Barbara Bush is dead. It’s hard to believe. She was always sort of older, sort of elegant, sort of the perfect grandmother or mentor young people deserved. But she was in many ways so much more. She is the kind of woman women strive to be, even when they don’t know it barraged by Madison Avenue insecurity and Hallmark tropes of “good mothers.”
Barbara Bush is the last of a certain kind. A true lady. She understood graciousness in the moment made everyone more, just as she recognized love was the truest lubricant for life.
In a world of big weddings and catfight – or quickie – divorces, she maintained a worldclass romance with George H.W. Bush that swept seven decades, two different Presidential waves, raising children, striking out to settle in Texas with her husband, enjoying grand- and great grandchildren, and growing old. There was never a question of the love, nor the commitment to family; she did it the same way she drew breath, completely and without ever having to think about it.
Because a woman like Barbara Bush, you don’t need to think. You work from the heart, and the loving thing somehow seems to happen. It’s why when her husband was President and the news media would be raking him over the coals, everyone seemed to love the First Lady. He joked she was “the most popular woman in the world,” and wasn’t jokingly juxtaposing.
She was exactly the mother/friend/aunt/teacher/grandma you’d tell your problems. She would listen until you finished, nodding her head or making eye contact to make you feel less whatever was balling you up, then she’d think for a moment and offer some insight, some story about a similar experience, or perhaps just the affirmation, “I’m sure you’re going to figure this out” or “I know it’s going to be alright.”
You believed her, because you knew she knew things, done things. And had she. Not that she did showed out about it. But leaving her home in Rye, New York – and her college education at exclusive Smith College -- with a dashing pilot who became her life’s great partner to help him stake a claim in the Texas oil business would be a crazy notion for almost anyone in mid-20th century America. From her place in “society,” it was crazy. Yet that’s just what she did.
Mrs. Bush was strong, too. They didn’t call her “the Enforcer” for no reason. She raised three spirited boys, gave them security and a sense of chasing their own worlds to the edge of their dreams. When they got in trouble – as our second Bush President did – she stood with them, helped them pick up the pieces and hold their own families together.
Always without flinching. Usually in a Shetland wool cardigan, partially buttoned, hair just so. She was not glamorous like Jackie Kennedy, but she had that same sense of how one behaves: voice low, eyes direct, heart open to others (even if there were things you were never going to share).
They both loved literacy, the arts and encouraging others. They were both sphinxlike, and careful about what was revealed. Charm was once described to me as learning more about the other than you tell, making people smile and perhaps laugh while doing it, and always finding common ground in the process.
In a world of MILFs and hot wives, Barbara Bush was more and better. Solid. Genuine. Real. She was a matriarch, the kind of woman who is the cornerstone of big adventures, memories that matter and the steadying force for people chasing impossible things. Think about that: President. Twice. Not just her husband, but her son.
As much of a sacrifice as public life can be, she never shunned her duty, always showed up in her gown at state dinners, looking every bit the empress she actually was. But to see her extended hand, whether a dignitary, a veteran, or a child, there was never a sense of who she was. That same electric common touch that erased differences Princess Di had, only Barbara Bush was no young beauty with small children. No, she was a grown woman who’d seen life, progress, disappointment – and she wore it all with a stunning peacefulness.
In a world of faster, harder, more, First Lady Bush represented the swan as mother, then grandmother. Unruffled, welcoming, she was as adept with school children as families stricken, world leaders, the kind of good ole boys who were part of her life in Texas and the old family coziness that existed in places like the Bush family’s Kennebunkport, Maine stronghold.
It’s a gift: that ability to meet people where they live, to understand how to entertain with comfort over flash, to create environments that’re inviting and understated, yet somehow stylish. Like Lilly Pulitzer, Barbara Bush understood the pleasures of family, friends, lots of children running through, dogs of all sizes and a home filled with laughter; more than titles, the privileges, it was about a sanctuary for the people she loved.
And like Lilly, love was a big part of it. Love, from that giving, unconditional place that seems rare in a world of Tinder, hooking up, friends with benefits, me-mine and the absence of loyalty in the pursuit of one’s place in the world. The smile with the crinkles at the edge of her eyes said everything about who she was, how she saw the world and what she left in her wake.
I am lucky enough to have grown up in a matriarchal world where women like Barbara Bush existed. From my own grandmothers, who were so different except for their fierce love for the people in their lives; Helen Walker, who came in twice a week to help out and make sure I knew I was loved; Jeannie in the locker room who watched over me like a hawk, even picking the black suit for my mother’s funeral saying, with a note that said, “She’d prefer the Velvet”; Sue Whiting and Ann Upchurch of the Women’s Western Golf Association who marshaled so many young girls traveling without parents into college golf and life; my best friend Kathie’s mother who used to sneak cigarettes behind their store, and wink at me not to tell the girls; Joyce Reingold, who gave me my first job straight out of college and remained a friend throughout my journey through life; Marybelle Matousek, who insisted I play in women’s tournaments when I was a child, taking up for me when the notion of ability to win became a problem.
Grand dames without airs, they were a special breed. Long on poise, short on tolerance for pettiness, they ruled their worlds without so much as wrinkling their brow. Occassionally, arching one, but never losing their temper. Or if they did…
My father, a golf historian, was quite taken with Barbara Bush. Having the opportunity to interview the President – “Did you know his W is for Walker, as in the Walker Cup?” he would always ask – it was the former First Lady who truly tickled his fancy. “She reminds me so much of the ladies back home, and there is so much love coming from her. It’s just fantastic.”
I didn’t hear the news that Mrs. Bush had passed when it broke. I was in my last lecture class for the semester, teaching music criticism to college juniors and seniors waiting for the year to be over. A beautiful day, they were enthused about everything, including the machinations of what makes a great feature.
Encouraging them to get off the straight boilerplate of facts, to try to summarize those things and get to the essence of the subject quickly, I offered, “What things mean, how they fit in the world around them, that’s where the good stuff is. Show me who this artist is, why she matters…”
Then I got in the car, trees just succumbing to the pressures of buds wanting to open. It was sunny, and beautiful, and a perfect temperature. Like I always do, I called my best friend Kathie, and said, “What’s going on?”
Kathie Oh! started talking about Barbara Bush, telling all these stories, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew she was sick, that she’d opted to not seek further treatment the day before. But, surely, she wasn’t gone this soon?
“No, she died,” Kathie said. “She’s gone.”
We both fell silent. “Another gone,” I finally said.
“Yeah, it’s like the end of an era. Those kind of women are dying out.”
We were both quiet again. Then Kathie picked up what she’d been saying before I’d asked. “You know the thing I loved best about her? We have a friend who knows them, and they’d had lunch with the President not long ago. Our friend asked about doing something, and George Bush said, ‘No, I have to be getting back. After all these years, you know how much Barbara still loves holding my hand.”
After all these years, she still loved holding his hand.
Simple stuff. Truly. Basic. Profound. In a world where Kardashians get Ferraris for giving birth, all Barbara Bush wanted was to hold the love of her life’s hand.
May we all be so blessed with that kind of love. Barbara Bush would’ve wanted that for all of us, I’m sure. And in the not so distant future, who knows? She will, no doubt, be holding her beloved’s hand all over again. Loves that endure beyond the ages must also transcend our mortal coil.