As Priscilla Presley prepared to say goodbye to her 95-year-old mother Ann in the days leading up to her death on Aug. 2, she was reminded of something important.
“I had a priest come in to give her her last rites about four days before she died, and he told me, ‘Remember Priscilla, hearing is the last thing that goes, so say positive things for her spirit,'” the actress recalls in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
With that in mind, Priscilla, 76, decided to play her late ex-husband Elvis Presley’s gospel music for her mother.
“Every night I’d play Elvis’ gospel music to her — ‘In the Garden,” Amazing Grace,’ ‘How Great Thou Art,'” she says. “All the songs she loved. She was basically in a coma, but she would just touch my finger so I knew that she was there. She was listening.”
On the day her mom died, Priscilla says she took her hand and said, “It’s okay to go.”
Afterward, she continues, “she had a little smile on her face, and then I felt this air coming from her. I never experienced that before — the actual feeling of the spirit coming out of the body.”
It was the latest loss in several difficult years. In 2020 Priscilla’s grandson Benjamin Keough died by suicide at age 27. (Priscilla is also grandmother to daughter Lisa Marie’s three other children: actress Riley Keough, 32, and twins Finley and Harper Lockwood, 12.) Two years earlier her father, Paul, died.
To cope, Priscilla says, she’s learned to “embrace” it all, both the good and the bad, which has helped her cherish every memory of Elvis.
Few knew Elvis as well as Priscilla, who famously — and still shockingly — first met the singer when she was just 14.
While living in West Germany — where the New York City native moved with her mom and her dad, a U.S. Air Force captain, after he was transferred there in the late ’50s — she was invited to a party at the house Elvis rented in Bad Nauheim during his stint in the U.S. Army.
The moment she met the musician, then in his mid-20s and already a superstar with hits like “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” Priscilla knew immediately she “had to keep him,” she says now. “I wanted to go places with him. I would cry if I couldn’t be around him.”
In 1963, three years after Elvis returned to the U.S., Priscilla’s parents let her move from Germany to Memphis — where the Tupelo, Mississippi-born star had moved with his family as a teen — on the condition that she live with his father and stepmother in their home a mile away from his Graceland mansion.
Four years later, when he was 32 and she was 21, they were married.
As his wife, “I was always ready to greet him at the door and pamper him,” says Priscilla. “I loved taking care of Elvis very much. I loved tending to him. I loved feeding him. We would baby talk, because you have to have your own language when you have that many people around. It was a good life. It was different, but it was ours.”
The birth of their daughter Lisa Marie in 1968 cemented their bond, but after six sometimes tumultuous years of marriage, they divorced in 1973.
From there, Priscilla went on to have a successful acting career, with roles on the prime-time soap Dallas and in the Naked Gun film franchise, and although her marriage to Elvis didn’t last, she has no regrets about it.
“I truly cherish the great times. As you grow up, there are always fears and insecurities,” says Priscilla, who also has a son, Navarone, 34, from her post-Elvis relationship with Marco Garibaldi. “But as you get older you understand it all.”
For her next project, Priscilla is moving forward by looking back. On Sept. 4 Kruse GWS Auctions will begin taking live bids for a private lunch with Priscilla. Several pieces of Elvis memorabilia, including the eyelet jumpsuit he wore during his 1972 Madison Square Garden shows, will also be auctioned.
“I thought, ‘Why not be a part of it?'” says Priscilla. “I used to have a different opinion about these estate sales, but then as I got older I realized that you have to pass these things down to someone who’ll really appreciate them.”
A portion of the auction proceeds will go to the Dream Foundation — which supports terminally ill adults and their families — in honor of Priscilla’s mother.
“I’m just happy this year has passed,” she says, “and hopefully we can have some good news come in.”
As she faces the future with positivity, Priscilla is also bringing a new sense of purpose to her memories of Elvis, who died at age 42 from a heart attack in 1977.
“I want to make sure these young ones learning about him now will take the torch and keep it going,” she says. “He has a phenomenal legacy, and I will always cherish my moments with him.”
“I can’t believe it’s been 44 years [since he’s passed],” she adds. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but I believe that’s because he lives so much in me.”