In a new book, the former first daughter shares some of her favorite family memories

By Sam Gillette
September 10, 2020 09:30 PM
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Barbara Pierce Bush and Jenna Bush Hager (center, from left) with their grandparents former First Lady Barbara Bush and former President George H. W. Bush
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History books will remember George H. W. Bush as the 41st president of the United States — but his granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager has many more personal memories.

In a book, Everything Beautiful in Its Time, the former first daughter highlights some of her favorite family moments, including the last words the former president said to Jenna's twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush, on Barbara's wedding day.

Barbara married screenwriter Craig Coyne on Oct. 7, 2018, at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Their grandfather, former President George H. W. Bush, was in a wheelchair at 94 and suffering from Parkinson's disease. And he was still grieving the death of his wife of 73 years, former First Lady Barbara Bush, who died that April.

But that didn't stop him from celebrating the joyful occasion with his family.

"We ate a big dinner at the same table where we'd had countless meals in the years before," Jenna, 38, writes in Everything Beautiful in Its Time, which published on Tuesday. "Gampy sat in between Barbara and me. The last words he ever spoke to her were, 'You have never been more beautiful.' " 

President Bush died just over a month later, on Nov. 30, 2018.

Still grieving the death of her grandparents (her maternal grandmother, Jenna Welch, died in May 2019), Jenna wrote Everything Beautiful in Its Time as an ode to them all.

Her book is a collection of essays in which she remembers some of the most precious moments she's had with her parents, former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, and her grandparents; and she writes of her special connection to her sister.

The Today co-host also gets candid about her own imperfections as a mother and wife. (She shares daughters Poppy Louise, 4, and Margaret "Mila" Laura, 7, with husband Henry Hager. Their third child, son Henry "Hal" Harold, was born in August 2019.)

On a recent segment of Today in which Jenna discussed her book, she tearfully explained the title of the book comes from a Bible passage that she read at her grandmother's funeral last year.

"It says that everything is beautiful in its time," she said. "And I think even grief is beautiful in some ways, because it means you loved the people enough to miss them and to care."

Keep reading for more Bush family highlights as recounted in Jenna's book.

William Morrow

'Ganny' embraced death like she embraced life

It was early in 2018 and Jenna was terrified that her grandmother Barbara Bush had died after Jenna received more than 50 text messages, the first one reading, "I'm so sorry."

In actuality, her "Ganny" had made a public announcement that she would getting "comfort care" going forward.

"Following a recent series of hospitalizations, and after consulting her family and doctors, Mrs. Bush, now age 92, has decided not to seek additional medical treatment and will instead focus on comfort care," the former first lady's spokesperson announced in a statement on April 15, 2018. "It will not surprise those who know her that Barbara Bush has been a rock in the face of her failing health, worrying not for herself — thanks to her abiding faith — but for others."

In her book, Jenna writes that she immediately called her mother to learn what "comfort care" really meant.

The first lady advised Jenna to call her grandmother to say goodbye, though no one was sure how quickly the elder Mrs. Bush would pass. That night, Jenna and her sister called their grandmother together, according to Jenna's book.

"As the phone rang, we imagined our grandmother bedridden, assuming a nurse or relative would answer in a hushed tone," Jenna writes. "Instead, Ganny answered the phone herself. 'Hi, girls!' she said in what seemed to us to be her usual strong voice."

After the twins told their grandmother how much they loved her, they both started crying. Jenna writes that their grandma immediately heard the pain in their voices, even though they tried to hide it.

"Girls, don't worry!" the former first lady told her granddaughters, per the book. "They're making it sound like I'm already dead. Don't believe everything you read."

Jenna continues: "Before we hung up, Ganny told us that her best friend had been there just the day before for a visit. They'd had a lovely time gossiping and sipping cocktails. This did not sound to me like a woman on the cusp of death. That night, I slept well."

Two days later, the iconic first lady passed away. But Jenna writes that even in those last couple of days, Mrs. Bush lived how she wanted.

Biographer Jon Meacham called to read Mrs. Bush her eulogy, which she approved. And she spent her last days in bed, watching the tributes to her life.

