Nancy’s mission was Ronnie

Published 10:31 am Friday, March 11, 2016

When we talk about marriage today, it’s usually in connection with breakups, wedding excess, or the victory of LGBT advocates. For many, traditional long-term unions are becoming as rare as a protest-free Oscars ceremony.

Most of the marriages that have withstood the test of time are the ones in our family photo albums, hidden from the public glare of klieg lights. My grandparents had that sort of relationship, the 30 years of living together and raising a family and the remaining 17 of my grandmother’s widowhood when she never looked at another man. Her heart had space for only one soulmate.

My parents repeated that history: 22 years together and then the 32 additional years my mother lived, not alone, but coupled with daddy’s spirit until her own death. My sister’s best friend’s mother and her husband had decades together, a half-century, and are together again with God. The few public faces that we have of true marital devotion – Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, George and Barbara Bush – belong to another era.

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That’s what I thought of when I learned that Nancy Reagan had died. Actually, my first thought – and I’m sure many others join me – was that Nancy and her Ronnie were together again. I also thought that this is as joyous for her as it is mournful for us.

Nancy was the first lady of my young adulthood. She ushered in my political awakening, as I realized for the first time that I was a Democrat in name only. She also taught me the power of the color red.

And, for the first time, I saw reflected in her adoration for Ronald Reagan the same dynamic that was at play in the marriages I knew of personally. Yes, I knew children of divorced parents. One of my relatives on my mother’s side was twice divorced; another two or three on my dad’s side were also on their second relationships. But the people closest to me had been lucky enough to find the answer to their search early on in their lives, and I was a beneficiary of that.

Ironically, Nancy was Reagan’s second wife, but if it weren’t for the fact that his first was an Oscar-winning movie star whose career surpassed his own, we’d remember only this second, enduring union.

Nancy Reagan wasn’t big on policy. Her unfortunate “Just Say No” campaign oversimplified the scourge of addiction. Her real mission was her husband. She adored him with the kind of zeal that evangelicals reserve for God, and I do think Ronnie was her church, her true north, her faith. The look in her eyes when she gazed upon him was something out of those old Mass cards I used to collect as a child, with the heavenward gaze of saints.

Some have written obituaries in other terms. They’ve said there is something wrong in turning your life over to your mate, and that a woman’s highest calling is to herself.

We’ll just disagree on that, because I believe that our engagement and concern for others far exceeds, in moral value, the elevation and independence of self.

What we can agree on is that Nancy is back in her Ronnie’s arms, and that is the stuff of paradise.


Christine Flowers is an attorney and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.