She’d listened to pundits talk about her loved ones before, but she was unprepared for the disconnect she felt while grieving. “I was alone, watching television. When you’re so raw — when you’ve just gotten a call that your grandmother has died — and somebody says something like, ‘Oh, well we all knew she would die before her husband.’ That was the last thing we thought,” Hager said. “I started writing my grandmother a letter, and it was a comfort, because my grandparents were always writers.”
She recalled Barbara “Ganny” Bush drinking coffee and writing diary entries and letters to friends on summer mornings in Maine. Her maternal grandmother and namesake, Jenna Welch, also sought connection through the written word.
“She wasn’t formally educated, but she continued to learn throughout her life,” Hager said. “She loved to read and study other cultures. Barbara [her sister] and I were always fascinated looking at her National Geographic collection. Really, she just wanted to know about all the places she would never get to travel to.”
Welch shared her passion for books with her daughter, Laura Bush, who later became a librarian. In a phone interview, Bush talked about how her mother read the “Little House” books aloud; of course, sharing a name with the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a perk.
When Jenna and Barbara were young, story time was a cherished, if occasionally chaotic, tradition, their mother added. “I have a very funny old photograph of George lying on the floor with Barbara and Jenna jumping on him as I read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Hop on Pop.’”
The tradition continues with Hager’s three children. “Mila and Poppy get up very early in the morning and rush in to get in bed with me and George,” Bush said. “Of course you know what they want: our iPads. I read to them and look forward to reading to little baby Hal.”
Among that generation, Hager’s older daughter, Mila, who is entering second grade, has also taken to reading. “Sharing something I love this much is a surprising gift of parenthood,” Hager said. “We got her a little night light so her sister, who is now 5, can go to sleep and she can stay up late reading. We’re on opposite sides of the house doing the same thing every night.”