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Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life
Foreword by Laura Bush
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Born into a political dynasty, Jenna and Barbara Bush grew up in the public eye. As small children, they watched their grandfather become president; just twelve years later they stood by their father’s side when he took the same oath. They spent their college years watched over by Secret Service agents and became fodder for the tabloids, with teenage mistakes making national headlines.
But the tabloids didn’t tell the whole story. In Sisters First, Jenna and Barbara take readers on a revealing, thoughtful, and deeply personal tour behind the scenes of their lives, as they share stories about their family, their unexpected adventures, their loves and losses, and the sisterly bond that means everything to them.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
When I first learned I was going to be a mother, I pictured two babies in my mind. So when the doctor told George and me that we were having twins, my deepest wish was coming true. On November 25, 1981, our girls arrived, five weeks early, small and healthy, and feisty from the moment they were born. Barbara and Jenna were named for each of our mothers. Barbara arrived first, Jenna second, and from then on, George and I each had a baby to hold.
Of course, with every wish comes the famous second phrase: Be careful what you wish for. George and I had little experience with babies, and suddenly we were heading home with two. And it is not an exaggeration to say they cried all the time.
It took a few months of trial and error, but at last we adjusted to our twins and they began to adjust to the world. We knew their personalities early on. Barbara was a collector, of rocks, leaves, and piles of Easter eggs. Jenna was a homebody and a protector. When we were selling our little town house, Jenna got on her tricycle and rode in tight circles around a prospective buyer's feet, pinning her to our concrete patio.
Both girls were eager explorers, making their way into every nook and cranny of our house, and then venturing down the sidewalk and around the block outside. Both loved to use their imaginations, creating a cat family and a language of meowing that we found adorable and their grandparents found hard to understand.
I loved every stage of their growing up, from the time as preschoolers when they scared us half to death by playing on the rocks above the ocean in Maine, to their impromptu theatrical performances, to the hundreds of times they danced up and down the hallways in our Dallas ranch house. I even loved their teenage years, although I'm not yearning to repeat them.
What I have loved most is watching them grow together. As an only child, my greatest wish was for a sister or brother. For their entire lives, Jenna and Barbara have had each other. They have been playmates, confidantes, cheerleaders, sounding boards, and dreamers. They have been partners in persuasion, right down to their relentless lobbying to get their ears pierced. Though only Jenna lobbied me to allow her to get a perm. Any night at any house could become a slumber party, and often did. When she heard ghostly noises in the White House, Jenna ran to get in bed with Barbara.
Barbara was the one who got Jenna ready for her first date with her future husband, Henry; she was the one who was there for the birth of both of Jenna's children. Jenna is the one who pushed Barbara to follow her dreams for better health for all and to start a nonprofit, Global Health Corps; she is the one who believes her sister can do anything. They can finish each other's sentences and each other's dinners. They are teaching Jenna's daughters, Mila and Poppy, the ways of sisterhood, how anything is possible if you do it together.
My daughters have kept me grounded—how could I worry about a presidential election campaign when I was worried that Barbara would wear flip-flops to Austin High School's homecoming celebration where I knew she would be crowned homecoming queen? She wore them anyway. Together, Barbara, Jenna, and I have moved in and out of houses, dorm rooms, and apartments, but never out of one another's lives.
In these pages, you will get to know the daughters, sisters, and friends that George and I know. They share some family secrets, some family bloopers, and some inside jokes. They'll tell you about being part of a big family, and a small one. They share their private memories of heartbreaking events that shaped our nation and what it's like to sit next to Vladimir Putin at dinner.
As they have grown and discovered the world, I have grown and discovered with them. We have shared travel, movies, books, and even some occasional advice on how to be a mom.
Most of all, this book is a story of sisterhood. The two girls who crammed into a tiny red toy car so they could drive side by side and for years wore matching outfits have never outgrown their special closeness. Where they once walked across the hall in a suburban house, they are now only a couple of blocks apart in one of the largest cities in the world. I am happy that my two girls have chosen to be sisters first and always. Enjoy!
