My mother and Barbara Bush were contemporaries.
Despite coming from very different backgrounds — daughter of a Kansas farmer and daughter of a New York City businessman — they had a common experience, a very human link. It’s a sad connection that I suspect also has many a woman feeling fondly toward Bush, who died Tuesday at 92.
Both women were born in the 1920s, an era with far different expectations for what a woman’s life would hold. They experienced the Great Depression. Their husbands served in World War II. They saw how modern conveniences and technology radically changed the world.
My late mother, also named Mary Sanchez, revered Bush, and here is why: They both grieved a lifetime for a daughter that they had lost early. In my mother’s case, it was a child who died to miscarriage, so late in the pregnancy that doctors were able to tell her the gender of her unborn child.
Of all the stories being told of Bush since her passing, the one that is repeated the most is tied to the death of her dear little Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of 3.
Robin’s death is the explainer for Bush’s most noted physical characteristic, the starkly white hair.
You know, it was after her daughter died so young, my mother would stress, telling how Bush’s hair went white with the worry and heartache. Bush refused to dye her hair back brown, despite being relatively young at the time.
To my mother, it was a public statement of grief, the one that she felt was denied her.
Understand that the death of children was handled so differently in the 1950s, especially death caused by miscarriage. And my mother had several miscarriages.
Without a name, without a birthday, her baby was seemingly unacknowledged.
It made the loss that much more difficult.
Barbara Bush, in her 1994 memoir, acknowledged this too, writing of her daughter, “I hated that nobody mentioned her, it was as if she had never been.”
Bush also told of falling apart for about six months after Robin’s death, and how her husband, the future president, “would put me back together again.”
The Bushes had never heard of leukemia before the diagnosis, an indication of how far our awareness of cancer has come in the ensuing years.
Initially, the doctor’s orders were to “tell no one, go home, forget that Robin was sick, make her as comfortable as we could, love her — and let her gently slip away.”
The Bushes didn’t do that. Bush also writes of the family’s relative affluence and connections, and how both afforded them the ability to travel to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, to live in their extended family’s nearby apartment and seek treatment for Robin despite being told there was no cure.
Bush wrote that hospice, an unknown concept then, would have been of a great help.
The experience guided Bush later as an advocate for the Ronald McDonald Houses, which help provide such lodging and support for families with ill children. Establishing a leukemia research foundation in Robin’s honor, the Bright Star Foundation, allowed another stage of healing and no doubt linked Bush to many other worried mothers.
I suspect my mother also felt a connection to Bush because of her grandmotherly image.
Like the Bushes, my mother was able to see other babies live to adulthood: my two brothers and me.
Barbara and George had five children live to adulthood.
And yet, because of her hair, that very personal declaration, there was always Robin as well.
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Writes for Tribune Content Agency.