For Barbara Bush, family always came first. “She didn’t come off as a first lady but as a loving, caring mother,” friend Brad Meltzer exclusively tells Closer. “She told me to read to my children at night — it wasn’t about the book, but holding the kids on your lap and loving them. She was a truly incredible mother and grandmother.”

When Barbara died at age 92 on April 17, she left a unique legacy: She was the better half of the longest presidential marriage in history, having been wed to George H.W. Bush for 73 years, and she was also the mother of President George W. Bush. Thanks to Barbara’s steely spine, wry one-liners and plainspoken style, Americans cherished her as much as her family did. “I always knew Barbara was the most beloved woman in the world, and in fact I used to tease her that I had a complex about that fact. But the truth is the outpouring of love and friendship being directed at ‘The Enforcer’ is lifting us all up,” her husband, 93, said, using her sly nickname, after her death. “We have faith she is in heaven, and we know life will go on — as she would have it.”

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As she fought for causes like literacy, Barbara always came across as genuine, sincere, and authentically herself. “She was never going to be glamorous like Jackie Kennedy or a former movie star like Nancy Reagan,” a friend tells Closer. “And she didn’t try — she never thought of dying her hair or smoothing out her wrinkles. She said she earned every one!”

A mother of six (including daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age three in 1953), Barbara kept the family’s household running smoothly while her husband was traveling the world as an oilman and, later, a politician. Still, she always spoke her mind. “She never forgot she was her own person,” another friend tells Closer. “And she had every right to call it as she saw it.”

That was a lesson she passed on to her loved ones, including her granddaughter, Today contributor Jenna Bush Hager, who wrote in a note to Barbara shortly before her passing, “You were our family’s rock, the glue that held us together.” She was also noted for her quick wit. “What you see with me is what you get,” she said in 1988, when her VP husband was seeking to succeed Ronald Reagan. “I’m not running for president — George Bush is.”

Being able to laugh at life — and herself — helped keep her grounded as she moved in the highest-profile circles. “The key to her marriage was a good sense of humor,” says Meltzer. “She was always so sharp and caring, and when you were with her, you left feeling amazing. At the end of the day, the woman always had class.”

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