Updated: July 7, 2013 2:51PM
Tomorrow in Bel Air, California, a distinguished Chicagoan is celebrating her birthday, and her cake will be sparkling with many candles. Gone are the days of grand parties, elaborate menus and tables filled with influential people. This year, at age 92, former first lady Nancy Reagan is marking the occasion quietly, content to stay close to home embraced by her close network of family and friends.
She’s happy at home in the modest ranch-style house she shared with her husband, Ronald Reagan, from the day he left the White House in January of 1989 until his death from Alzheimer’s in 2004. The Reagans’ home is a reflection of their great love that endured for half a century, their extraordinary journey together and Nancy’s understated and elegant taste.
My relationship with President and Mrs. Reagan — which spans 25 years — has brought me back to that picturesque house so many times. Orchids thrive in the warm sunshine that streams through every window of the house, revealing magical views of Los Angeles. The softly hued living room is poised to receive guests and exudes warmth right down to the needlepoint pillows bearing the initials “RWR” and “NDR” on the sofas. Bronze Western sculptures dot the hallway, and one can almost imagine Mrs. Reagan’s strapping husband walking through the front door in his blue jeans and cowboy hat.
The Latin School of Chicago student and daughter of prominent Northwestern Hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Loyal Davis has seen a lot of life in her more than nine decades. While it’s more difficult now for her to get around, she’s still very much engaged in the causes she embraces, such as The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum that is her husband’s legacy and her life’s work. President Reagan is buried there overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and Mrs. Reagan will be laid to rest there someday as well.
For now, it’s clear that Nancy Reagan still has things to do. While she no longer grants interviews or travels, she works the phone constantly, touching base with friends and advisors on all subjects of the day. She enjoys lunches with friends when her schedule allows, even though a wheelchair has made such outings more difficult. While mobility is challenging, her eyes still dance when she talks about her life with Ronnie, the young actor who captured her heart in 1949. Her mind is still sharp and curious. Her laugh is girlish and spirited. It hints back to a time when Ronald Reagan sent flowers to Nancy’s mother each year on his wife’s birthday — to thank her for giving birth to Nancy.
Regardless of political views, one can’t help but admire this woman for her role as wife, first lady and sweetheart to Ronald Reagan. She truly was the center of his life. Nancy Reagan embraced that role every step of the way and never wavered — through assassination attempts, cancers and even as he battled Alzheimer’s for 10 grueling years and his memories of their life together evaporated.
If asked, it’s a sure bet Nancy Reagan would happily admit that her life exceeded her dreams. She was nourished by Ronald Reagan’s love and buoyed by the support of people all across the country. Yes, Nancy Reagan has lived her life in the public eye, enduring constant criticism, family crises and loss often under the harsh spotlight. But she always rose above it with grace and a dignified sense of purpose.
After all, being Ronald Reagan’s wife was all she ever wanted and the memories of that time are what sustain her now. When they were married at the Little Brown Church in the Valley, she promised to follow Ronnie to the ends of the earth; over the course of their 53-year marriage, that’s exactly what she did.
At 92, perhaps Nancy Reagan can take comfort in knowing that she made a difference in his life and ours. For half a century she gave us a glimpse at a grateful mate and mother; an activist and an ambassador; a hostess and a humanitarian. She can now lead a quieter life perched above the city with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Reagan.