December 23, 1994
Growing up together has been not only one of the best things in my life, but a gift from God. Many children need playmates throughout their lives to be happy. I know I have one playmate I can always count on. This particular friend doesn't live across the world, across town, or even down the street. She lives across the house. And together we've grown up loving each other. Thanks, Barbara, for always being there.
From the very beginning, before we could walk, before we could talk, Barbara and I were a pair. It wasn't just our matching pajamas and our tiny baby jeans with the same pointy green cactus stitched across each back pocket. It was that we were an unmatched set and ripe for easy comparisons: This one is the brunette and that's the blonde. She's smaller; she's bigger. She has the bright blue eyes; hers are smaller and brown. After a few years, the typecasting became a kind of shorthand: You're the loud one, right? You must be the troublemaker. Your sister's quiet. She must be an introvert.
Many of these observations were made by complete strangers. The obvious ones are accurate; my sister does have catlike turquoise eyes, while mine are beadier and brown. But were other stereotypes true or did we simply absorb them? I wonder if I become louder and more gregarious because so many people thought I was, even though I love quiet time alone. Did Barbara become more guarded and reserved because she heard others say it so often, even though she has her own strong opinions?
To much of the world, we were never really individuals; our true middle name might as well have been "and." Jenna and Barbara, Barbara and Jenna. When we walk into a restaurant or any public space together, we still invariably hear, "Oh, look, it's the Bush twins," sometimes followed by an eye roll, and then the place will fall uncomfortably quiet. Oh, those wild Bush twins.
But when we are apart for too long, I miss my twin terribly. Our first separation was the summer after first grade when we went to Camp Longhorn, the camp my father had loved as a boy.
Barbara and I attended different branches of the camp—"sister camps" was what they were called, ironically—across the lake from each other. For three weeks, we were apart. The initial summer, I was homesick. My first letter home was a piece of performance art, stating how many friends I had and how much I was enjoying camp. In the second, the mask came off. As only a rising second grader can, I wrote how the earlier letter had been a lie and that I had no friends at all and missed my family not just some but dreadfully. (Yes, I used words like "dreadfully" back then. No one has ever accused me of being subtle!)
During free time I would venture over to the cement clearing where we would have our campfires. On this ash-darkened stage, I put on a one-woman show. I didn't have an audience exactly, but in the quiet evening, my voice was within earshot. The other campers found the whole thing odd. So much so that, once, they locked me out of my cabin when I was naked. Humiliated because the boys' waterslide was nearby, I hid as best I could behind a screen door, covering my body with my chubby hands, trying to laugh it off.
The only way that I could comfort my homesick heart was to program my yellow Walkman to an AM radio station that broadcast the Texas Rangers' baseball games. Deep into the night, while everyone around me slept in their bunks, I put on my earphones and listened to the sounds of the game, the counts of balls and strikes and the solid crack of the bat connecting on a hit. I imagined my mom and my dad and my sister beside me, sitting in our usual seats. I drifted off to sleep surrounded by the people I loved.
But what I remember most from that summer is the feeling of such relief, of such pure happiness, when Barbara and I were reunited. It was a feeling of once again being made whole. For a few weeks after camp, even though we had separate rooms, we slept snuggled next to each other, lulled by the other's breathing. On those nights, Barbara's was the last voice I heard as I nodded off to sleep, and she was the first person I spoke to when my eyes opened.
We remain the finishers of each other's sentences, the conveyors of each other's dreams and desires. Again and again in all the years since, we have been the first person for each other, the one who so often knew what was in the other's heart without a word.
When you're born a fraternal twin, you are automatically compared, as if each twin must be the inverse of the other, a yin and a yang always slightly at odds. The shy twin versus the loud twin; the smart twin versus the funny twin; the color-inside-the-lines twin versus the creative twin. Yet I always felt that Jenna and I could simultaneously embody all these characteristics—both be smart and creative and funny, in ways that were distinct and our own.
