On Friday I settled in to concentrate on my hand sewing with one eye and to watch Nancy Reagan’s funeral service with the other. My eyes, however, had other plans: they crinkled into a smile or two and filled with tears several times as my mind reflected on the well-worn era just past and the uncharted one before us.
The former First Lady was born a year after my father and two years before my mother, but Mr. and Mrs. Reagan belonged to social circles unknown to my parents: invitees to the service reflected the Hollywood, Washington, and California connections the former First Couple enjoyed. And yet the Reagans and the Scotts shared the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam – and the civility now fading from national politics.
The two couples were also similar in devotion to their marital partners. Much has been reported about the extraordinarily-loving relationship between Ronald and Nancy Reagan during their 52-year marriage. My parents did not write daily love notes nor did they often publically declare their love for one another during their 65 years together. But they counted on each other during an unshakeable lifetime commitment, just as the Reagans did.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney delivered a retrospective look at the Reagan marriage by sharing a Christmas letter from President Reagan to his First Lady, among others: “There are several much beloved women in my life and on Christmas, I should be giving them gold, precious stones, perfume, furs and lace. I know that even the best of these would still fall far short of expressing how much these several women mean to me…”
Following a loving enumeration of these “several women,” the President concluded: “Fortunately, all these women in my life are you … Browning asked: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ For me there is no way to count. I love the whole gang of you…” I was not sewing at that moment, as I smiled through my tears.
Former Reagan Chief of Staff James Baker also spoke to the relationship between the Reagans, one in which each played a role to support the other. Mrs. Reagan’s shrewd judge of character made it possible to differentiate among those “who were paddling their own canoe and who was loyal” so that the President could concentrate on Reaganomics and an end to the Cold War.
Mr. Baker also recounted their habits: the President wrote nightly notes to his wife when they were not together, notes she kept in a shopping bag; she reciprocated by tucking jelly beans into his suitcase and knitting socks for him to ward off her loneliness in his absence. Mr. Baker opined that St. Peter would probably deliver the news that the President’s wife had arrived to rejoin him: “A beautiful lady is…asking for you with a jar of jelly beans, a shopping bag full of letters, and a suitcase filled with hand-knitted socks.” Another cessation in sewing, more smiles, more tears…
Mr. Baker’s description of Ronald Reagan as a man who “loved his craft, his country, and his countrymen” gave me pause, as my mind turned toward today’s political scene. As appalled as I am by the vulgarity, the bullying, and the hate mongering of presidential candidates against fellow party members, I must wonder how often they even think about the “fellow Americans” they purport to be addressing on the stump or the debate stage.
Former news anchor Diane Sawyer summed up all that I find concerning, even alarming, as current politicians slug their way toward November: she described the First Lady as a tough to please and quick to blame, but Mrs. Reagan never “let her differences harden into definitions” with “all of us woven together in life” as we are. And I realized it is not only the candidates who are confusing an end to political correctness with the truth, a trend that is deepening the already-rampant polarization I fear threatens the foundations of our country.
Shock at the scenes of the political protests in Chicago later in the evening replaced the day’s sewing, smiles, and tears. Mercifully, the final prayer offered by Vicar Stuart Kenworthy managed to push the ugliness from my mind. Using poet John Donne’s words, Kenworthy, of the Washington National Cathedral, gave assurances that Nancy Reagan would “dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity…”
When a speaker on Friday urged invited guests to consider Mrs. Reagan’s funeral service a celebration of her life, I remembered the funeral of another First Lady. In the summer of 2007 I watched the memorial service in honor of Lady Bird Johnson.
As that service concluded, the blare of band music interrupted the recessional piece already in progress. Having quietly assembled behind the audience, the University of Texas Marching Band broke into the school song of Mrs. Johnson’s alma mater. Every person in attendance – priests included – jumped up, formed the Hook’em Horns gesture, and sang “The Eyes of Texas” with great spirit and verve. Now, that was a celebration!
Following a reflective Friday, I wish the Reagan family and my fellow countrymen the peace of “one equal light…one equal music…”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.