What I Learned from My Mother, Nancy Reagan

On the former first lady's 90th birthday, her daughter, Patti Davis, reflects on the mixture of admiration and sadness.

by Patti Davis
nancy reagan and patti davis image
The author with her mom, Nancy Reagan.
Photograph: Scott Alan / PR Photos

My mother has said goodbye to a lot of her friends in the past few years; she has whispered affectionate words in hushed hospital rooms and later attended the funerals. So it’s not surprising that, as she turns 90, the end of her own life is sometimes on her mind. She speaks about the time when she will see my father again. She comes up with random memories, often a propos of nothing. They just arrive in the midst of a conversation--like telling me recently about the time when I was a toddler and had my first kiddie swimming lesson. My father, having been a lifeguard, insisted that his children learn to swim as soon as possible, which meant we weren’t even that proficient at walking when we were signed up for swim lessons.

“You were in the teacher’s arms in the pool,” she said, “and you looked at me and said, ‘Out, Mommie. Out.’ Then a few minutes later you were paddling around happy as a clam. You didn’t want to get out of the water.”

As daughters, we watch our mothers age with a mixture of sadness and admiration. Time narrows; 90 is a marker of a long life, and death is a subject that can’t be put off for another day. My mother thinks about what she will leave behind in terms of memories.

She’s softer now, counseling a friend’s son through his crumbling marriage.

Walking is difficult for her these days, and I admire her commitment to be as active as possible, and as independent as she can be. I think it must take great courage to accept that you simply have to move more slowly through the hours, and there are some things you can no longer do.

There is great grace in bending to life’s wheel, in not railing against the accumulation of years. I’ve learned as a daughter watching her mother age that it’s the best way to live.

Related: Patti Davis: My Body, Then and Now

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First Published July 6, 2011

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