Jenna was a hilariously creative kid who loved to perform in front of others. As second graders, she, Joanna Gikas (our best friend who lived across the street in Washington, DC), and I would create and perform endless skits, often based on movies we'd seen, for an audience of two or three: my mom and my dad and my dad's enormous 1980s video camera, which he balanced on his shoulder like a TV news cameraman on location for a live feed.
Jenna was our lead, my camera-fearing self her supporting actress. Jenna would gamely dress up in whatever costume was required—from Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid to sing "Under the Sea" to a clown for "Put on a Happy Face."
For her favorite anthem, "Castle on a Cloud" from Les Misérables, she carried around an old broomstick and sang every sad refrain as the lonely orphan girl. When we returned to Dallas, my mom chauffeured us around in the back of her baby blue, wood-paneled minivan so that Jenna could audition for real—Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, Fiddler on the Roof, and a host of other local theater plays. I never understood why she didn't get a callback. In my mind, Jenna was already an actress.
But in the years since, we've come to embrace that we carry within us the same traits. While Jenna's creative in a performing, audience-focused way, my creative pull finds its outlet in a quieter, introspective way. In high school and college, I studied architecture and design, and I painted for years, bold portraits, even one of Jenna. I dreamed of becoming Texas's version of Frida Kahlo.
Perhaps this inborn duality made it easier for us to navigate the public typecasting of our parents—the assumption that our dad is loud and unthoughtful and our mom quiet and bookish. Both can be true—my dad is loud and hilarious. He loves people, loves to make them laugh, and gets great joy out of putting them at ease. My mom certainly loves reading; she got her master's in library science in the 1970s. But those stereotypes capture only a tiny sliver of who they really are. My father is just as much the bookish one, a voracious reader who revels in being married to an ex-librarian. While he was in the White House, Dad and his strategist Karl Rove had an annual reading contest. The first year, Karl won, but the race was close: his 110 books read to my dad's 95. These days, Dad outreads us all.
Beneath her flats and cardigans, my mom is in fact our closet hippie and Rastafarian. When she was in her fifties and the first lady of Texas, she and I went on a mother-daughter excursion to find a Wailers show—the remnants of Bob Marley's famous reggae band—in downtown Austin. I overheard a kid in my tenth-grade art class mention that the Wailers were performing a secret concert; I excitedly told my mom the second I got home. After dinner, my mom, with her sensible hairstyle and CoverGirl lipstick, and I set out to track them down. What must the roadies have thought of a mother-daughter duo waiting in the otherwise silent music club hours before the concert while they set up speakers and tested the mics? We didn't make it to the start of the show—they were late starting and my mom had her limits on school nights—but we got close enough to read the set list taped to the stage, hinting at what we would miss.
Saturday mornings, Jenna and I would dig through Mom's record collection, playing Van Morrison, The Band, or the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar, to which Jenna would happily perform. As a kid, I worried that my mom would leave my dad to run off with Van Morrison, because she loved his music that much.
Paul Simon's classic album Graceland was released when Jenna and I were in first grade, and we tagged along with my mom and her friends for our first concert. Beforehand, I spent hours picking out the most stylish item in my closet, a long red shirt emblazoned with a huge yellow pencil. Jenna and I stood on wobbly tiptoes on our concert seats when the entire crowd got up to dance as Paul sang along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. My mom was in her element: singing, snapping her fingers, and step-touching side to side.
My mom is good at remembering names, while my dad is better at remembering people's nicknames, most of which he has given them. He has a nickname for almost everyone—and once christened, it's impossible to escape whatever he has dubbed you. Mine is "Bo-jeesh" (said, or often yelled, at a high volume exactly as it is spelled, an emphatic pause between the two syllables). How exactly this consonant-heavy nickname came to be, I'm unsure. I have no memory of ever entering his house or a room where he is without hearing a loud "Bo-jeesh" belted out, announcing my arrival. His loving proclamation is always met with my stifled laughter and sometimes my humiliation, especially when I was young and bringing friends home, or older and accompanied by a significant other for the first time. But these nicknames are his secret language, his way of letting us know we are uniquely special to him, an "I love you" in one-word form.
