Marian Robinson obituary: down-to-earth matriarch of the Obama family

‘Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,’ she said after moving into the White House

Born July 29th, 1937

Died May 31st, 2024

Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother and an anchor of the Obama family who moved into the White House and provided stability for her two granddaughters as the family adjusted to Washington, has died aged 86.

Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Robinson was known as a down-to-earth matriarch who became an emotional ballast for her daughter and granddaughters, Malia and Sasha, but also for the former president.

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When Obama became the first black person to win the presidency in November 2008, he watched the returns alongside his mother-in-law. Their hands were clasped as they watched their future change.

But Robinson stayed much the same. “Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,” she said after moving into the White House, the Obamas recalled in their statement.

Robinson was never comfortable with the trappings of the White House and much preferred to take her dinner on a TV tray in her third-floor suite. “The only guest she made a point of asking to meet was the pope,” the family said.

In addition to Michelle Obama, Robinson’s survivors include her son, Craig, and six grandchildren. Her husband, Fraser Robinson III, died in 1991.

Robinson’s move to Washington, in January 2009, was said at first to be temporary, to help her daughter and granddaughters adjust. At the time, she was hesitant to commit to a life inside a White House bubble, but even as she resisted, she revealed the resolve and the sense of humour that she had tried to instil in her children. “In the end, I’ll do whatever,” she told reporters at the time. “I might fuss a little, but I’ll be there.”

Robinson resided in her White House suite for most of Barack Obama’s eight years in office. She continued the duties she had started during his first presidential campaign, including enforcing bedtimes for her granddaughters, running their baths and making sure they got to school on time. She eventually adjusted, attending events at the Kennedy Center, hosting friends from Chicago and occasionally hiring a babysitter to watch the girls. “The girls needed her,” the family statement said. “And she ended up being our rock through it all.”

To her daughter, she had been a model of support. In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama wrote that she had wanted to be a career woman and a “perfect” mother, as her own had been. “I had so much – an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition,” she wrote. “And I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me.”

Marian Lois Shields Robinson was born July 29th, 1937, in Chicago. Her father, Purnell Shields, had moved to Chicago from Alabama in the 1920s to escape the Jim Crow South. Her mother, Rebecca Jumper, was a nursing aide. As a young woman, Marian “fell quickly and madly in love with Fraser Robinson, another South Sider with a boxer’s strength and jazz lover’s cool,” the family said.

The Robinsons were married in 1960. Craig Robinson was born in 1962, Michelle in 1964.

The Robinsons raised their children in a second-floor apartment on Euclid Avenue, on the South Side, where they interacted with a rotating cast of extended family members, including a great-aunt who taught piano and lived in the first-floor apartment.

Michelle Obama said that her mother and other family members, including her older brother, largely shielded her from the civil rights protests that roiled Chicago and much of the nation in the late 1960s. Instead, she said, she grew up listening to the clinking of piano keys rising from the floor below.

When Michelle Obama was in elementary school, Robinson asked that her daughter be moved into a gifted third-grade class, an act of advocacy that Obama said helped change her life. As the Robinson children grew into adults, they said, she offered her support, whether Craig “decided to leave a lucrative finance job to pursue his dream of coaching basketball” or “Michelle married a guy crazy enough to go into politics.”

Robinson was alongside her daughter and granddaughters when they ran upstairs to see the White House residence for the first time, after Barack Obama won the election in November 2008.

Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said that the Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, invited the Obama family to a tour of what would be their new home. McBride recalled in an interview that Robinson was quiet as the White House chief usher greeted the family. But if she was nervous, she did not let it show. “She followed her daughter and her granddaughters on this adventure,” McBride said. “It’s a reminder that as lofty as it may seem, and as unattainable as it may seem, anybody can live there, and they can make a family life and a family home.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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