LOS ANGELES--Last week, the world remembered Ronald Reagan as the president who restored America's faith in itself. But for a small group of Westside mothers and nannies who took their children to local parks, there was a different Ronald Reagan to remember: the one who came into our lives when his public life ended and gave us the chance for a special relationship.
We first saw Reagan at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills in the mid-'90s. He was working back then at his Century City office, and he often walked through the nearby park around lunchtime when it was crawling with kids and nannies and moms. Surrounded by his Secret Service detail, wearing a jacket, he still seemed presidential. He would shake hands and say hello to anyone who came near. I have a friend who, with her father, followed him for several laps around the park's path, just because "I felt honored to be in his presence, even though I didn't agree with his politics," she said last week.
Soon, we didn't see him on the path anymore. Instead, he sat on the bench at the edge of the play area and watched our children. And that's when we got to know the Ronald Reagan he had become. His hair was gray now. He had traded in his office clothes for a grandfatherly sweater, polo shirt, and a baseball cap--all of which somehow looked too large. Although the Secret Service surely was there, it was usually only his nurse we saw. She would sit beside him as our children, oblivious to who he was, ran screaming by, flinging drips of popsicles in his direction. We never tried to stop them. We could tell by the way he smiled as they scrambled by that he didn't want us to. When you live on the west side, you become accustomed to celebrities; the Annette Benings and Jodie Fosters of the world all showed up at the park. We would stare when they weren't looking and dissect their every detail, like those designer diaper bags. When they were looking, we'd act as if they didn't exist.
Not so with President Reagan. Every parent, every immigrant nanny, every jogger came by to tell him what his time in the White House had meant to them. The Latino nannies, many in the country illegally, were particularly fond of him. My own baby sitter, who moved from Guatemala and became a U.S. citizen, kept her son home from school and brought him to the park, just on the chance that he would get to meet the former president. And he did.
Reagan didn't speak much to the adults. It was our children he was interested in. Time and again these sticky little specimens encrusted with juice and sand would come up next to him as they made their way to the bags of snacks on the bench. And he would beckon them closer. My daughter, Lena, was just 4 in 1997, the first time she met him. Although I hadn't been a Reagan supporter, I wanted her to meet him, for her to know that this friendly man had been the president. And he wanted to meet her. He held out his hand to shake hers. She was afraid, but he smiled, kept his hand there, and then said, "It's nice to meet you, young lady." And it was that voice--the voice that told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. It was the most Reagan thing left of Ronald Reagan in those days. He charmed my daughter, and she put out her hand.
Reagan was at Roxbury Park, and another one in nearby Holmby Hills, a lot during 1997 and 1998. And though he gradually stopped speaking to us--and our children--we never stopped speaking to him or having the kids play close by where he could watch. Then he went away. I'd heard he was doing poorly and assumed he wouldn't be back. But there was one last time at Holmby Park. My children were discovering the wonders of sunblock that came out of the bottle purple. They were covered in it. And so was half the sidewalk. As I bent to clean them off, I glanced up, and under the brim of a baseball cap that seemed 10 sizes too big was the former president, on the bench in front of us. He was very gray and very thin. His body looked as if somehow it had lost its purpose. His familiar half smile was gone. The gaze was faraway.