I lost one of my role models this week – Barbara Pierce Bush, the 41stFirst Lady of the United States. To her beloved husband of 73 years, George, Sr., she was simply known as ‘Bar.’
Yes, she could probably best be described as matronly, what with a thick waist, off-the-rack clothes, and sensible shoes. And yet, in my book, she was gorgeous–absolutely beautiful–with a beauty that far exceeds our traditional beauty standards.
I’m certainly not blind to the stunning beauty of Melania–how could anyone be? After all, she truly is the literal embodiment of physical perfection—the sculpted cheekbones, the piercing eyes, full, flowing hair, nipped waist, and the legs—oh, the legs—that go on forever! I can’t, for one moment, begin to imagine what it’s like to wake up each morning and see such perfection staring back at me from the mirror.
But it’s the deep, rich, hard-won beauty of Mrs. Bush that shines brighter to me.
Much brighter. And more meaningful.
Mrs. Bush had beauty far beyond what any Hollywood makeup artist could render. Her wrinkles were deep set and had been earned, line by line, from 92 years of strong, solid living. And her sturdy frame and generous waistline was probably the result of many, many thoroughly enjoyed family meals that were undoubtedly heavier on the Texas barbeque than the quinoa and kale.
Mrs. Bush was known for calling it like she saw it; to do otherwise was a waste of time in her opinion. Her authenticity only enhanced her beauty.
By the time she moved into the White House in 1989, she had already lived a full and, sometimes very difficult, life. She suffered the greatest loss any parent can ever endure—the loss of her beloved Robin to leukemia at 3-years-old. Eighty-something years later, in an interview with Barbara Walters, she still teared up at the mention of her first daughter, simply saying what we all know to be true, “You just never get over it.”
She moved her family and household more than a dozen times while her husband chased the booming oil business of the fifties and sixties in Texas and afterwards when he began pursuing a political career. She undoubtedly had a fair amount of disposable income that made some of these transitions easier, but this was also during a time when the women of the families oversaw everything—everything short of a career of their own or personal fulfillment. I’m sure she had ‘help’ in terms of housekeeping, maybe even meal prep, but she also had a house full of 6, and then 5, rowdy children that spanned 13 years in range.
All the help or money in the world doesn’t go too far when you’ve got to tell your 3rdgrader who just made the all-star team that you’re moving again before the season even starts.
Or when all your kids have to face another ‘first day’ of school in November or March, long after playground alliances have been formed or cheerleader tryouts have been held.
And whatever privilege her children might have enjoyed growing up also came with weighty expectations, chief among them was service to others and their country. Giving back was part and parcel in the Bush household. And, as any well-intentioned parent knows to do, she walked the talk, modeling the behavior to set the example.
Decades before she became First Lady and was expected to have a show piece cause to champion on the national stage, volunteering and serving those in need was already a significant part of her life. It was simply who she was.
Once she became more well known as George #41 began rising in political prominence, she worked the political circuit like a pro because she was a pro—a pro at being who she genuinely was and not some coiffed-up, made-over version of herself. She didn’t suffer fools who tried to change her into their image of what a politician’s wife, and eventual first lady, should be and do and look like.
She wore her crown of all white hair as a badge of honor as if to say, “I’ve earned this. Now, get over it!” She knew her style and she worked it. She singlehandedly made the classic three-strand pearl necklace the must-have accessory of the 80s. And her first words when addressing a convention hall of cheering fans, “See this white hair…” endeared her to every woman who had yet to grace the cover of Vogue.
Her deep, deep love of her expansive family, now encompassing four generations, was legendary. She was known as ‘The Enforcer’ by her children, as a playful throwback reference to her ‘tow the line’ ways when they were younger. To her many grandchildren, she answered to ‘Ganny’ or ‘Gans’ and went to great lengths to intentionally invest in each of them the values she held close.
Beyond the loss of her daughter, I especially admired her endurance for the harsh, harsh criticism of first, her husband, and then her son, as they each took the oath of office for the presidency. You know how it is—you can call me anything, but say that about my husband, or worse, my kid, and you’ll see fire in my eyes. I would have wanted to wring the neck of every political pundit or analyst who presented just their side of the story without having all the facts—like access to the top intelligence inside the Oval Office. The slanderous and hateful comments and characterizations would have broken a lesser woman.
Media reports say she was her trademark feisty self up until the end. The recent announcement to end further medical treatment beyond comfort care was a gift, both to her family and the nation, providing us all with a bit of notice to begin processing and accepting her imminent passing. It was classic Mrs. Bush—concern for others above herself as a final act.
Thank you, Mrs. Bush for being an example worthy of following. Thank you for the testimony of your long, long marriage, your extraordinary commitment to family, and your charge to love people as they are, not how we wish them to be. You were a matriarch in every sense of the word—loving large, leading well, and placing others before self.
You were a true beauty until the end.