Barbara Pierce Bush remembers her favorite moments growing up with grandfather George H.W. Bush. "He would choose us first always," she says

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sam Gillette
December 03, 2018 01:41 PM
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Former president George H.W. Bush‘s death at 94 on Friday elicited a wave of memories from his friends and tributes from his peers in politics. But for Barbara Pierce Bush, one of her most treasured memories is how, on one of the highest-stakes nights of his political life, her grandfather put a distraught little girl and her missing stuffed tiger first.

“He was so present in our lives,” Barbara, 37, says in an emotional new interview with PEOPLE.

She and her twin sister, Jenna Bush Hager, are the daughters of former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush.

“Because he was also the president of the United States, I don’t think we quite realized the gravity of the responsibility that he was holding. I have so many memories [of] him because we were with him so often. We spent every summer with him since we were born, regardless of what role he was in politically.”

Allison V. Smith

She recalls one overnight stay in particular when her grandfather — “Gampy” — was vice president. (He served as vice president during the Ronald Reagan administration from 1981 until 1989.) Rather than preparing for an important presidential debate the next day, he and his wife — Barbara’s namesake — spent the day playing with their twin granddaughters.

“It was the night before he had a debate against Michael Dukakis,” Barbara says. “And now Jenna and I of course laugh, because we’re like, how did my parents end up letting us stay with him? Obviously he was doing debate prep and should have been doing debate prep.”

George H.W. Bush with his grandchildren
Susan Biddle/White House/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
Barbara Bush (left), George H.W. Bush (center) and Jenna Bush Hager (right)
Jenna Hager/Instagram

Instead, says Barbara, “Jenna and I played with my grandparents the majority of the day. We played house and played out on the lawn. I just remember playing all day.”

It was all fun and games until she realized that her stuffed tiger Spikey, which Gampy had won for her at the circus, was missing.

“He and my grandmother were putting us to bed and I couldn’t find Spikey. I’d lost him sometime during the day,” the former first daughter says. “And so I got very upset and very sad. And my sister told my grandfather I wouldn’t be able to sleep without Spikey.”

And so the hunt began.

“[My grandfather] and all the Secret Service men went outside, because we’d played outside all day, with their Maglites and looked everywhere for Spikey,” Barbara recalls. “And of course by the time he came back in, Jenna and I had totally fallen asleep very peacefully. We found Spikey the next morning when we opened the curtains. He was behind there [because] we’d been playing house.”

There’s a reason this memory stands out to her, Barbara explains.

George H.W. Bush with Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush in 1990
Doug Mills/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“It wasn’t until I was older that I realized what he was doing the next day,” she says. “That the next day he had a debate for running for president. And of course he did this first.”

She adds, “But that was just so him. He would choose us first always.”

In her grief, Barbara also finds comfort in more recent memories.

On Oct. 7, 2018, she married screenwriter Craig Coyne in an intimate ceremony. Coyne learned about her family’s history and chose to propose in the same spot in Kennebunkport where Bush had proposed to his wife, the late Barbara Bush, almost exactly 75 years earlier, in August 1943. Barbara Bush died earlier this year, on April 17, 2018.

“[My grandfather] being at my wedding is a memory that I will always be so grateful for,” says Barbara. “Because he was just so involved and sang the songs and read all the readings. [He] came out early because he wanted to see what I was going to look like in my wedding dress.”

She adds, “[He was] just so eager to be there, which I knew was a stretch for him because he was 95 and in a wheelchair and didn’t have tons and tons of actual physical energy.”

While she loves the memories from her childhood, she also cherishes the time she’s had alone with him.

“I have these new [memories] of just him and me, from when my grandmother passed away,” she says, “of us going to dinner and it being quieter. [It was] more one-on-one time.”

Bush’s state funeral will be held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET. In a presidential proclamation, President Donald Trump declared that Wednesday would be dedicated to Bush’s memory and that flags should be lowered to half-staff in his honor for 30 days.