George Bush and Barbara Pierce met at a dance when they were teenagers. He was 17, and she was 16. If it had been present day, they might have gotten to know each other by texts, GIFs and Snapchat after that first encounter. But in the 1940s, courting happened through handwritten letters — and theirs are incredibly tender and revealing.
In “George and Barbara Bush: A Great American Love Story,” their granddaughter Ellie LeBlond Sosa tells the story of their relationship — from that dance to multiple moves across the country and around the world. They often spent time apart and continued to write letters to each other.
First while George was studying at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and Barbara was at Ashley Hall, a boarding school in South Carolina; then when George enlisted in the Navy and was stationed overseas while Barbara was studying at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Even after they married, they were apart frequently when George was working in the oil business in Texas, when he was on the campaign trail, while he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee and during his stint as a U.S. diplomat in China.
Although relationships have changed a lot since the 1940s when George and Barbara met, here are five things any long-distance couple can learn from the time the former president and first lady spent apart.
When you’re apart, discuss the thrill of being reunited — and your fears, too.
In a 1942 letter to George, Barbara wrote that she thought it was “swell” that he had invited her to be his date to a dance at Phillips Academy. However, before she could say yes, she was waiting on one small detail: the approval of her mother, Pauline Robinson.
“I haven’t heard from her, BUT I’m sure she is going to let me come or go, etc.,” Barbara wrote. “I’m really excited but scared to death, too. If you hear a big noise up there, don’t worry, it’s my knees knocking.”
To make Barbara feel more comfortable, George arranged for her to dance with a bunch of his friends, too — so she wouldn’t be stuck with him the entire time. It worked. After the dance, they went for a walk and “he kissed me on the cheek and I nearly fainted,” Barbara recalled. It was Barbara’s first kiss, her granddaughter writes. Barbara said that “the poor girl who was rooming with me — I kept her awake all night telling her how wonderful he was.”
Once you’re together, it’s the quality of time — not the quantity — that counts.
When Barbara was in her first year at Smith College and George had joined the Navy but hadn’t yet left the States, he hopped on a train from New York to Northampton even though he wouldn’t arrive until 9 p.m. and Barbara’s curfew was 10:15 p.m. Still, it was worth the trek. Soon afterward they were engaged, and George was off to fight in World War II.
If one partner is making sacrifices for the other, make sure you’re aligned.
In the 1960s, Barbara wrote to a friend about how other wives of young congressmen seemed miserable, as their husbands had to travel back and forth constantly between Washington and their district and campaign every two years. “I can really understand their loneliness,” she wrote.
And yet, Barbara maintained that, if the circumstances were ever to be reversed — and she would run for office — she was confident that George would support her as she did for him. “If I were elected to public office, I would expect George to back me and be an appendage,” she said. “And if I were elected to office and he did not agree with me, I would hope he’d be very, very quiet.”
Allow the hard times to bring you closer together rather than cause you to drift apart.
Sometimes distance in a relationship isn’t physical but psychological. In a heartbreaking section about George and Barbara’s daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3, Sosa describes how Barbara “fell totally apart” and George took care of her. “Many relationships break after losing a child,” Sosa writes, but “George and Barbara were patient with each other’s grief.” Barbara kept it together while Robin was alive, and George was there for her afterward. “George didn’t let me retreat,” Barbara said.
Yes, absence actually does make the heart grow fonder.
In many of George’s letters sent while he was away, he noted how time apart from Barbara only made him love her more. In one such missive sent while George was in China over Christmas 1974, he wrote: “I love you. It’s bad being apart except for one thing — I always ‘count the ways’ when you’re gone.” Although George was 50 at the time, he still carried himself like a smitten schoolboy. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up except that I know one thing for positive sure — you better be with me.”
Barbara and George had four more decades together, and their affection for each other never dimmed. Sosa writes of how, in recent years, their doctor suggested that George and Barbara sleep in separate bedrooms so that they could get more rest. “But they refused for as long as possible,” Sosa writes. “George argued that when he woke in the middle of the night, he needed to be able to reach out and know Barbara was there.”