George H.W. Bush meant it as a grand romantic gesture: After his wife Barbara swooned over the painted cow statues installed around Houston in 2001, he decided to surprise her with one. But as the former president paced a warehouse full of colorful works by local artists with his longtime chief of staff Jean Becker, he couldn't decide which bovine his wife would like best.

"So he bought a blank one," Becker recalls with a laugh. Ever practical, "Mrs. Bush turned it into a family art project."

The former first lady, who died last year at the age of 92, had the stark-white cow placed on the lawn of the family's seaside home in Kennebunkport, Maine. And, over the years since, she and George had each of their five children, 17 grandchildren, and 8-and-counting great-grands, decorate its hide with paint handprints and autographs.

C.A. Smith Photography

(A source tells PEOPLE that the couple's rascally eldest child, former president George W. Bush, placed his handprint square on the cow's backside.)

Today, that cow, with a blank little calf on standby for future generations, still graces the lawn of the Bushes' Walker's Point compound in Maine.

jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty

It is an unconventional monument to the life she and George, 93, built in their 73 years together and a monument as homespun as the woman — trademark white hair and costume pearls and all — who grew to cherish it.

"That statue," says Bonnie Steinroeder, the Bushes' former pastor in Kennebunkport, "was Barbara's prize possession.

  • With reporting by DIANE HERBST