Houstonians paid respect to former First Lady Barbara Bush in various forms this weekend, and while we didn't adorn any pearls or blue sweaters, we did think back on the life of an astounding, if somewhat controversial, woman.
An estimated 2,500 visitors viewed Mrs. Bush in repose on Friday, April 20, and I was one of them. I parked in Second Baptist’s massive lot, went through the metal detectors, entered a waiting room, and then got on a bus that took a group of us to St. Martin’s Episcopal.
“This is the first time I’ve been on a bus in Houston,” my seat mate said, an older woman who told me she lived in the area. I told her I lived in Montrose, and she clutched her pearls.
At St. Martin's, the crowd fell silent as we wound our way through the metal staging area, a corral if you will, and toward the massive seven-acre campus. The crowd was totally Houston—far more diverse than I imagined it would be. We signed our names on a guest registry and entered the palatial sanctuary with its massive Schoenstein organ and ornate stained glass windows.
Mrs. Bush’s son, Neil, greeted us as we approached his mother’s casket, shaking our hands. He told the young African American woman ahead of me, bedecked in a black skirt suit, a black felt hat with a black veil, pearls and sensible black flats, well, don’t you look beautiful; thank you for being here. He told me hello, I am Neil Bush.
I stood for a moment before the closed casket, a hundred roses spilling over the top. People around me dropped to their knees to pray, or stood for a moment and then kept on going like myself. Everyone received a commemorative card, if you can commemorate a public viewing. You can certainly commemorate Mrs. Bush's life.
I do admire Mrs. Bush's advocacy for literacy, especially considering that there are definite ties between illiteracy and mass incarceration—75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal prison inmates have low literacy skills—and her wit and grace. However, I do think some things she said after Katrina were uncalled for, both classist and racist in the face of New Orleanians just attempting to persevere, specifically the line, "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them."
Mostly, though, I just remember Mrs. Bush by this silly springer spaniel book that my father, a staunch Republican and owner of a springer spaniel named Charlie Brown, had back when I was a kid. It was "authored" by Mrs. Bush's dog and called Millie's Book. Last month, my sister and I stumbled upon my dad's copy while cleaning out his storage space after he had a stroke. Charlie Brown's own book would've certainly been called "Barking in Dinner," which is what we called his deafening evening ritual.
Back on the bus, women chatted, and one passed around her cell phone to show a picture of a Barbara Bush billboard she thought was cool, all blue with Mrs. Bush's signature triple strand o' pearls dipping across it. I squished next to a Hispanic man with long hair who talked loudly on the phone.
“It was beautiful,” he told the person on the other end. “Her son was there. Neil? I don’t know who he is. I’ve never heard of him. Anyway, I have the meatloaf. I’ll bring it by.” Charlie Brown would've approved. —Gwendolyn Knapp
The pathetic fallacy describes a hamfisted tendency of some literature to attribute human emotions to inanimate objects, like when a rainy day mirrors the misty eyes of a heartbroken damsel. But on Saturday afternoon, as a motorcade left St. Martin's Episcopal Church toward Barbara Bush’s final repose in College Station, I admit the leaky, overcast sky reflected the mood of the crowd lining the streets to catch one last glimpse of The Enforcer.
I had decided to bike across the bayou from Montrose to join the throngs of Houstonians, although I ultimately walked the back half after suffering a flat tire. My original plan was to hole up along Memorial Drive and catch the hearse just after the motorcade departed the private service where an invite-only crowd of 1,500 gathered to pay its respects, including four past occupants of the Oval Office (but notably not the current resident). But, encumbered by a useless bicycle, I realized I’d have to power walk through Rice Military’s labyrinth of jasmine-scented town homes if I had any hope of catching the vehicles as they snaked up Westcott Street toward US-290.
I thought I’d missed the spectacle until other folks, apparently monitoring the motorcade’s progress via social media, began to sprint down Blossom Street toward Westcott just a block ahead. “She’s coming!” an elderly, white-bearded man shouted from the corner, and I hastened behind the stampeding crowd, arriving just as a northbound caravan of black SUVS appeared in the distance.
Some folks were camped out in lawn chairs along the median while everyone had their cell phones locked and loaded ready to document the procession. A Hispanic teenager brandished an American flag while an older woman—decked out with her gaudiest, fakest strings of pearls—pressed her hands across the breast of her mauve sweater.
Across the street and still stunned by my perfect timing, I stood there as the motorcade began to stream by the pin-drop-silent crowd. Multiple hearses rolled by, making it impossible to tell which contained the former First Lady; all I could see in the vehicles’ blacked-out windows were the solemn reflections of a young family of four standing to my right, the blonde mother anxiously stroking her blonde daughter’s hair. Nobody uttered a word.
Soon enough, the motorcade had zoomed by, spun around that weird traffic circle where Westcott forks off into Washington Avenue, and headed on toward Aggieland. Everyone looked around for a moment before breaking off into the side streets back toward their cars and homes.
Unsure what to make of the brief encounter myself, I followed the masses back down Blossom as my bike’s bum wheel marked each rotation with a rubbery thud. Some folks had already transitioned back to everyday conversation of weekend plans and Astros baseball, but most remained silent, still processing the final departure of America’s First Grandmother.
Then I glanced to my right and locked eyes with a brown-and-white English bulldog—the kind with jowls and a tongue that flops around with a mind of its own. As we kept pace for over a minute, I never lost contact with his sad, wet eyes. They appeared to me as the eyes of someone grieving an enormous loss, and, while this may sound a bit pathetic, I think that little bulldog totally understood how us humans were feeling. —Morgan Kinney