot of my mothers life, maybe because I was so obsessed with my work, maybe because she was so obsessed with hers. Plus for a long time I lived a continent away.
I imagine she also says, I wore the blue suit in Nigeria, setting up a business for five women who couldnt feed their children. Take the suit.
Her work, her actions, her personality, perseverance, strength, and hope are in the suit. They, I realize, are her real legacy to me, along with the fighting, caring spirit of this determined woman who also went to 87 other countries to help end world poverty, this woman who I realize now I barely knew.
All this, I understand, is my real inheritance and I must claim it.
It was easier for her to be warm and supportive to strangers than it was for her to be these things with me. She loved me in another way stricter, more critical, barely physical, often distant. I see now that it was the only way she knew, her way of saying, I love you, I want you to succeed, to be well, to live probably more than anybody else on earth. I put on her clothes to feel close to her, how I must have always wanted to feel.
I wonder if Im trying on her clothes the way a little girl tries on her mothers clothes, the way I never did when I was young, the way the prince tries on the kings hat, with all that innocence and longing, and a desperate desire to understand the meaning of the wardrobe.
But this isnt a childs dress-up game, its to feel her body one more time, even knowing it is gone. These clothes are empty shells, I know, barren cocoons. And yet.
And yet: I believe that somewhere her monarch spirit, with brightly colored wings, is taking flight. I leave New York with a suitcase full of her clothes. The rest have gone to Goodwill or Sloan Kettering. I leave behind the ones that really dont fit, that I really dont want, like the memories of old hurts now forgiven. I take the best and leave the rest.
The last few years of her life she had lost most of her short-term memory, and for the first time in my life she was saying to me, Im so glad you became an actress, because I got to live through you, and Im so proud of you; I love you so much.
Back in LA, my own car is still being repaired. I have to rent one. Im confused by how to start it. Its not the 2007 hybrid I bought just before she died. I panic, thinking I cant start the car, maybe thinking I cant restart my life without her.
The man renting the car shows me how to put my foot on the brake and hit a start button. Like Im an idiot. The truth is Im not all that smart right now. Im disoriented, distracted. Even when Im not consciously thinking about my mother, obviously I am.
When I was in New York and my dog was in a kennel in LA, when the kennel didnt answer one of my e-mails, I was sure the dog had died.
She was fine. Mothers death washes over everything.
Im not all there: I open a Kleenex box, pull out the cardboard top, and having just thrown the Kleenex I meant to use in a wastepaper basket, I blow my nose on the cardboard. Im having trouble focusing, even on ordinary things.
My mind is somewhere else with my mothers body, those last three days in the hospital, her eyes closed, her face with its patrician nose and high forehead like a Roman emperors, dignified, somehow at rest, even in the face of death. Maybe it was the morphine, maybe it was my mother: ready.
Im caught in a kind of trance of loss, and having lost my mother, Im losing other things: Did I leave my purse in that store? Wheres my wallet?
My identity. I have lost it. I am still my mothers daughter, but she isnt here to fight with, be different from, to know shell catch me if I fall.
I realize that wearing her clothes grounds me, brings me back to the real world, keeps me from not being in it, from being totally distracted and stupid. They remind me that I am thinking of her, which is real.
I go to a sushi bar. Im wearing my mothers blue and brown flowered shawl, the one I always loved. I introduce myself to the woman next to me and I feel my mothers strength in me, feel I have taken on her self-confidence, even the powerful energy for which she was famous. I sound intelligent, even self-promoting. Like my mother, I am transformed by a shawl, the way actors create characters by finding the right costume.
I look down at her shawl. Its hers. Shes here! Wait is she? Of course not. Im here. Not Mom. Me.
I talk to other people who have lost their parents, hear how they, too, wore their parents clothing after they died. They tell me that after a while they didnt need to wear them anymore. But Im not there yet. That time feels like an impossible time away, irrelevant, fantasy.
Still, I know I wont be able to wear them indefinitely, one day theyre bound simply to fall apart.
At home, I spend time hugging my dog, tight, much the way I held on to the cardboard box with my mothers ashes in New