Though George H.W. Bush received an honorable discharge from the Navy in September 1945 after the Japanese surrender, the Bushes led a life not unlike those of military spouses, with frequent moves. Mrs. Bush supervised 29 relocations of the family and in 1974 when her husband was appointed US envoy to China, she joined him overseas and immersed herself in the culture, learning the language and riding her bike everywhere.
At her Commencement Address at Wellesley College in 1990 she said, “whether you are talking about education, career or service, you are talking about life ... and life really must have joy. It's supposed to be fun!” When days are long, spouses are gone and moves pop up faster than summer weeds we could all benefit from this reminder to embrace the adventure with joy.
Though widely considered America’s grandmother, Barbara Bush was not a shy and unassuming wallflower. She made her views on Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and even her own children widely known, laughing heartily when her husband’s biographer asked if she ever imagined that George W. Bush would be president.
As military spouses there can be pressure to assume a quietly supportive role and tone down personal views on hot button issues. Barbara Bush not only had her own opinions but she wasn’t afraid to share them. She allowed the public to get to know her and, thanks in part to her honesty, they responded by falling love with her.
Barbara Bush encouraged young people to “believe in something larger than yourself” and she lived the message she espoused. One of the first public figures to hug those suffering from AIDS, Mrs. Bush helped to destigmatize the disease, and the foundation she created in 1989 has raised more than $110 million to create or support literacy programs for men, women and children in all 50 states.
Barbara Bush knew tragedy in her life, especially after the loss of her three year old daughter, Robin, but she also knew that giving benefits the giver as much as the receiver. “Giving frees us up from the familiar territory of our own needs by opening our mind to the unexplained worlds occupied by the needs of others,” Mrs. Bush explained.
A recently rediscovered photo of Barbara Bush shows her in a gray tracksuit kneeling on the floor with her two springer spaniels, the dogs wearing outfits that match hers. Mrs. Bush’s sense of humor is well documented. She explained, “one of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life… to marry George Bush… is because he made me laugh. It's true, sometimes we've laughed through our tears… but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds.”
Mrs. Bush knew how to laugh at herself, an especially attractive quality. In March the alumnae magazine for Smith College included an update from her that read, in part: “I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago. I have had great medical care and more operations than you would believe. I’m not sure God will recognize me; I have so many new body parts!”
The stories of the kindness of the Bush family are legion. Barbara Bush said, “the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat people, not just family and friends, but strangers you meet along the way.” A secret service agent who protected the Bush family described Mrs. Bush as “one of the most gracious people we’ve ever protected.” In fact her agents stayed with her body until burial.
Kindness is not as easy as Barbara Bush made it look. Far from a soft quality, being kind takes work and can be draining. It means endless small talk, remembering names and finding something of interest in each person, each conversation, but it’s the only path to real connection.
With her trademark humor Mrs. Bush explained, “One of the many things we have learned in all our travels is that it’s the people who count… Most people everywhere are interesting, and if you can’t find a friend, then maybe there is something wrong with you.”
Barbara Bush had many friends. She embraced them as she embraced her life: with kindness, humor and a commitment to giving back.
My favorite Barbara Bush quote is the one the speaks most to me as a military spouse: “You have two choices in life: You can like what you do, or you can dislike it. I have chosen to like it.” A choice that surely was not always easy, but one that made all the difference.