Ron Galella/WireImage
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March 17, 2016 10:10 PM

Patti Davis had always had a strained relationship with her mother, Nancy Reagan, but in 1971, a then-19-year-old Davis turned to her mom for support in the face of a major crisis.

The former first daughter, then a freshman at Northwestern University in Chicago, visited Reagan at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, and confessed that she had been having an affair with her high school English teacher for nearly two years.

“I can see my mother now as if it just happened days ago, not decades,” Davis writes in a recent story for TIME. “Her face, as I talked, was soft and tinged with tenderness.”

“I realized she already knew.”

Davis recalls her mother telling her, “I’ve known for a long time.” “My parents had come to my Arizona high school and had met my English teacher. She’d intuitively figured it out and had kept silent about it for two years,” Davis writes.

Nancy and Ronald Reagan on the cover of TIME
Time

“I don’t want your father to know,” Reagan told her daughter at the time. “It would really upset him.”

Now, more than four decades later – and following Reagan’s March 6 death at 94 – Davis remembers the tender moment with her mother as one of the rare times the two women “stepped outside our troubled history into a smooth pool of light and bonded as mother and daughter.”

Davis seems to view her mother’s tacit allowance of the affair as a gesture of compassion and wisdom.

“So for all that time, she’d kept her suspicions to herself, even from my father. She didn’t want to upset him, but she also knew that she had to let me go through the pain and the drama. If she had interfered, it would have made things worse.”

There would be other times over the years when Reagan would come through for her daughter, despite their tense relationship, Davis writes.

“But that day in New York – when I felt ashamed and worn down in ways that a 19-year-old shouldn’t, when I ran to my mother for comfort and she provided it – is a memory that towers above all the others. Because I know that the mother she was on that day was who she really longed to be but so many things had gotten in the way.”

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