Jenna and I have one of our own. Our name for each other is "Sissy." One name, two sisters, our shorthand whether we are separated by a room or by an ocean. A word to which we both instinctively answer and turn. Because, after everything, we are sisters first.
Little Girl, Big Name
I was born with my grandmother's name. We both were. Knowing they were having twin girls, my parents decided the first baby to be born would be Barbara, and the second, Jenna. Alphabetical order. Neat and clean. Very my parents. I arrived first so I was named Barbara Bush. This was before Barbara Bush was first lady of the United States. Before Barbara Bush (who we call "Ganny") was truly famous. But even after she became famous, I didn't realize it. I was in the first grade. What is famous when you're six, after all? When Gampy, my grandfather, was inaugurated, I thought every family had at least one grandfather who got an inauguration, that it was a special celebration thrown for grandfathers. One big party and America shows up because America loves grandfathers. I remembered all the talk of "our forefathers," so I had just conflated the two.
I was so immersed in my particular self-generated lore that I started wondering when my friends' grandfathers' inaugurations would be. Would their parades also be bitterly cold and full of loud horns and marching bands and brightly colored uniforms? When Ganny came to visit Preston Hollow Elementary School to show off our new puppy Spot, daughter of her famous dog Millie, I was far more impressed to see the sixth graders who came out of their classrooms to line the hallways than I was by the concept of a first lady's visit.
My parents' single-minded determination to de-emphasize that there was anything unduly special about being a Bush meant that I didn't understand why my name might make me different. I already lived in a sea of Georges, where multiple generations would easily turn around the moment the word was uttered. My father had his father's name, and my older cousin, George P. Bush, was also, obviously enough, a George. (In recent years across Africa, I have even met a cohort of young "George Bushes," including George Bush Mudariki, kids who are alive due to the medications delivered by PEPFAR, the AIDS relief program my dad started, and who were named in his honor. There are many ways to be a namesake.) For my part, I was simply holding up the female line, which was why I had my Ganny's exact same name: Barbara Pierce Bush.
But when you have the same name as the first lady of the United States, there are times when "the name talk" would have been helpful. As an eight-year-old, I would offer to order pizza for our family, relishing my mature and responsible position.
"I'd like to order a pizza."
"Great, your name?"
"This isn't funny."
What…? I was constantly hung up on, whether I was ordering pizza from Domino's, school supplies from a catalog, Girl Scout cookies, or books from the shiny Scholastic flyers we brought home from school. No one believed that First Lady Barbara Bush wanted to order Miss Nelson Is Missing. Little girl, big name.
After each such episode, I felt ashamed—ashamed of some behavior I didn't understand. I was clearly in trouble, but I had no idea what I had done wrong. So I told no one. Instead, I would meekly go off to get someone else to place my order, further cementing the myth of my own shyness. It never occurred to me to simply give a different name.
Then came high school. At Austin High, the first moment of the first day of school started with homeroom. I'd walk in, nervously wondering who I'd see. Inevitably, roll would be called, and, the "Bs" came quickly. "Barbara Bush?" Quietly: "Here." Boys in the back would then snicker loudly, "Oh, snap! Barbara Bush!" Snap, indeed.
The irony was that I didn't really know the iconic Barbara Bush back then. Outside of the year we lived in DC when we were in kindergarten, whenever we saw Ganny, it was with a crowd of other relatives. I was one of ten or twenty, somewhere in the middle of the long line of cousins from five families. One summer, as a little girl, I even learned needlepoint so that Ganny and I might have something uniquely in common, something that we could do together. Neither Jenna nor I spent any real individual time with her until we turned sixteen; we were adults before we got to know the nuances of her personality, to see her as more than the white-haired woman in pearls who shooed us out to play and made us hang up our wet towels when we tramped back home.
And, perhaps, as she grew older, she became more accessible and playful as well. Sixty-year-old Barbara Bush might not have worn two different-colored sneakers, but by age eighty, she loved to pair a pink shoe with a red one from her closetful of colorful Keds.
