The woman who becomes America's 38th first lady today, a handsome, white-haired grandmother known for her straightforward manner and self-deprecating wit, is in many ways typical of a generation of political wives caught between tradition and change. Barbara Bush, at 63 the second-oldest president's wife to assume the unofficial title of first lady, grew up in a family of comfortable means and married into another of similar affluence. But unlike her contemporaries content to resume the structured, predictable pre-World War II lifestyles of their well-to-do parents, she was an eager and willing partner in her young husband's search for new horizons after he came home from the war. "Fortunately, I'd married someone who shared these ideas about breaking away," George Bush writes of her in his 1987 autobiography "Looking Forward," telling how at Yale, where he was studying economics, they talked often about "doing something different with our lives; we didn't put any limit on our imagination either." Like Abigail Adams, who was opinionated, sharp-tongued and devoted to her husband, and to whom she is sometimes compared, Barbara Bush was a steadfast helpmate, tending to her family's needs while her husband worked his way to the presidency. Although the roles she undertook were traditional, her concerns seemed to reflect those of contemporary women regarding their families and place in the work force. But she declined to disagree publicly with positions her husband took during his campaigns. In his book George Bush writes that as the mother of their children, George W., 42, John, 35, Neil, 33, Marvin, 32, and Dorothy, 29, "Barbara was the mainstay, of course, the parent who was always there to help solve the daily problems and emergencies of teen and preteen life." She never sought a career of her own or held a paid job -- "I've always thought that if I could get five children through college I would be a roaring success" -- but she believed in what she called "passages, times in your life. I think there was a time in my life where I really nested and was a mother." She also said she believed it was good for someone to take on a new subject of interest every 10 years. After returning from the People's Republic of China, where Bush was U.S. liaison officer in 1974-75, she gave lectures about the country, a discipline that later worked to her advantage in Bush's presidential campaigns. She had long done volunteer work in hospitals and in efforts to combat leukemia and illiteracy -- concerns rooted in their daughter Robin's death from leukemia at the age of 3 in 1953 and son Neil's battle with dyslexia. By 1984, she revealed a new interest -- editing -- and claimed to be the editor of a book written by the family's cocker spaniel titled "C. Fred's Story." The book was published by Doubleday, and Mrs. Bush donated its proceeds to two national literacy organizations, Laubach Literacy Action and Literacy Volunteers of America Inc. She may be the most widely traveled president's wife to enter the White House. During the eight years Bush was vice president, she accompanied him to 68 countries and four territories on trips totaling 1,309,143 miles, the equivalent of 53 times around the world. There was hardly a world leader she didn't meet. "Not that they know me, but I know them. In fact, it's not just foreigners who don't know me," she once joked, describing how an American guest at a Swedish Embassy reception honoring the Bushes had mistaken her for Helena Shultz, wife of the secretary of state. Vintage Barbara Bush was when she set herself up as the butt of a joke, a side of her that won her converts -- if not necessarily votes for her husband -- throughout the 1988 presidential campaign. Some of her best lines poked fun at her white hair, which she refused to dye despite critics who sniped that she looked older than her 64-year-old husband. "It's the gray-haired ladies who come up and say, 'Gee, you look exactly like my mother' that worry me a bit," she kidded. Born Barbara Pierce on June 8, 1925, she was one of Marvin Pierce and Pauline Robinson Pierce's four children. Marvin Pierce, publisher of McCall's magazine, was a distant nephew of President Franklin Pierce (1853-57), the only incumbent president willing to seek reelection whose party failed to renominate him. "The only thing I remember about him was years ago as a child, reading that he was one of our weakest presidents. I was humiliated," Barbara Bush recalled. The Pierces lived in the prosperous New York City suburb of Rye. The children attended private schools, played tennis and golf, and in the summer swam daily; Barbara Bush still swims 60 laps every morning when at the Bushes' Walker Point home in Kennebunkport, Maine. "Nobody ever said I was competitive," she said. "I'd be a better player if I were more competitive. I like to win, though." She was close to her father, and of her siblings the least close to her mother. She once described herself as a "very happy, fat child who spent all my life with my mother saying 'Eat up, Martha' to my older sister, and 'Not you, Barbara.' " She was 16, a student at a private school in South Carolina, and home for the holidays when she met George Bush, a 17-year-old senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Conn. He was her first and only love, the only boy she ever kissed, and when she went on to Smith College, her heart wasn't in it. "I didn't like to study very much," she said later. "I was all right in high school, but when it came to Smith I was a cliffhanger. The truth is, I just wasn't very interested. I was just interested in George." A navy lieutenant j.g. flying combat missions in the Pacific, Bush was shot down and missing for a time, but she waited for him to come back, and he did in a storybook return on Christmas Eve 1944. Two weeks later, on Jan. 6, 1945, at the age of 19, she married him, dropping out of Smith. By that fall the war was over and the Bushes were at New Haven. "At Yale I sat behind third base -- the dugout was right in front of it. I loved baseball {Bush became captain of the team}. The coach made me eventually move behind first base because it had a big wire up there and I was very pregnant," she said. Their first child, George, was born in New Haven. "By the time we moved I knew how to wash diapers and cook dinner. In those days we made formula. Now I've got all these grandbabies {10, with the 11th due in February} who come to visit and everything is done -- Pampers, no formula. Their parents don't have any idea what it's like to wake up at midnight and sterilize bottles and panic realizing you haven't made the formula," she said. Both she and George Bush were children of strong mothers, and Barbara Bush once said moving to Texas in 1948 had been good for their marriage. "When you become a couple all grown up, nobody's son or daughter, nobody's shadow, you are you. For me it was a very healthy thing. I grew up after I left the shadow of my mother." By the time the Bushes returned to live in Washington in January 1981, they had lived in 17 cities and 28 houses. "Nothing will ever get to look the way I want it -- we will move just before I get it perfect," she said, although she lived in the vice president's house on Massachusetts Avenue NW longer than any other of her married life. "But I'll go on, wherever it is. Everyplace I am with George Bush feels like home," she once said. Presumably, that includes the White House.