Published 7:00 AM EDT Sep 8, 2020
Jenna Bush Hager lost three grandparents in 2018 and 2019. Maybe you’ve heard of a few of them?
Former first lady Barbara Bush and President George H.W. Bush died in 2018 within months of each other. Hager’s maternal grandmother, her namesake, died in May 2019, too. Her grief led her to write “Everything Beautiful in Its Time” (HarperCollins, 224 pp.), out Tuesday, which chronicles the death of her grandparents and includes many family anecdotes that fans of the “Today” show host will love.
The world looks quite different than when her grandparents died. Many are experiencing insurmountable grief as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, leaving hundreds of thousands dead. Family and friends can’t even gather to mourn in large groups.
“It’s broken my heart because you can’t really celebrate the memory of people the way you would want to,” Hager tells USA TODAY. “There’ve been so many people who have had to bury their loved ones without any sort of fanfare or celebration, without the many people that probably wanted to celebrate their life.”
Hager knows this pain acutely, as her father-in-law John Hager died last month. They had a small memorial service of five people, where Hager read a poem by Mary Oliver, a poet she loves.
“Her poems are a lot about nature and the beauty in our world and how to appreciate it,” Hager says.
The funeral was sad because he loved people and had many friends, “but it was also kind of beautiful because you could really focus on where you were and every word that everybody said,” she says.
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Hager feels ‘very fortunate’ she got to celebrate grandparents’ lives before pandemic
Hager wishes she could talk to her grandparents about the pandemic.
“I really loved talking with them about current events, about the way the world is shaped, because I liked to hear their point of view,” Hager says. “And what I really liked – I wrote about this with my grandmother – is that they were always up for a debate.”
In one passage, Hager writes about how her grandmother’s perception of transgender people shifted. After a conversation with journalist Timothy Naftali when she was 90 years old, “she now believed that transgender people were ‘born that way.'”
She says her grandfather, too, liked to hear other people’s opinions.
While yes, she wishes they were still alive to speak to, it’s bittersweet given the current circumstances. “I’m also in some ways happy that they went on because I wanted to have celebrated their life and I got to, and I feel very fortunate that we got to do that,” she says.
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Hager talks ‘surreal’ atmosphere around ‘Today’ show
Hager returned to the “Today” show earlier this summer after about four months of social distancing. But that hardly means everything is back to normal, given the absence of the usual throngs of people outside the studio.
She misses people, and since her book tour is going virtual, she won’t get the chance to completely share all of herself. It’s a lot to process. “It’s odd to walk to the ‘Today’ show, to go there every single morning and there’s nobody in the plaza,” Hager says. “All of that feels really surreal. But I don’t know if I processed it quite yet.”
Before that, Hager was filming herself on her iPhone with some lights. She felt lucky to work with co-host Hoda Kotb still and have their usual rapport. “It felt refreshing that I got to still do that even though my kids were upstairs homeschooling and I was in the kitchen and people would sneak in,” she says.
But now that she’s returned to the studio, “it’s so nice to be able to be back in a place and be able to focus and kind of have the separation between work and home. And I know a lot of people don’t have that yet.”
All their guests remain virtual. Neither Hager nor Kotb wear masks on camera (though they do otherwise) because they maintain six feet of distance. A space once teeming with 100 people now has just a few.
“I actually haven’t even gone to my office,” she says. “I just go into my dressing room and my computer there and do my work in there and then leave.” Hager also says NBC tests them often for coronavirus; 30 Rock and New York at large were hit hard once as the pandemic began swirling large in the U.S.
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‘You have to find the beauty in some of the darkness,’ Hager says
Hager spends a significant portion of the book talking about Maine, where her extended family often spent time together.
She spent a week there in July with her kids, parents and sister (Former President George W. Bush, first lady Laura Bush and twin sister Barbara Bush). “My parents have been really serious about quarantining,” Bush says.
Otherwise, quarantine sounds like it’s been pretty standard for the Hagers.
“You have to find the beauty in some of the darkness,” she says. There wasn’t a lot of family dinners before this time, but they started eating dinner around 5 p.m. almost every night.
Otherwise: “It was a lot less structure than what we are used to because my kids were in school – well, except for my baby – but my older daughters were in school and had activities,” she adds.
Lately, the family has been watching the Netflix baking show “Nailed It.” “It feels good to laugh as a family,” Hager says. Her kids are obsessed with cooking shows, though she isn’t much of a baker herself.
“I think it’s so cute that a 7- and a 5-year-old would be so into elaborate cakes because their mother for sure is not making them.”
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