An American Family’s Anchor to Windward

The forty-first President’s granddaughter, Ellie LeBlond Sosa, offers a peek in life on Walker’s Point.

If you were not living under a rock in 1988, you probably remember a heartwarming ad for the George H. W. Bush campaign: a beaming blonde toddler runs across a grassy yard into the arms of her grandfather, who lifts her high up in the sky and beams right back. That yard is Walker’s Point, the 11-acre peninsula in Kennebunkport that has belonged to the Walker-Bush family since 1902. And that toddler is Ellie LeBlond Sosa, the now 29-year-old daughter of Dorothy Bush Koch, the youngest of George and Barbara Bush’s five children. On a bright and sunny day last September I went to Kennebunkport to meet Sosa and her mother, tour the cape that has captivated America’s imagination for decades now, and maybe—just maybe—meet a president.

It’s slow going along Ocean Avenue, and around one bend traffic nearly comes to
a halt. Tourists crane their necks out of car windows. Others park, step out onto a grassy lookout and stand, pointing fingers and cameras toward a cluster of houses in the distance. I make my way past them and turn into the drive marked “Authorized Vehicles Only.” I’ve already passed a background check. The guard is expecting me. He collects my I.D., the gate opens, and a man with excellent posture in head-to- toe navy guides me to “the Bungalow,” the cottage belonging to Dorothy “Doro” Bush Koch and her family.

“Cottage” is a term used liberally in Maine, but in the case of the Bungalow that descriptor absolutely fits. On a tour of the single-story home, I spot sinks inside of bedrooms with dedicated hot and cold faucets. Walls are paneled with wood and bead board, decorated with paintings of bouquets and ships. Family photographs in sepia tones depict boys in knickers and girls in white dresses with big early-twentieth- century bows in their hair.

“This is just about the most dressed up I’ve been this summer,” says Ellie, to make a point about how casual things are around Walker’s Point these days. She’s wearing blue jeans and an Oxford shirt. She has a calm demeanor, blonde hair, and sea-green eyes that match the Bungalow’s beachy color scheme. “Everything is very old-school,” she says of the house. “It was my great-grandmother Dorothy Walker Bush’s house, and she was such a special person. We want to keep it the way she had it.” The Bungalow is one of the three older residences at Walker’s Point. The others are Gampy and Ganny’s (as they’re called by their 17 grandchildren) “Big House,” and “the Wandby,” named after a boat that ran aground in 1921 where the cottage now sits. When George H. W. Bush became president, the Wandby was airlifted to Walker’s Point to house the White House physician. When he left office, President Bush was given the option to purchase the house from the government or allow it to be airlifted out. He bought it, and now Ellie’s uncle Neil Bush and his family spend their summers in the cottage.

The property changed in other ways when George H. W. Bush became president
in 1988. A daisy field was paved over to become a landing strip for Marine One. Offices were built. Agents arrived—and more followed when the forty-third president, George W. Bush (President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush’s eldest son), held office from 2001 through 2009. In the last couple of years, Jeb Bush and Marvin Bush have built homes on the property. But through two Bush presidencies and the years since certain things have never changed. Every morning she’s in Maine, Barbara Bush watches the sun rise over the open ocean. The gardens remain as brilliant as ever thanks to Barbara Bush, Koch, and Walker’s Point’s long-time gardener, Annie Kennedy Phelps. And family traditions like the Walker Cup (the annual Bush family tennis tournament) and Taco Sundays at the Big House (a weekly taste of Texas which, on occasion, devolves into an eating contest among the grandsons) are still going strong. Family members look for any excuse to spend time together—especially if it involves some kind of physical activity. That’s fine by Sosa, who works for the Boston-based nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement and is a physical trainer in her spare time, running weekend boot camps and workout classes for family and friends on the Walker’s Point tennis courts.

As easy—and even appealing—as it would be to hole up on their private peninsula, the Bushes are a famously social family, deeply immersed in the Kennebunkport community. They’re involved with local churches, regulars at restaurants and
Dock Square shops, and among the many dog walkers on Gooch’s and Mother’s beaches in the mornings and evenings. “My grandparents have completely opened this place up to family and close friends,” says Sosa. “I actually know my second cousins once removed because the whole extended family comes here and uses the pool and goes in the ocean; they’re all just welcome to come and go. No matter where we all
live in the United States, everyone comes together here in the summer.” For this large, far-flung family, Kennebunkport has been an important constant, their “anchor to windward,” as the Bushes are known to say.

When I ask her what she’s learned from spending time with her grandparents at Walker’s Point, Sosa says, “the importance of service.” She talks about the example of their marriage, too. “They’re still just so in love and you can see it in everything they do. My grandfather doesn’t say as much these days, but the facial expressions? We’re always laughing when we’re around him. We’ll be at the table and he’ll make a facial expression or some funny movement with his hands, and Ganny just rolls her eyes,” Sosa says, smiling. Several years ago, she met her husband, Nicholas Sosa, at the Big House, and in 2014, they held their wedding reception at Walker’s Point, posing for pictures among the rocks she’d once hidden behind while playing manhunt with her cousins, and where her grandfather proposed to her grandmother in the summer of 1943. “They act kind of like they’re 22 years old,” says Sosa of her grandparents. “It’s amazing to see them together, and to know that you can still have that 70 years later.”

“Would you like to meet my grandfather?” Sosa asks when we return to the Bungalow. As if there’s any question. They’re going to take the boat to Barnacle Billy’s in Ogunquit for lunch, she explains, and I’m invited to see them off at the Yachtsman Lodge and Marina. On the docks, a half-hour later, I am introduced to the forty-first president of the United States of America. I smile so hard my face hurts. But mostly I watch Sosa as she helps him into his coat with the presidential seal and fixes his collar, all the while beaming. Her adoration is fierce. She looks exactly like the little girl from that long-ago commercial. The motor starts, and President George H. W. Bush and Doro Bush Koch and Ellie LeBlond Sosa make their way to the mouth of the Kennebunk River, trailed by the Secret Service. Then—this really happened—a bald eagle cuts through the sky. What can I do but leave it at that.