When I was a child, I was what one might call, “cause-happy.” My father called me a tree-hugger, but we won’t hold that against him. I was never without some venture or idea or project to make something “better.” Better by my standards might not necessarily have been for the greater good but, by gosh, I was going to accomplish something.
When I was in kindergarten, my grandmother, a first grade teacher, decided that I should learn how to read. She thought it would give me a leg up for the next year and might keep me still long enough to avoid beatings. Reading became my yoga. Words were magic and stories were like candy. I devoured books and begged my mother to let me read less age-appropriate prose. My mother, a voracious reader and English teacher, was very selective in my materials. She was insistent that each literary endeavor be discussed ad nauseum to make sure not only was I getting the proper enjoyment, but truly understanding the point of the writer. In our house, books are art.
When Mrs. Barbara Bush became First Lady, her platform was and is reading literacy. Mrs. Bush also bore a strong resemblance to my great-grandmother, Grandma Moore. This only further solidified how truly enamored I was with her. With notions of future presidency in my head, I thought it best to send her my ideas for helping her change the world.
My grandparent’s owned a gun shop, replete with an old typewriter that my grandmother taught me to hunt and peck on and how to use corrective paper, plenty of letter-sized envelopes and stamps to my heart’s content. My grandmother used to do the books after school was out and I’d join her in the shop with the warmth of barrel-drum fire warming my back and the smell of metal shavings and gunpowder tickling my nose. So, equipped with purpose and the proper utensils, I set out to tell Mrs. Bush how she should accomplish her goal of reading literacy for all the world. At nine, I knew everything and no lofty goal was beyond reach.
“Whatcha doin’, kid?” My grandfather would ask as he walked by the secretary workspace were I happily sipped a real Pepsi from his special refrigerator and used up gobs of corrective typing paper.
“Writin’ letters,” I’d reply, confidently. He’d nod and continue on.
“Double check your spelling.” I was a precocious child. Adults in my life had talked to me as an adult since I’d been born and I was instilled with the idea that I was one of them. I would carefully fold the precious paper into a tri-fold, the way my grandmother had taught me and painstakingly address the smudged envelope to Mrs. Barbara Bush, First Lady at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House address was in a textbook and I had verified with my teacher, Mrs. Ritzhaupt, that it was the correct address. I would then reach into the top middle drawer of the old oak desk and pull out a stamp (sometimes it stuck and I’d have to jiggle it with my chubby but adept fingers), lick it extensively and place it in the top right corner of the envelope, never quite getting it straight. I’d then trot out to the mailbox, place it in there and raise the red flag.
Two weeks after I’d mailed my first letter my mother picked me up at my grandparent’s with the mail in hand and a quizzical expression on her classically pretty face.
“You got a letter.” I held out my hand. She held firm to the crisp cream envelope bearing the White House legend and seal on the back.
“It’s probably from Barbara,” I told her reaching toward it. She and my grandmother exchanged glances.
“Barbara who?” I sighed patiently as my grandfather chuckled in the background.
“Mrs. Barbara Bush, momma. I sent her ideas on how to cure people not being able to read.” Over the tops of my heads more looks were tossed back and forth.
“Did you know about this?” My mother asked my grandmother. She shrugged.
“We should have known when she looked like she was playing she was serious. I didn’t know it was going to the White House.” My mother finally relinquished the letter and I carefully pulled out a folded notecard. The note was typed, but her signature was real. And she said, “Thank You.”
I don’t remember what all our correspondence said. My mother has the letters tucked away in a safe place. I was famous in Tahlequah for about two weeks after the first letter arrived. All I knew is that I was writing to the most powerful woman in the free world and she was telling me “Thank You.” My writing waned after I’d moved onto fourth grade and geography and I reduced my correspondence to a Christmas card a year, because it was “the right thing to do.” She always sent one back. I stopped writing her completely when she moved out of the White House.
Years later, at twenty-eight, I had the privilege of sending her a “Thank You.” This time with my book, Home is Where Your Boots Are, along for the ride. I had to google the address and didn’t know if it was correct but I wanted to attempt to tell her what an impact she’d made on me and my love for reading. Two weeks later, I got a crisp, cream note, lined in blue and signed with that old familiar signature. The first words? “Thank you.”