Barbara Bush’s passing this past week at age 92 brought back such bittersweet memories for me. Barbara was an amazing lady in her own right as a President’s wife and another President’s mother, but she was also a warm and approachable human, separate from those historic roles – strong and resilient but with no condescending air about her. She was genuine, someone you just couldn’t help but respect and like.
Barbara was the consummate lady and this world is a poorer place without her. As I wrote this article, Houston, and this nation buried Barbara, but I am remembering a happier time.
I’m sure Barbara’s family grieved at her funeral, but what a legacy she left with such an incredible life to celebrate. I have but one personal memory of Barbara, but my mother, also named Barbara, had more.
I think the year was 1988. I have pictures buried someplace that would reveal the exact year, but those kinds of details have blurred into a comfortable memory with only important details that stand out.
I was attending the opening of a fiber art exhibit at the beautifully restored historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, where the headquarters of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America (EGA) was located.
One of my fiber art pieces had won an award of distinction, and I was to be presented with that and two additional awards at the banquet accompanying the opening of the exhibit.
While you may not be impressed today, hearing about my artistic achievement 30 years ago, in the EGA world, any ONE of those three awards was quite coveted, and three at the same time was unheard of. Not only that, but I was especially proud, because let’s just say that I was working in a very untraditional way in a very conservative environment, for which I had been soundly criticized. Simply having my work in that exhibit represented vindication and acceptance, along with the dawning of embroidery as a valid contemporary fiber art form.
No one in my immediate family, other than my mother, noticed with any more than a yawn, even when my pieces graced the covers of magazines. Translated, I didn’t have anyone to go with me to the black-tie gala awards dinner – so I asked the one person on earth who was even more impressed than I was.
My mother, of course. Who else!
The Art Gallery Exhibit
Mother and I had been planning for weeks. What would we wear? How many outfits do we each need? What color? Do we need to change clothes between the afternoon and evening events? What kind of makeup? Hair – what about hair?
I think I purchased at least three outfits and took all three along so that I could change my mind if need be, or, God forbid, I spilled something. OK, spilled two somethings. I should be safe with three outfits, right?
No, I wasn’t the least bit nervous – whatever gave you that idea?
Of course, in my professional life, I had managed to obtain two graduate degrees, work in a think tank, then for a highly respected computer company in research, then start a business – none of which made me even half as nervous as this exhibit, reception and dinner. I don’t exactly know why, but perhaps because I was way outside of my comfort zone, having exactly zero training in art.
My mother wasn’t nearly as impressed with my various degrees and the many years of hard work as she was about my EGA awards. I laugh today remembering the dichotomy.
I can’t help but wonder if there is a “artist” gene someplace, because my great-grandmother exhibited her quilt in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, representing the State of Indiana.
My mother won her own fair share of awards and ribbons over the years as well, so the women in our family were no strangers to some level of textile-related success.
Mom and I arrived at the elegant Brown Hotel early, with several hours to change clothes, apply makeup and then repeat the process over and over until mother determined we were appropriately coiffed and could make our appearance.
I remember laughing and thinking that she was enjoying this way more than I was – and I was so very glad I could offer her this opportunity. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in more than one way.
We had been told that there were several dignitaries invited, including the Governor of Kentucky, several other politicians and benefactors of the EGA which was a nonprofit organization. I lived in another state, Mom was from Indiana and politicians didn’t impress me in the first place. I didn’t even know the names of any politicians from Kentucky, so I was rather disinterested, figuring they were somewhat of a necessary evil. Kentucky’s horses interested me a lot more than politicians. Had they managed to arrange for Secretariat to attend, THAT would have impressed me.
I was glad dignitaries were attending though, and wanted to make a good impression, because I wanted the EGA to be well funded. I cared a great deal about continuing the educational and other outreach services – not to mention that lovely building that housed the EGA offices and gallery for the exhibit.
I wasn’t surprised to find that there were several areas roped off at the hotel.
That wasn’t uncommon during this type of event, but the level of restrictive security did seem a bit over the top.
We were told where to be at what time, with ID. Mother began fussing all over again because her small purse wasn’t large enough for her billfold with her ID. I suggested that she simply tuck her ID in her bra. Mother, the consummate lady, was utterly mortified.
At the appointed time and place, we waited in line and were checked off of a list of pre-approved attendees, with our pre-approved one permitted guest, and ushered into the gallery. We seemed to be restricted to a relatively small area and there was an awful lot of “protocol” in terms of where we could and could not go and what we could and could not do.
I noticed a small display case very prominently positioned with two dolls and several certificates. Curious, given that traditional dolls were not generally part of an embroidery or fiber art exhibit, I wanted to take a closer look. Obviously they were remarkable for some reason! This case was not positioned inside the exhibit, but in a location near the entrance behind the security barrier.
