As a twelve-year-old Canadian, I really didn’t know what I was supposed to wear when I met the First Lady of the United States.
Had I known that she was going to show up wearing running shoes, I think I would have felt much better about the whole thing.
I had acted alongside the spectacular Jessica Tandy in “The Story Lady” a TV movie that exulted the joys of books and reading to kids. The role was tailor-made for me, the pre-teen nerd who frequently walked into walls because she could not put her book down. The show got some attention, and it inspired Mrs. Bush to create The National Story Lady Project, a nationwide project to foster inter-generational reading. And when the invitation for the program kick-off party arrived, I was rather embarrassed to find it was it was me, and not the First Lady, who was on the cover.
My mom and I, plus the writer and producers of the movie, went to the White House. I don’t actually remember what I wore, but I’m sure it was full-on-preteen-circa-1991 glory. I would be surprised if lace gloves were not involved. We stood around a very flowery room and drank tea with the First Lady and pretended this was just what we did on Monday afternoons.
Barbara Bush was very kind to me and sweet about my role in the film. I was trying to pay attention to her, but I could not stop staring at her shoes. She was wearing a beautiful suit, accented with white sneakers (were they Reeboks? I’m pretty sure they were) that had the word “READ” on them in puffy gold paint. They were incredibly dorky and wildly endearing and they were the best things I had ever seen.
I wondered if she had done that herself or if there was an official White House bedazzler. Was this a career I could grow up aspiring to?
We drank tea from tiny floral china cups and I learned how to eat finger sandwiches without dropping the saucer. There were photo ops and Mrs. Bush gave a little speech about the movie and then my mother and I just stood around awkwardly for a while, trying not to touch anything. Neither Mom nor I ever felt comfortable in fancy situations. We were the kind of family that went camping for vacations and considered dinner at Sizzler to be only for extra special occasions. So, we passed our uneasiness back and forth, while we stood below a larger-than-life-size painting of Jackie O in a gilded frame that probably cost more than our house.
But I kept thinking about Mrs. Bush’s shoes. Even in the midst of all the secret service and crystal chandeliers and crustless sandwiches – she was cool and normal and maybe even kind of like me. All while wearing those awesome shoes.
I presented the First Lady with a book, which seemed like the right thing to give someone who had all those libraries. It was a book I loved, by an Indigenous Canadian author, since I assumed the White House library wouldn’t already have that one. She later mailed me a thoughtful thank you note, which must be somewhere in my basement.
I wasn’t very political when I was twelve. I knew that the Bushes were Republicans and we were Democrats and I knew those things were different. But I also knew that the only thing I cared about was that the First Lady of the United States had smiled kindly at me, had lit up when I gave her a book — and had rocked out the coolest shoes I had ever seen.
Thank you, Mrs. Bush. Rest in peace.