Following the passing of Barbara Bush, cable news outlets reminded us of the life and times of the former First Lady. I reached back for my own recollections, remembering the woman with pearls and snow-white hair, who carried herself with poise and confidence. Forthright and opinionated, she did not seek nor revel in controversy. I most enjoyed her well-placed sense of humor, by turns ironic and sharp and self-deprecating.
TV retrospectives chronicled her husband’s long and storied career in the military and politics. In all 29 homes in the 17 cities where they lived, Mrs. Bush was the rock of her sprawling family, the glue that held them together, the heart that partnered with her husband to nurture their children toward productive lives of their own.
Admittedly, I have brought Barbara Bush to mind only occasionally in recent years, usually prompted by photos of Mr. and Mrs. Bush in Kennebunkport, surrounded by an ever-increasing crew of grands and great-grands. Gradually it became difficult to see the devoted couple depending on wheelchairs and walkers – mirroring my own parents, who were also members of the Greatest Generation.
Although it came as no surprise that Mrs. Bush decided to forego continued treatment of her medical conditions, I was saddened by the news of her death. On Saturday I tuned in to the coverage of her funeral.
The ceremony’s setting was what I expected for such a well-known figure. With its soaring Gothic arches, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, the family’s home church for many years, resembled the many European cathedrals I visited on my travels. With 1500 invited guests – including four former Presidents and four First Ladies – I anticipated a service both traditional and formal.
What appeared on my television screen, however, was a down-to-earth celebration of a down-to-earth lady, just what Barbara Bush would have insisted upon. A bevy of granddaughters read scripture passages, while grandsons attended her coffin as pallbearers. Rather than a roster of famous dignitaries offering lofty praise of Mrs. Bush, her husband’s biographer, one of her sons, a close friend, and the rector of the church shared personal reminisces that captured the essence of Barbara Pierce Bush, recollections I have added to my mind’s scrapbook.
I will remember presidential historian Jon Meacham’s description of Mrs. Bush as the First Lady of the Greatest Generation. He spoke of her willingness to have adventures and her honesty with everyone, including herself. Hearty laughter erupted when he reminded the congregation that George Bush was the first and only man Barbara Bush ever kissed – and that their children wanted to throw up whenever they heard that story.
I will remember that her friend Susan Garrett Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James Baker, shared that Mrs. Bush was pen pals with lots of people she had never met and that her “yardstick of success” was always how one treated others.
I will remember that son Jeb spoke of his mother sweetly and irreverently when he recalled the “benevolent dictatorship” under which he and siblings lived, a dictatorship not always particularly benevolent – to which the family reacted with laughter. He also recounted lovingly and reverently that his mother taught them all “how to live a life of purpose and meaning” – to which the family nodded in agreement. I could not help but compare this family’s regard for its matriarch with my own family’s feelings about our mother. The Bush kids and the Scott kids affectionately and incessantly teased their mothers – all the while enduringly and fiercely respecting the ladies who had meant everything to them for so many years.
I will remember that her friend and minister, Reverend Russell Levenson, singled out Mrs. Bush’s advice about humility: Don’t get caught up in the big ME. And he explained that Barbara Bush’s life was not one of lines drawn to exclude; hers, rather, was a life of circles meant to include.
Two special moments from last weekend brought me to tears. One speaker related an incident when Barbara Bush quietly demonstrated her character and her dedication to the cause of universal literacy. Mrs. Bush crossed paths with 63-year-old J.T. Pace, the son of a former sharecropper. Mr. Pace had recently learned to read and was invited to read the Preamble to the Constitution at a televised literacy event where Mrs. Bush would also appear. Belatedly, Mr. Pace hesitated when he discovered a few words he could not read. Mrs. Bush suggested they read together; and as they began, her voice rang out strongly while Mr. Pace stumbled. As they continued, Mrs. Bush read ever more quietly with Mr. Pace gaining confidence. He finished alone – with tears in his eyes and pride in his heart.
I also cried each time I saw the editorial cartoon by Marshall Ramsey, in which he drew Mrs. Bush arriving in heaven, arms outstretched, to reunite with her tiny daughter Robin. It was the perfect tribute to this woman who was above all a wife and mother, a depiction that tugged at the hearts of many.
Although she would have turned aside the praise heaped upon her last weekend, I must agree that Barbara Bush lived a “long and consequential life.” I can only hope that we all decide to aspire to her level of personal effort and sense of service for the sake of our country and our world.