Sister Devamata's (Laura Glenn) description of Sara Ellen Waldo (Prabuddha Bharata, April & May 1932)
Those who attended Swami Vivekananda's classes and lectures in New York soon grew familiar with a tall, very portly figure who moved about doing everything. We learnt before long that it was Miss Ellen Waldo, a distant connection of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a person of wide philosophic and general culture. The Swami had given her the Sanskrit name "Haridasi". and it was well chosen. She was truly a "Servant of the Lord" — her service was continuous and untiring. She cooked, edited, cleaned and took dictation, taught and managed, read proof and saw visitors.
When Swami Vivekananda came to New York , he encountered a strong racial prejudice, which created many hardships for him both in his public and in his private life. Among other things it was extremely difficult for him to secure a proper lodging. Landladies invariably assured him that they had no feeling themselves, but they were afraid they would lose their boarders or lodgers if they took an Asiatic into the house. This forced the Swami to accept inferior living quarters. Neither environment nor association was what he should have had. One day, after he had been overnight in one of these dingy lodgings, he said to Miss Waldo: "The food here seems so unclean, would it be possible for you to cook for me?" She went at once to the landlady and obtained permission to use the kitchen. Then from her own store she gathered together cooking utensils and groceries. These she carried with her on the following morning.
She lived at the far end of Brooklyn . The only means of transportation was a jogging horse-car, and it required two hours to reach the Swami's lodging at 38th Street in New York . Undaunted, every morning found her on her way at eight o'clock or earlier; and at nine or ten at night she was on her way home again. When there came a free day, the Journey was reversed. It was Swamiji who took the jogging horse-car, travelled the two hours and cooked the meals. He found genuine rest and relaxation in the freedom and quiet of Miss Waldo's simple home. The kitchen was on the top floor of the house, in front of it the dining-room full of sunshine and potted plants. As the Swami invented new dishes or tried experiments with Western provisions, he ran back and forth from one room to the other tike a child at play.
"In all this close association with Swamiji," Miss Waldo said to me later, "it seems strange that the idea of renunciation never once occurred to me. Nor did I ever think seriously of following him to India . I seemed to belong in America . Yet there-was nothing I would not have done for him. When he first came to New York , he insisted on wearing his orange robe everywhere. It required no little courage to walk up Broadway beside that flaming coat. As the Swami strode along in lordly indifference, with me just behind, half out of breath trying to keep up with him, every eye was turned upon us, and on every lip was the question: "What are they?' Later I persuaded him to adopt more subdued clothing for the street."
One morning the Swami found Miss Waldo in tears, "What is the matter, Ellen?" he asked anxiously. "Has anything happened?" "I seem unable to please you", she replied. "Even when others annoy you, you scold me for it," The Swami said quickly. "I do not know those people well enough to scold them. I cannot rebuke them, so I come to you. Whom can I scold if I cannot scold my own?" Her tears dried at once, and after that she sought scoldings; they were a proof of nearness.
Miss Waldo herself told me of this experience as her own. Romain Rolland tells it of another disciple. Both can be true. The incident could easily repeat itself.
Miss Waldo had had wide experience in teachers. She had sat at the feet of many during her long pursuit of truth, but sooner or later they had all fallen short in some way. Now the fear was in her heart that this new Hindu Swami might prove wanting. She was always watching for a sign of weakness. It came. She and the Swami were together in a New York drawing-room. The New York Swami Vivekananda knew was very different from the New York of today. The streets then were lined with monotonous blocks of brown stone houses, one so completely like very other that a visiting artist of note once asked: "How do you know when you are at home? You could as well be in the house next door."
Each of these narrow, but deep houses held on the first floor a long narrow drawing-room, with high folding-doors at one end, two large windows at the other, and between them a mirror reaching from floor to ceiling. This mirror seemed to fascinate the Swami. He stood before it again and again, gazing at himself intently. In between he walked up and down the room, lost in thought. Miss Waldo's eyes followed him anxiously. "Now the bubble is going to burst", she thought. "He is full of personal vanity." Suddenly he turned to her and said: "Ellen, it is the strangest thing, I cannot remember how I look. I look and look at myself in the glass, but the moment I ' turn away I forget completely what I look like."
It was during this first visit to America that the Swami's Raja-Yoga took form. The greater part was dictated to Miss Waldo. She look it down in long hand. Those cherished hours of work on it were specially happy ones for her. She often spoke of them. Each day when the Swami's meal had been prepared and her tasks in the kitchen were done, she would come up to the back parlour where Swamiji lodged; take her seat at a table, on which stood an open ink-well; and dip her pen in the ink. From that moment until the work was laid aside for the day, her pen was kept wet, to catch the first rush of words that fell periodically from the Swami's lips. Sometimes in seeking for an English equivalent for the Sanskrit word in an aphorism, he would sit in concentrated silence for fifteen or twenty minutes — but the pen was not allowed to dry. The burst of dictation might come at any instant.
When the manuscript was completed, it was entrusted to Miss Waldo to put into print, but many distresses and heartaches lay in wait for her before publication was accomplished. Another devoted follower of the Swami borrowed the manuscript, carried it to London , and brought it out there, believing it was to the Swami's advantage to have it appear in England . For the time this blocked the American edition, and it was only possible to have an American edition by adding the glossary and other matter.
- Sister Devmata (Prabuddha Bharata, April & May 1932)
Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda by S.E. Waldo
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.