The dolls, which were clearly handmade, including their clothes, were similar in style to Raggety Ann and Andy dolls, and according to the display, had been donated by Barbara Bush. I remember thinking that I never knew that Barbara Bush did handwork and how kind it was to donate her handmade dolls to the EGA. I wondered if she was a member.
I wish I had taken a picture, but cell phones hadn’t even been invented yet and I certainly wasn’t sporting a camera in my tiny “formal” purse that mother insisted that I carry with nothing but my ID, lipstick and the ever-Mother-required Kleenex and dime to make a phone call in an emergency tucked inside. Besides that, cameras were prohibited inside the exhibit.
Visitors were not to be admitted until a specific time, and the line was forming outside the building. I was amazed and somewhat baffled at the number of people who were obviously waiting to attend this event.
A few minutes later, after we were all positioned at our stations beside our respective artworks, a few people who obviously weren’t embroiderers arrived and were being given a VIP tour of the exhibit by EGA officials. Mostly men with an entourage, they seemed cordial and mildly interested. A few paused by various pieces and one or two asked polite questions of the artists. Little did I know at the time, but my then-unknown half-brother was very probably among them – a fact that I desperately wish I had known at the time. I have no recollection of Lee, if he attended the event. Given his philanthropic work and involvement in Louisville social circles at the time, and the political nature of the opening event, I would be surprised if he wasn’t in attendance.
The gallery area was fairly large, resembling a museum with different rooms.
Following the VIP tour, other people began to flow into the gallery. I got the distinct impression that there were VIPs remaining in some areas, because visitors seemed to be clustered in groups around people in the middle of rooms, not around art pieces hung on the walls and the respective artists. The thought popped into my mind that maybe those lines of people weren’t there to see our art, but to meet the VIPs. We really couldn’t see well enough to tell. I was near the back and the artists in that room were hoping that attendees would eventually find their way to where the winning pieces were hung at the rear of the exhibit. Same trick as putting milk at the rear of the grocery – you have to walk through everything else to get there.
We were all more than happy to chat with anyone who showed even mild interest in our work. Believe me, no one wanted to be “that person” who no one talked to, so we nervously awaited interested patrons, concerned that there would be none – that we would stand there feeling miserable and looking painfully uncomfortable for the entire reception.
As people gradually began to filter into our area, the room soon became crowded and much to our collective relief, there were lots of people. Many seemed to be genuinely interested – or maybe that’s just how we wanted to perceive them.
Rather than time dragging by as it had earlier, it flew by until I realized that I had not seen my mother in quite some time.
Eventually, I began to get worried. Mom wasn’t elderly, but she also wasn’t a spring chicken and it wasn’t like her to be entirely AWOL for so long. The last time I saw her, she was having a lively discussion and obviously enjoying herself.
Where the heck was she?
I excused myself from the crush of people and made my way through the gallery.
I stepped outside the exhibit area, looking in the restrooms and up and down that hallway.
I wondered if she had gone back to the hotel room, which I would have found even more worrisome, since she was so looking forward to the open house. Something would have to have been very wrong – and she likely wouldn’t have told me because she would not have wanted to interfere with my enjoyment of the moment at hand.
I couldn’t check, because Mom had the one and only hotel room key in her purse. I was just getting ready to go to the front desk of the hotel and ask them to let me into the room, when I noticed a large room across the hallway and slightly down the hall from the exhibit. That room, furnished as a parlor, was roped off and looked entirely vacant, but I decided to check it out anyway.
I couldn’t help but think of the board game, Clue, that mother and I used to play on the kitchen table in the old farmhouse at home. I was extremely irritated with myself for thinking that the butler did it with the candlestick in the parlor. Who even had parlors anymore?
There were men in suits standing near the doorway, looking entirely disinterested, so I began to unhook the rope barrier to go inside the parlor to check to see if for some strange reason, mother was there.
Suddenly, the men descended on me. They respectfully but firmly told me that I couldn’t go in that room. I explained that I was rather frantically hunting for my mother. They asked me what my mother looked like. I described her and what she was wearing, when one of them took ahold of my arm, and stepped with me firmly in tow slightly inside the forbidden parlor room entrance so that I could see the other side of the room.
That action alone was rather disconcerting, because it was evident who was in charge of the moment and it wasn’t me. Who were these men anyway? And why was he touching me? I suddenly wished maybe I hadn’t been quite so anxious to step into that room, but it was too late now.
On the far side of the room, at a small table with a couple Victorian style chairs sat two women, leaning back, and relaxed. They were far enough away that I couldn’t hear their voices, but I saw a teapot and presumed that they were chatting over tea.
I recognized what I could see of mother’s clothes immediately, smiled at the man, heaved a huge sigh of relief and said, “Yes, that’s her, thank you,” and began to walk towards Mom. The man did not release my arm, where he had a death grip, and said, “You can’t go over there.” I asked why not, more than a little indignant and borderline disorderly, when he simply said, “Because she’s with Barbara Bush.”
Because She’s With Barbara Bush
With Barbara Bush?
THAT Barbara Bush?
