When you are one of 17 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, one-on-one time with the head of the family can be a rare treasure.
Barbara Pierce Bush had that privilege in her grandfather’s final months. And it is something she holds especially dear as she gathers with her extended family for Wednesday’s National Day of Mourning for former president George H.W. Bush, the man she called “Gampy.” He died on Nov. 30 at the age of 94.
In a deeply personal interview for the new issue of PEOPLE, Barbara, 37, recalls at length the tender, quiet days she spent with her grandfather in early summer. It was his first summer at the family’s Kennebunkport, Maine, retreat without his wife of 73 years, Barbara — the granddaughter’s namesake — who died in April at the age of 92.
In the former first daughter’s own words:
I went to Maine at the beginning of the summer, when he had just gotten up there and none of our family members were there yet. I had the luxury of being able to take time off of work and so I went up there and Craig (Coyne, now her husband) went with me.
Our days revolved around my grandfather taking naps and then we’d have all of our meals together. In between, I would read to him. He loved being read to — either in the sun outside on the porch so he could see the ocean, or in his bedroom if it was too cold.
I read him different books on geopolitics, the CIA or things of his interest. And then, luckily, my cousin Ellie LeBlond Sosa had written a book about my grandparents’ love story — it was brand new — and that’s what I ended up reading to him the most. He loved it. It was most certainly a walk down memory lane and it contained many of the love letters that he had written to my grandmother, and then also many of the letters from when he was younger that he had written to his mom about my grandmother before they were married.
He was in a chair and I would sit on the floor next to him or sit in the chair next to his. That was the chair that my grandmother always sat in. They had these two chairs in their bedroom next to each other and they would sit in them next to each other — always.
I would read to him and he would start to close his eyes, because normally I would read to him after lunch. I would think that he was drifting off to take a nap. And so I’d slowly start to wrap up and quietly walk out. But every time he would say, “Keep reading.” Like he had just closed his eyes to think about the memory. Every single time I tried to sneak out because I thought he was asleep, he was wide awake and wanted to hear the rest.
At one point, I said, “It’s so quiet without Ganny here.” And he laughed and he said, “Are you trying to say she talks too much?” He was as light as he could be, and as grateful that he was still alive.
We would go out to dinner. That was the beginning of the summer so he was in better health. And it was very sweet. He would get dressed up in a blazer and go out on a date together. He would eat oysters and drink a martini, which I thought was great because he was 94 and who really cares if he’s not supposed to?
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We had plenty of moments talking about my grandmother. I remember I asked him if his heart was broken and he said yes. But I think he also knew that he would see her soon.
I don’t think that it seemed far off to him.
For more on President George H.W. Bush’s life and legacy — including more reflections from Barbara and exclusive interviews from close friends — pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.