"I smile to think of her in her final days, lying in bed in Houston, watching shows about her life, feeling grateful—and also disagreeing with the pundits!" Jenna writes. "Watching the news about her legacy in those days before her death, she was able to essentially witness her own funeral. That, too, was classically Ganny. She didn't like to miss a thing."

Former First Lady Barbara Bush and former President George H. W. Bush
David Hume Kennerly/Getty

President Bush found comfort in his family

The day of his wife's death, President Bush was by her side, holding her hand.

"So many of you are asking, 'How is 41?' He, of course, is broken-hearted to lose his beloved Barbara, his wife of 73 years," President Bush's longtime chief of staff, Jean Becker, previously said in a statement. "He held her hand all day today and was at her side when [she] left this good earth."

The president never got over the pain of losing his longtime love. Jenna explains that on his 93rd birthday, he broke down in tears after she asked him how he was doing.

"I knew it wasn't a question anyone had asked him lately," Jenna writes in her book. "It'd seen how difficult it was for my dad and his siblings to see their once-strong father in poor health. They preferred to speak to him about shifts in the tides and the news rather than to dwell on the loss he'd endured or on his fatigue. No one wanted to see our dear Gamps in pain."

Immediately after she asked him, "How are you, Gampy?" President Bush gave a "blunt" response.

"I miss Ganny," he said. "I miss her so much. She was a great wife."

The former president started to cry, as did Jenna. "We held each other for a long time," she writes, "tears soaking our collars."

"Do you think I'll miss her less later," the elder Bush asked his granddaughter. According to the book, Jenna's younger cousin Jebby (whom she calls their "grandfather's favorite") stepped in to lighten the mood by sharing stories about the late matriarch.

"Soon there was laughter breaking through our tears," Jenna writes.

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Her dad has always made her feel safe

Jenna writes that she's always felt safest when her dad is around. When she and Barbara were little, a crook being chased by police ran through heir backyard, Jenna writes. Her mother called her father to come home from work. The younger President Bush was soon there with more police officers.

"Having our dad at home, we could once again exhale. If he was around, we felt protected, and we saw by the way the police talked to him that they, too, respected his quiet authority," Jenna writes. "They even asked him to help them canvass the neighborhood, looking for the criminal. Our dad—the superhero!"

That feeling of safety has remained, she writes in her book.

But Jenna also has an impulse to protect her father, specifically from a disenchanted country.

"He was portrayed in public, we knew, as not particularly scholarly," writes Jenna, who explains that the man she knows is much different than how the public perceives him. "But we knew him as an avid reader, especially of history. His favorite books were biographies of other presidents and world leaders."

Jenna was especially cognizant of how people treated her dad after 9/11, she writes.

"Watching a Saturday Night Live parody, I searched for the real man, the one I knew. He wasn't there. Of course not," she writes. "No one else was there to witness him comfort me on prom night, or speed home from work in Midland, or accept our librarian mother's wise counsel on word choice."

Jenna fishing with her dad, George W. Bush
Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

Jenna learned to love fishing with her dad and grandfather

Jenna writes in Everything Beautiful in Its Time that she was too antsy to enjoy fishing with her dad and the elder President Bush when she was little. That changed when she was in high school and college.

Eventually, fishing in Maine became her favorite way to spend time with them both, she writes. Those moments with the two men "were some of the best of my life."

"No one was there to interrupt us. Politicians spend their days in a constant state of high alert, surrounded by people and noise, so for my dad and granddad, it was a blessing to have a quiet moment outside," she writes. "I enjoyed having time alone with them, and I especially appreciated being the focus of my Gampy's attention—away from the demands of my other cousins."

One summer day in 2004, she remembers catching a 38-inch striped bass. Often trailed by the press, this time the Bush family welcomed it. Jenna writes that her father told his father to drive closer to the boat of reporters. Immediately, a huge number of cameras were pointed their way.

"'Jenna caught it!' my dad yelled to the reporters. 'Jenna caught the fish!' " she recalls in her book. "This picture of me with the bass ended up on the front page of The New York Times."