The Nelsons & the Rockefellers by Lisa Peterson

 

His century-old skin felt like velvet as I took David Rockefeller’s hand. He looked up at me from his chair in the church’s fellowship hall, his blue eyes sparkling as I stood before him. I leaned down so he could hear me speak.

 

“On behalf of the Nelson family, I wish you a happy 100th birthday,” I said.

 

“Thank you,” came the soft reply.

 

David Rockefeller would turn 100 in just five days, on June 12, 2015. To celebrate, Union Church held a piano recital for its oldest, most famous benefactor and member. A renowned Carnegie Hall concert pianist came to play new works dedicated to the stained-glass church windows created by the artist Marc Chagall. Just like David, the was church was turning 100 years old. As a third-generation church-goer, I was invited to the celebration.

 

When I arrived in the hamlet of Pocantico Hills, New York, on that sunny Sunday afternoon, familiar memories met me inside the church’s highly varnished wooden door. As I walked into the sanctuary, built in 1922 by David’s father and grandfather, I saw the brass and wood plaque I had had made in my grandfather’s memory, listing all the pastors who had served.

 

My grandfather first attended Sunday school there in 1910, and 50 years later, his wife, my grandmother, would serve on the Board of Trustees with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. When I was christened here, I was surrounded by Rockefellers: David, and his wife, his brother Laurence and his wife, and Jay Rockefeller.

 

My early religious upbringing was formed in the non-denominational “Rockefeller church.” It was a nice place to learn about God. Before the age of eight, I went to Sunday school there and enjoyed Easter egg hunts. I remember a Sunday when my Dad was an usher in church, and I drew him a picture of the green and gold stained glass Matisse Rose window, planning to drop it into the collection plate. But when he ended up on the other side of the aisle, I burst out crying.  Decades later, I fought back tears among the pretty windows as I gave my grandmother’s eulogy.

 

Today, a Steinway grand piano was rolled in on a red carpet just for the recital. As the pianist played beneath the Rose window, the space came alive with bold notes and soft interludes. Located above the alter, installed years before the Chagall windows, the Matisse was commissioned by and later dedicated to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, David’s mother. It was Matisse’s last work before his death.

 

When the wind picked up it jostled the trees just outside the stone chapel, and the moving trees made their shadows dance across the Rose window in a rippling wave. A dazzling light show, made by nature and man, of stained glass, trees, and wind. A perfect visual accompaniment to the music.

 

After the concert, we headed into the fellowship hall for the birthday celebration. There were three wooden chairs with pale yellow upholstered seats, arranged in a row on a square burgundy rug in front of the stage with its drawn burgundy velvet curtains, like a royal backdrop. David sat in the middle seat, as if on a throne.

 

At least 100 guests held champagne glasses, clinking a toast to the centenarian. Standing tall on a table before the honoree was a Wedgewood blue, three-tired, pyramid-shaped cake. It reminded me of the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. How fitting for a banker! The cake also reflected the art deco architecture of Rockefeller Center. It was adorned with silver swirls and lettering stating the obvious: David Rockefeller. After biting into the hard fondant outer shell, a soft burst of vanilla, almonds, and fresh raspberries filled my mouth.

 

After the toast, we all moved towards David for a quick chat. When my turn came, I explained to him that many members of my family — the Nelsons — had worked for many members of his family during the last century. My grandfather, grandmother, and father had served as a chauffeur, dressmaker, and flight mechanic. Most notably, however, was my grand uncle, the first caretaker of David’s Hudson Pines estate, just down the road from the church, where he would die at the age of 101.

 

I wish my grandmother could have been at this celebration, not just to see the cake baked by her mentee, but to feel a family bond with the Rockefellers. The best I could do was proudly wear the gold Swiss brooch that she had worn to church almost every Sunday for more than 50 years. When I was done listing all the Nelson/Rockefeller connections, David grinned and said, “Well then, I guess we are indirectly related!” We both chuckled and raised our champagne flutes.

 

Lisa Peterson — a lifelong equestrian, dog show judge, and fourth-generation estate dweller born in Sleepy Hollow — writes about horses, hounds, and history at LisaUnleashed.com. Lisa lives with her husband and two Norwegian Elkhounds in Newtown, Connecticut, where she is a weekly newspaper columnist and writing a book about the mysterious disappearance of Regina Brown. 

Pictured: David Rockefeller at 100 with the author.