Barbara Bush and Me
First Presbyterian Church of Midland Texas was my first position out of seminary and part of my job description was to reinvigorate and grow the youth group. Most of the kids in the church had ample resources and opportunities, so one of the challenges was coming up with programs that not only built community and nurtured them in the faith, but occasionally “wowed” them. The “Great East Coast Tour” was able to do the above and even more. In June of 1989, roughly forty youth and leaders embarked on an eight-day bus tour. There was barbeque and bluegrass in Ashville; history and roller coasters in Williamsburg; wild ponies and illegal fireworks in Chincoteague; and eventually cheesesteaks in Philly and working at a soup kitchen in New York.
But the centerpiece of the trip was a special tour of the White House. The connections between Midland and the Bush family were extensive. George W. left town just as I arrived (coincidence?); George H and Barbara had moved to the oil patch in 1950 and became members of First Presbyterian Church , where he would eventually serve as a deacon. The family had many friends and supporters in the community and several members of the church would ultimately work in the Bush Administration. With one phone call, we were in.
I don’t remember much of the tour; my chief concern was frankly staying close to several of my more “adventurous” guys who for several thousand miles had been threating to create a memory/felony if they got near the Oval office. About half way through the tour, we were greeted by the First Lady and the first dog Millie. Mrs. Bush was gracious and funny and spoke fondly of her time in Midland. Some of the moms had put together a package of west Texas gifts and mementos that she received with a smile and chuckle. As we were handing her the gifts, one of my potential felons yelled from the back,” Ask him who he voted for.” I do not know if she heard or not, but her expression never changed.
As the event was winding down, I approached Mrs. Bush and asked if I could have a moment alone with her. I had one more gift to give her. I had struggled for the entire trip whether to give it to her or not. About a week before we left for the trip, the business administrator had handed me a non-descript Bible that he had found while cleaning up an old vault. I opened it up and inside was the inscription:
“Given in Memory of Robin Bush, 1953”
Robin was George and Barbara’s daughter who died of leukemia at the age of 3. I was told by a member of the church that is was in the aftermath of the little girl’s death, that Mrs. Bush would prematurely gain her signature grey hair.
In the corner of the room, out of earshot of everyone, though under the watchful eye of a secret service agent, I handed her the Bible and told her we thought she should have this. She opened it up and gave a slight gasp. In her eyes. I could see both the sadness and the sorrow and for an instant it felt that I had made a terrible mistake. But then she took my hands and I saw the love as her eyes welled with tears. “Thank you-this means so much.” And in the corner of a room in the While House, the wife of the most powerful man in the world hugged a young Democratic associate pastor, who too was fighting back the tears.
Barbara Bush will go down in history along with Abigail Adams as the only woman to be both wife and mother of a president. I have been reading the many tributes from family, friends, scholars and journalists who knew her and have been reminded not only what a remarkable person she was but how Barbara Bush was a moral compass for family, friends, and perhaps at times for the nation. But those few moments I had with her taught me something that I would come back to again and again in the all too many times I have sat with grieving parents. Though some losses never go away, it is a gift to the bereaved to remember with them the lives and loves they have lost. It might be the most sacred space we ever get to share.
Give us grace, we beseech thee, to entrust the soul of this child to thy never-failing care and love and bring us all to thy heavenly kingdom.