Incredulous and shocked, that’s exactly what came out of my mouth.
The men started laughing and assured me yes indeed, THAT Barbara Bush.
Utterly astonished and somewhat unbelieving, I stammered, “What is my mother doing with Barbara Bush?” to which they replied, “Apparently having tea,” and shrugged.
And then added, “But you still can’t go over there.”
I took a closer look, and I could only see Barbara’s head at a back angle, but given her hair and well-known profile, along with what I quickly figured out was the secret service security detail, I had no doubt that indeed, my mother was sitting with Barbara Bush who was at the time, I believe, the Vice-President’s wife.
At this point, it was all I could do to not burst out laughing uncontrollably, between the pent-up nervous energy and excitement of the exhibit itself, the worry about my missing mother and the irony of the two Barbaras having slipped off to have a quiet cup of tea in the corner of the parlor. They may have escaped me, but they clearly didn’t escape the secret service although the agents were staying respectfully distant.
I looked at the men who were clearly somewhat amused, probably at the entire scenario, and said that I supposed mother couldn’t be any safer. I asked if they would be sure that mother returned back into the gallery, when finished with tea, and not naughtily escape anyplace else without telling me first. I knew that if she tried to escape again, Mr. Iron Fingers could shepherd her right where he wanted her to go.
When mother (finally) returned, she was no longer nervous and didn’t seem to think anything about the fact that she had just had a very long pot of tea with Barbara Bush. She just smiled and said absolutely NOTHING as I looked at her quizzically!
Later, I asked her what she and Barbara discussed, and Mom said that they talked about crocheting, dolls, grandchildren and their beloved dogs. I asked why she didn’t bring Barbara to meet me and she said that Barbara didn’t want to distract from the artists during the reception and would meet the rest of the artists later.
Mother said they never discussed politics or anything else in that vein. In other words, they truly were just two nice older ladies, about the same age, having a cup of tea, discussing the things near and dear to their hearts and escaping for a moment from busy crowds and prodding eyes.
Women of that generation kept address books and Christmas card lists. If you received a card from a person, they stayed on your list. If not, there was a strikethrough, sometimes with a note about having moved, divorced, died, or whatever.
Every year mother received a card from Barbara Bush, and every year she sent one, although I didn’t realize that at that time. Sometimes they would exchange other correspondence as well. For some reason, even after I found out, it never struck me as unusual – Mom had so many friends.
Nearly two decades later, when mother died, I went through her address book notifying people. I paused seeing Barbara’s name, with no strikethrough, and thought that I really didn’t need to call Barbara Bush who probably didn’t remember mother anyway. Then I recalled the Christmas cards with the personal notes that were taped to the wood trim on the farmhouse doorway each year with the other cards – just like any other friend. So I decided to treat Barbara just like any other of mother’s friends. I called and left a message that mother had passed away, never expecting Barbara to even receive the message. It was my way of closure for Mom and a final courtesy she would have wanted me to perform.
This week, after Barbara Bush’s death, I spoke with a person who lives in Houston, Barbara’s home. He said that Barbara had a Christmas card list that was more 10,000 names long. I don’t doubt it for one minute, and while I would initially assume from that staggering number that most of her correspondence was through a secretary, looking back, I’m not so sure.
A few days after Mom passed away, at the funeral home, I walked in, as ready as I would ever be for mother’s funeral visitation – which is to say I was dreading the event with an intensity one can never understand until they have stood in those shoes. I’m sure Barbara Bush’s family experienced that exact same thing this week.
I saw several floral displays surrounding the casket and throughout the room, and for lack of anything else to do, I walked around and looked at the names on the cards. Anything to avoid looking IN the casket. Anything but that.
On a white spray that the funeral director had put on an easel due to its size, I saw a card, with a note to the family – from Barbara Bush. I thought about how kind it was of Barbara, but I also knew it was probably from Barbara’s secretary. Surely Barbara didn’t remember mother.
A few days later, the family received a hand-written condolence card, sent to Mom’s address where she had moved only 18 months or so earlier. Based on the fact that Barbara Bush had Mom’s current address and based on the contents of the message in the card, it was clear that either Barbara had written the card herself, or dictated the message, because it was a lovely, thoughtful message that left no question that those two women were friends who had exchanged correspondence in the past.
I was grateful and Barbara’s note made me smile, through my tears of course, as I remember the two Barbaras, one a Hoosier Avon-lady farmer’s wife on a great adventure and one a Texan Vice-President’s wife, escaping the confines of the crowd to have tea in the corner of the parlor. Watching them that day, they didn’t seem very different at all.
Both beautiful Barbara’s have now escaped their mortal bodies and the cares of earth, leaving behind one-of-a-kind inspirational legacies and families who are eternally grateful to have had been blessed with their presence. I’m just sure that in a parlor someplace, they are catching up – chatting about the dogs with whom they’ve now been reunited and the grandkids they love, over a nice pot of tea.