THE MATRIARCH by Susan Page

“At the time of her death she had been largely out of the public eye for a quarter century. What caused her, the wife of a one term president, to be not only heralded as a great first lady but loved?” son, George W. Bush

No matter your political leanings, Barbara Bush seems to have a universal appeal. She is tough and loyal and oh-so relatable.

I must admit I’ve harbored some envy for our 41st First Lady. She’s feisty and strong-willed and it seemed everyone around her admired her for it. As a member of the not-overly-sweet club of women in the world, it seems I prickle those around me more than arouse admiration. How does she do it?, I’ve often wondered. How does one fully embrace the life of familial matriarch while simultaneously speaking her truth, maintaining worldwide appeal?

Journalist and biographer, Susan Page, captured many of the things we adore about Bar (as she was nicknamed.) But the lovely first lady, with the ever-present string of pearls, held nothing back during Page’s interviews with her toward the end of her 92-year life.

Her relationship with Nancy Reagan has been a well-known feud. Backstabbing and public slights – the tawdry things reminiscent of Reagan’s tv career more than political position. Barbara doesn’t mix words in describing their ongoing struggle until the bitter end.

Discussing Nancy was something I assumed would be a part of this biography. But an unexpected part of the book came toward the last half. The difficulties Laura Bush had in developing a relationship with her strongly opinionated mother-in-law. The way in which Barbara interfered (…made helpful suggestions…) with the raising of her many grandchildren. The rules she laid down for each grandchild staying at her house during those summers in Kennebunkport, Maine (ie: Breakfast is served between 5-8am. If you miss it, you make your own.)

Reading about these difficulties didn’t diminish my respect for Barbara Bush, but it did let me off the hook just a little. Strong-spirited women have unique obstacles in life. Sometime those hurdles are cleared elegantly and without distress. But more often than not, feelings are hurt, relationships are broken if not severed, and a wake of turmoil is left behind the words and actions. Barbara suffered these difficulties like anyone else. At times she swallowed her words for the greater good. But many times she let opinions loose and had to suffer the unwelcome consequences and apologies later in life.

In the end, this made her even more relatable to me. She was gregarious and funny. She was also flawed and awkward. Ultimately, her fierce heart for her family came first and foremost. She was a fighting mad mama bear when her husband or children were unfairly crossed.

This biography is a good overview of the life of a first lady straddling the sedate role her generation championed and the opinionated aspects of her basic personality. We all walk through that confusing jungle at times. It’s nice to know the woman with a hearty laugh and a self-deprecating humor, stumbled and angered sometimes, but always loved without reserve.

Five stars.
The Matriarch, by Susan Page

THE AMERICAN SPIRIT by David McCullough

I recently finished this collection of speeches by David McCullough.
His love for history is contagious and reignites my own B.A. in History. His many graduation commencement speeches are all laced with the plea for the graduates to continue to study history. Quoting American historian, Daniel Boorstin:

Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.

I have often been frustrated with the way history is taught in public schools. History is not a litany of facts and dates. History is merely a series of contiguous and interlacing stories. Beautiful stories of overcoming threatening odds and even stories of abject failure. But all the stories of history feed into the place and time that we find ourselves in today.

‘What is story?’, McCullough asks his crowd.
Essayist, E. M. Forster elaborates:
If I tell you the king died and then the queen died – that’s a sequence of events.
If I tell you the king died and then the queen died of grief – that’s a story.

In light of the contentious political scene today, I needed a reminder that the American spirit surpasses time and presidencies. I was taken aback, however, at this quote from Margaret Chase Smith, the senator who stood up to Joe McCarthy in the 1940/50’s:

“I speak as a Republican,” she said on that memorable day in the Senate. “I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of…fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.”

In this book of speeches, McCullough pulls heavily from many of the excellent books he has written. I recognized many of the references. Of all the McCullough books I have read, his account of the life of John Adams is by far my favorite. McCullough made me fall in love with our second president and increased my admiration for his long-suffering wife, Abigail. Their love story is amazing to watch unfold through the pages of his biography.

The American Spirit will reignite your love for country, American history, and rhetoric. Or at least that was the effect it had on me…

THE GOOD NEIGHBOR by Maxwell King

I finished listening to the audio version of The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. It was an in-depth look into his life and built a good foundation as to why Mr. Rogers became the man he was. How fastidious he was behind the scenes with the information he so gently passed on to the children of America. “He was fearless enough to be kind.” This sentence made me stop and think a moment. In today’s societal climate, who is being brave and fearless enough to be kind. Fred Rogers was no pushover and he demanded excellence, but he was above all else, kind. ⠀

There were so many times I couldn’t help but compare his work in the 70’s and 80’s with life in 2018. I remember when my son was young there was controversy over Sesame Street’s constant movement and changing from subject to subject on a dime vs the slow and purposeful movements of Mr. Rogers. ‘He worried about the lack of silence in a noisy world.’ I immediately imagined the tv screen of CNN or any other news program. Streaming news at the bottom of the screen, multiple boxes of people and information – all simultaneously. Intentional and slow living – is it a thing of the past or something we long for in the future?⠀

One of Rogers’ professors in seminary talked about ‘guided drift’ – sticking to your beliefs and goals but staying open to new adventures and opportunities. (Dr. Orr, theology professor at seminary and lifelong friend.) What a beautiful concept for lifetime goals: using drift as a mechanism for new growth and learning. I made a note of the phrase to apply to many areas of my life. ⠀

I recommend this book (⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️) but would warn you that it’s thorough about his history. At times I wondered if it was all necessary but found it was eventually helpful in viewing his depth of commitment and passion for each child’s healthy development.

I think we could all use a slow-moving neighbor with a sweater and tennis shoes who asks inquisitive questions about our life and sincerely tries to learn more about the things that affect our everyday existence. We could use one and we can be one. This book motivates me to try harder to delve deeper into the lives of those that surround me daily. ⠀