For four years, Marian Shields Robinson lived in the White House with her daughter Michelle, son-in-law President Barack Obama and granddaughters Malia and Sasha. Initially resisting moving to Washington, DC, in 2009, it was suggested by the family that the Chicago native try it for three months. A year later she had settled in the role of “First Granny.”
During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, Mrs. Robinson became a surrogate parent to her granddaughters because their parents traveled so much. She retired from her job as a secretary at a bank to shuttle them to school, piano and dance lessons, cooked their meals, ran their baths and put them to bed. During this time she played a critical role in the family’s effort to keep the girls lives as normal as possible. Two years later she was beginning to feel left out as the girls were growing up. But that’s normal to parents and grandparents as children settle in new neighborhoods, schools and meet new friends.
Tough and Independent
Marian Robinson known as a loving, tough-minded matriarch who rarely shies from speaking her mind has always prized her independence. She chose to work as a secretary, though her parents wanted her to be a teacher. She won gold medals in the 50- and 100- yard dashes in the 1997 Illinois Senior Olympics when she was well in her 60’s. She has often teased her daughter Michelle and president-elect about their household rules for her grandchildren. Bedtime at 8:30 pm (way too early) and only one hour of television are a few of the things she has suggested that their parents considered changing. “If you’re going to have some fried chicken” the yoga enthusiast says “ have fried chicken.”
The White House is a world away from the working class black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago where she and her late husband, Fraser Robinson, raised their children to succeed. She encouraged her children Craig and Michelle to speak their minds and gave them room to make mistakes. “It was always “work hard” and don’t let people stop you,” she says. She took math and reading workbooks home so they would always be ahead in school. And insisted on discipline and chores to teach them the importance of accountability. Her son, Craig Robinson, the men’s coach at Oregon State University, remembered those chores – “if we had a chore, we had to do it right.” he reflects. With her plain-spoken matter-of-fact manner, Mrs. Robinson helps keeps the girls grounded amid the gilded trappings of their present surroundings.
Adapting to Washington Life
Having never lived outside of Chicago, Marian unexpectedly savored her new life in Washington, DC. She left several siblings behind in Chicago. She made new friends and entertained visitors from Chicago at the White House. The Kennedy Center is one of her favorite places to visit as she has sat in the president’s box and watched performances by the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, choreographer Debbie Allen and jazz singer Kurt Elling, among notables. (Mrs. Obama has joked that her mother has been to the theater more than she has.) Judith Jamison, former Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey troupe says that “there’s no standoffishness” and “she’s very open” during their meeting at the Kennedy Center.
In 2011, she took her first trip abroad, flying Air Force One with the family to Russia, Italy and Ghana. She got to meet the pope, tour Rome’s ancient Colosseum and inspect a former slave holding compound in Ghana. She often travels to Las Vegas with her friends. Sally Quinn, A Washington writer and socialite, whom she met at a lunch hosted by Mrs. Heinz Kerry (wife of Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts), described her as “the perfect grandmother you’d kill for: cozy, nice, sweet, friendly and dear.”
Just a Normal Girl
Craig Robinson states his mother doesn’t want grand, doesn’t want great. “She would rather stay home.” She’s managed top carve out her own space in the White House and to build a satisfying life, according to Obama administration official’s who know the family. But home is her bedroom on the third floor of the White House (the First Family occupies the second floor) and she doesn’t eat dinner with the Obamas every night. She gives “Michelle’s family” time to spend together. She’s protective of her privacy as well. She’s become good friends with Betty Currie, former President Bill Clinton’s personal secretary. They hang out and have fun from time to time.
Yet she remains a private citizen and still has something of an unfamiliar face. She can travel around Washington and not be 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.)
Her only solo appearance came last summer when she and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a family friend from Chicago, read storybooks to elementary school pupils.
Mrs. Robinson’s move to the White House puts the Obamas in the same category with at least 1 million American families in which the head of the household shares the home with his or her parents and children (according to AARP, which represents people age 50 and older). Many of these arrangements aren’t because grandparents can’t live on their own anymore but because being there somehow makes life better, says Elinor Ginzler, AARP’s senior vice president for livable communities.