Dear Jenna Bush Hager
Perhaps audacious, this letter is written to speak to your heart; to buoy your spirit when it seems the ache will not subside. I pray that as it reaches you, you find solace and peace in the words.
This summer, I said goodbye to my sweet grandpa. Known simply as G’pa (or G’g’pa by his great grandkids), he was a man of great renown within our small tribe. As I read and watch tributes to your own grandfather, I cannot help but draw distinct comparisons between these two men – and between you and me.
It is presumptuous – I am certain – to draw such comparisons. Your grandfather was the Commander-in -Chief; while mine was an executive at RCA, and later ITT. Your grandfather negotiated great national and international decisions, battled furtive enemies who endangered our nation, and did so with great grace and precision. I don’t know much about the boardroom battles my grandfather fought and I know little of his professional achievements, beyond the character with which he amassed them.
To lay professional – political – identity aside and consider the character and the virtues of these two men, this is where I think our grandfathers were similar. And this has been occupying my thoughts for several days. I did not know your grandfather. All I know of him – of his character – I learned from observation over the years and from the beautiful tributes given to him in the past days.
In one of the final interviews you did with your grandfather you ask him about his legacy. His response was that he wanted someone else to define it. I hope you will accept my attempt to do this through the only lens I know to look, that of being the granddaughter of Carsten Emmet Retrum. These were men devoted to their families and committed to their wives; they were great leaders, who lived noble lives of character. Their legacy is the love with which they encountered the world and all people in it.
What I am most drawn to about George H. W. Bush is his love of family. His pure, unbridled devotion to his family. I love the story about his search for the lost cat the day before a big debate. It so beautifully illustrates the priorities of his life. The fruit of his life is seen in the tightly-knit and devoted family he leaves behind. It is his legacy.
I am also drawn to his love for ever only one woman, your grandmother. I lived this love story myself. My grandfather lived a life devoted to my grandmother. My childhood is filled with stories of their courtship at RCA in New Jersey, their engagement while he was enlisted in the US Navy, and later their married life in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was a strong, beautiful woman. In the final years of her life, as Alzheimer’s disease slowly divorced her mind and body with function, my grandfather remained daily by her side. He presided over her bedside at home until she passed thirteen years ago. Her final days were – by his instruction – days of joyful, musical celebration around her bedside. Days of storytelling, singing, and sorrow.
Never for one single day did his love for her wane. For thirteen years he waited to be with her again. I believe now they are reunited, the eternal joining of their hearts made complete in heaven. I believe it is the same for your grandparents. What a gift to give to those whom they leave behind. This, too, is his legacy.
Your grandfather was the first president I knew. The 1988 election was my sixth birthday. I remember being confused about all of the excitement around the day – certain it was to do with my great achievement of turning one year older – and was disappointed when it wasn’t really about me at all. My house was always red and this was a proud day. So, I chose to share my birthday with such a victory. That day, George H. W. Bush became my president.
Your grandfather led with contagious honor. He was humble, gentle and patient. People wanted to follow him. It is becoming rare in this world to find such people to look up to. My grandfather was one of those men, as well. I am told in the boardroom he led with vigor and certainty that won others over, or intimidated them to his side. Regardless of the method, once they chose to ascribe, they found little fault, much grace, and tremendous love. Your grandfather lived with the same character. This, too, is his legacy.
Over the past few days, as I began to consider your grandfather as more than a president. As we – the watching world – were invited to see more of him as a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, I found myself drawn to you. There are many people paying tribute to George H. W. Bush, but the one I could most profoundly relate to was you.
I, too, feel myself called to be a historian of my family – though I am self-declared and don’t have any credentials to support it. In the months following my grandpa’s death, I have been drawn into his past. In a world that seems rushed to get to the future, my very sure voyage is into the past. I believe it is there where I will find the strings that resound in my soul.
Family is interesting. Facts become stories, and, in the right hands, those stories become legends. My grandfather is becoming somewhat of a legend – perhaps he was for many of his final years. Like you, it has always been in me to ask questions, to hear the story for the third or fourth time. I cannot fully know myself without knowing this history.
Like yours, it is an overall happy history. Well, as much as I know. There was tragedy in the world around, change in the society nearby, but what remained unaltered was the love of this man to his woman and to his family. This was as true of your grandfather as mine. I believe this love is, perhaps, the greatest expression of their legacy.
It was, for me, a privilege to be CE’s granddaughter. It is my story and one I work hard to remember and share with my kids frequently. I have a few encouragements for you in the days ahead.
Talk about him often. Even when it still makes you sad. There was much lost to grieve, but there is also great hope. Speak hopefully about his eternal life in heaven. Make it real to your girls.
Think about him often. My dearest moments of reflection include thoughts of my grandpa. How would he have considered this next step in my life? What evidence did he live for me to learn from?
Find ways to honor him. Legacies have an odd way of being canonized. It is in the hands of the beholder – you – to choose how he lives on.
Fight for family. Regardless of the next day’s debates, family comes first. Always.
Live a life worthy of a legacy.
My dear friend, I pray earnestly for your heart to be comforted. The tears are warm and ready to fall for me still. Months later I miss my grandpa at surprising and frequent moments. I’m ok with it, and you will be, too.
As you learn to live again in this life without your Gampy, may you be certain to know this world is a far better place for his life in it.
I pray for you – as one granddaughter to another, one family historian to another – may you be blessed as you continue to live out of his legacy of love.