Today, babies who were born when my grandfather became president are themselves close to turning thirty, but the passage of time has not necessarily made it any easier to be Barbara Bush. Not too long ago, I showed up to give a speech on global health, and many of the attendees expected my grandmother to walk out onstage, not her thirty-something-year-old granddaughter, Barbara Bush 2.0.
Even now, when I show my ID at security to enter a building in New York City, I'm almost always met with a reaction. The guard will look at it, look up at me and smile, and 3, 2, 1…"I'll bet that name's caused you a lot of trouble." You can say that fifty more times.
And of course, there is the minefield of interfamily communication, like the time when my cousin Wendy sent an e-mail to me, cousin Barbara Bush, asking for advice about bikini waxing and electrolysis, starting with the classic line, "Yo, how are ya?" But when she typed the name into the box, Ganny's address populated. Unknowingly, Wendy hit Send. Ganny didn't bat an eye. She wrote back, advising Wendy to stay far away from harsh products like Nair, and closed the e-mail by saying she was looking forward to seeing her in Maine. Wendy was (and still is) mortified.
For years, I dealt with the famous strings attached to my name per my formidable grandmother. It was when my father became president that it got tricky yet again. I coined some new last names for myself for specific instances. Dinner reservations were under Barbara McBabson. Or Barbara Catswith (because I love cats). Introductions to new people were met with ad hoc aliases to fend off the inevitable deluge of questions. I wasn't always so eloquent in the moment…"I'm Barbara. Uh, Barbara Barbara."
According to current baby dictionaries, the name Barbara is going the way of the dinosaur, on a sharp decline toward extinction (except for Eastern Europe—go, Eastern Europe!). Barbaras under the age of forty are a rare breed, overshadowed by the Barbara powerhouses of older generations: Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, and, of course, Barbara Bush.
When you're one of the last remaining Barbaras, you have a role to play, bearing the name proudly and unabashedly—and I hold my head up slightly higher because "we" are at the end of the line. Except that in many ways, I'm not much like those famous Barbaras. In temperament, I'm far more like Jenna Welch, my other grandmother, the gentler, self-taught naturalist of Midland, Texas, than I am like my fiercely outspoken Ganny. It is Jenna Bush Hager who most closely resembles the original Barbara Pierce Bush.
But I do love my name. As a girl, I was told it meant "beautiful stranger." I'll take it. In that regard, my parents made a good choice: I do appreciate the beauty in others, and every close friend of mine, from all over the world, began as a stranger, just as I began as a stranger to them—even if at the beginning, they recognized my name.
Our lives were not dysfunctional, but they were at times strange. We were photographed from the moment we were born, not cute family snapshots, but photos taken by real photographers with camera bags and telephoto lenses. Less than an hour after we were born by Cesarean section, my mother, swollen with edema from her failing kidneys and preeclampsia, was being wheeled back from the operating room and a photographer jumped out from behind a wall in the Baylor Hospital maternity ward. He started taking pictures of her exhausted, bloated face, and she was so stunned that she tried to smile. Fortunately, it was the photo of my smiling father, balancing two swaddled bundles in his arms, that flashed across the country on the wire services with a headline about Vice President Bush's new twin grandbabies. We were "accidentally famous" from the moment we were born.
Photo Courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
- "Deeply personal, emotional and often funny...—People
- "In this funny and heartfelt memoir, the twin daughters of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush offer their perspective on growing up in the public eye...Readers will be entertained by this charming, wild, and wonderful pair of life stories."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "This illuminating work from the daughters of one of America's most well-known families offers a satisfying behind-the-scenes look into the personal side of politics."—Library Journal
- "An enjoyably nostalgic scrapbook stocked full of memories from twins born into a political dynasty."—Kirkus
- "The two first daughters emerge as surprisingly well-adjusted, intelligent young women with strong family bonds in this insightful look at life inside the White House."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Oct 24, 2017
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing