Strength in Pearls
They stood as stones, the sentinels guarding the First Lady’s casket. They had completed their work as Secret Service agents. Though they had protected her for decades, Barbara Bush was now in the loving arms of God.
Still, they would not abandon their posts. They maintained an around-the-clock vigil. They followed their charge past death until she was laid to rest at heaven’s door.
“What kind of woman inspires such devotion?” my wife and I wondered, as we watched the funeral service on television. We sat on the sofa holding hands, letting the tears flow.
Barbara Bush didn’t color her hair or let fame and privilege overwhelm her. Even her jewelry, the famous pearls that weren’t pearls at all, rebuked pretension. In a world where many are famous for being famous, Barbara Bush was known for being herself and calling things as she saw them. She refused to spare her friends or family from those standards. She did not play the game that poisons our social media and our politics, “let’s pretend to be something we are not.”
The Instagram generation, obsessed with its own reflection, could learn from Mrs. Bush. She didn’t embrace a baby afflicted with AIDS to boast that she cared. She didn’t teach children to read so she could tweet about it. She did not think being known was more important than what she was known for. Instead, she stared life in the face with unblinking frankness and met its challenges with a commanding heart. She lifted others to be better and do more.
Some, celebrated for contributing less, might contend she had all the advantages of life: money, status, and privilege. But this First Lady knew hardship. She went through war, nearly lost her husband, and started out in a wild west of financial uncertainty in Texas. She endured the illness and death of a child and the endless pain known only to a mother. For seven months, from a diagnosis of leukemia until she lost her three-year-old daughter, Mrs. Bush held her family together. She demanded supportive smiles instead of tears. Perhaps, in those raw days, she found the strength she would continue to expect from her own family, her friends, and the nation she came to mother.
Her husband may have been the leader of the free-world, but he told historian and family friend, Jon Meacham, “She’s the rock of the family, the leader of the family.” Together, George and Barbara Bush led that family into service, to their nation, friends, and strangers. Their contributions contained the examples they set, not just what they accomplished.
Our loss upon her passing is not tinged in tragedy. We did not witness a life cut short or that left its work unfinished. Barbara Bush left nothing undone. In the rich fullness of her life, she completed her mission, as a loving wife, exacting mother, warm friend, and First Lady of a nation she made stronger. She proved that good people, the best among us, can also be powerful people, who should expect the best from each other. Her life was a triumph of elegance over style, substance over notoriety, and self-respect over self-indulgence.
Her lack of pretension, like her pearls, may seem antiquated in today’s Washington, where many measure their success in twitter followers. That won’t count for much at their funerals. Barbara Bush will be remembered by millions for earning a nation’s respect and returning its love. For millennials or Gen-Xers struggling to find themselves or their purpose, Gov. Jeb Bush’s eulogy for his mother is better instruction than any “How to Feel Better About Yourself” book on Amazon.
So, rest in peace, Barbara Bush, as you watch over us with your big pearls and grey hair. Your strength and candor will be missed, even as they remain examples for another generation, and they seek authenticity, meaning, and truth.