An In-Law Is Finding Washington to Her Liking
New York Times
May 4, 2009
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
WASHINGTON — Marian Robinson, President Obama’s mother-in-law, moved into the White House “kicking and screaming,” said her son, Craig Robinson. She had never lived outside of Chicago and was reluctant to leave her beloved bungalow, her friends and family, her weekly yoga class and her familiar routines.
But after three months in the Executive Mansion, Mrs. Robinson is unexpectedly and decidedly savoring her new life.
She entertains visitors from Chicago. She attends White House dinners and concerts hosted by her daughter, the first lady, Michelle Obama. She dines at local restaurants and delights in events at the Kennedy Center, where she often sits in the president’s box and chats with performers.
In fact, Mrs. Robinson, 71, is so busy these days that the Obamas hired a baby sitter to watch their two daughters one evening because the nation’s first grandmother had plans.
“She has a very full social life, so much so that sometimes we have to plan our schedule around her schedule,” Mrs. Obama said jokingly last week during a lunch she hosted for Congressional spouses.
Mrs. Robinson still spends much of her time tending to the Obama girls, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. She shuttles them to and from school most days and accompanies them to some play dates, the first lady said. She attends class presentations, helps with homework and baby-sits when the president and first lady need extra help.
And with her plain-spoken, matter-of-fact manner, Mrs. Robinson helps keep the girls grounded amid the gilded trappings of their new lives.
But Mrs. Robinson has also managed to carve out her own space in the White House and to build a satisfying private life, according to Obama administration officials who know the family. Her bedroom sits on the third floor, just above the Obamas’ residential quarters. (The first lady told Oprah Winfrey recently that her mother often announced, “I’m going home,” as she headed upstairs.)
And because she remains a private citizen and still has something of an unfamiliar face, Mrs. Robinson can travel around Washington without being trailed by television cameras or recognized by the public even as she enjoys the perks of living at the White House. (Administration officials do not inform the news media about her comings and goings as they do with the president and first lady.)
For the first time in her adult life, she no longer has to cook or clean, unless she wants to. She participates in White House events; she sat alongside Malia and Sasha at a Black History Month performance of the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and joined Mrs. Obama in reading a story to schoolchildren at the Easter egg roll.
She has also become a familiar figure at the Kennedy Center, where she has watched performances by the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, the choreographer Debbie Allen and the jazz singer Kurt Elling, among others. (Mrs. Obama likes to joke that her mother has been to the theater more than she has.)
And she joined her daughter for lunch in March at the home of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
“There’s no standoffishness,” said Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey troupe, who was invited to the president’s box at the Kennedy Center to meet Mrs. Robinson. “She’s very open.”
Sally Quinn, a Washington writer and socialite, who met Mrs. Robinson at the lunch hosted by Mrs. Heinz Kerry, described her as “the perfect grandmother you’d kill for: cozy, nice, sweet, friendly, dear.”
“It seemed to me that she’s perfectly comfortable in her new life,” Ms. Quinn said.
That may come as a relief to the Obamas, who relied on Mrs. Robinson to help care for their children during the presidential campaign. They did not want to move into the White House without her, Craig Robinson said.
In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Robinson, the men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University, laughed as he described how Mrs. Obama pleaded with him to help lobby their mother, who was refusing to move from Chicago.
“My sister said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Mom; she’s not moving,’ ” Mr. Robinson recalled. He said his mother was utterly unswayed by Mrs. Obama’s description of the exciting new life they would all lead in Washington.
Mrs. Robinson, a retired bank secretary who ran the 50- and 100-yard dashes in the Illinois senior games well into her 60s, has always prized her independence.
“She doesn’t want grand; she doesn’t want great,” Mr. Robinson said. “She would much rather stay home.”
But Mrs. Robinson eventually decided to move in, at least for a while, to help her granddaughters get settled. If she stays through Mr. Obama’s term, she will be the first mother-in-law to live in the White House full time since the Truman presidency, historians say. She declined to comment for this article, but when asked recently by Essence magazine whether she was enjoying her new life, she answered in the affirmative.
“I really am,” she said. “You want to know why? Because my children are good parents. It makes it very easy to be a grandmother when your children are good parents.”
Last week, Mrs. Obama returned the compliment.
In her chat with Congressional spouses, she suggested that her mother helped bring something precious to the White House, a sense of normalcy in extraordinary times.
“I feel like I’ve never left Chicago,” the first lady said. “Soccer on Saturday — yes, I’m on a soccer field all day, just like many of you. Slumber parties — we had about seven girls over, screaming and yelling.
“And we’re shuttling kids back and forth to play dates, just like usual, although now my mom does a little more of the shuttling than I do. I’m glad to have her here.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company