Laura Bush welcomes me to her Dallas home by pointing out the blossom-laden wisteria in back. It's part apology for the front yard, a mix of mud and upturned sod to make room for Texas-friendly salvias. The new flora symbolize a transformation in the former first lady's life: standing in the entryway of this cozy house is not the reticent political wife of George W. Bush we thought we knew.
In her just-published memoir, Spoken From the Heart, Bush, 63, reveals herself as a bereft only child who lost an infant brother, born "two months too soon; " as a guilt-ridden teen in the wake of a car accident in which she ran a stop sign and killed a friend; and as a concerned spouse whose husband "could be a bore" when he drank—until he quit for his 40th birthday.
For "AARP The Magazine," Bush looks back—with contentment and regret.
Q: Was writing a way to relive your childhood?
A: I start with my first memory, looking into the nursery in Midland where my newborn brother was lying, when I was two and a half. My parents wanted a lot of children. I knew the emotional impact of losing that baby boy and, later, two other babies, from my parents' sadness. With the car accident, writing the book was the first time I really thought how deeply it affected my parents.
Q: How did Midland shape you?
A: We grew up in West Texas in that environment of risk takers, gamblers, which is what oilmen were. The sandstorms, that stark background. There is not a lot of pretense when you live in West Texas.
Q: Your father drank.
A: That was very accepted. It was the way things were in West Texas. Did you think that was too revealing?
Q: Did life change for you after September 11?
A: I'm not a fearful person. September 11 made me more serious, [as did] the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. George and I knew anything could happen, but we certainly didn't expect anything like that.
Q: Any regrets from your time as first lady?
A: You don't get to wash your hands and say, "Education is fixed." Do I wish Afghanistan was more stable and that women there had secured equal rights? Yes, but that just isn't going to happen fast.
Q: You write about the latter part of your parents' lives. Your thoughts on your own next chapter?
A: I have a wonderful model in my mother, who worked to anticipate the next stage of her life. As her world got smaller, she decided to move to a retirement community where she would be surrounded by old friends. She wanted to stay in Midland, rather than move in with George and me. I think it is important for all of us to make choices that keep our support systems—mental and emotional—strong.
Q: As a child you daydreamed of growing chilies under a big sky, as your grandmother did. Things turned out differently.
A: It's not that much of a contrast. George and I have our ranch, where I grow prairie grasses. But my life is much richer than I could have imagined as a girl gazing out at the pecan farms outside El Paso. I never thought that after the dusty landscape of Midland I would see the dusty landscape of Afghanistan, or the lush jungles of the Thailand-Burma border, or so much of our own country. I've been more fortunate than I ever dreamed.