Dunham’s choices and character were not without family precedent. Education was both goal and structure for her Kansan forbears, who were farmers, teachers and ministers; both of her paternal grandparents attended college, and two of her mother’s siblings earned graduate degrees.
Her mother, though, the oldest, saw her own plans for college cut down by the Depression and looming war. Madelyn Payne escaped the boredom of sturdily simple Augusta, Kan., by slipping away from her prom at 17 and marrying the dashing Stanley Dunham, much to the dismay of her parents. Their marriage was stormy and long-lasting. Madelyn worked her way up to be the first female vice president of the Bank of Hawaii, outearning her husband. When her only child announced that she intended to marry the charismatic Kenyan, Madelyn surely would have remembered “her youthful romantic rebellion, her secret marriage and her parents’ reaction.”
Resilience mattered. When Stanley decided that the family would move, for the eighth time, and settle in Hawaii, Madelyn remarked to one of Ann’s friends, “We Dunhams usually bob to the surface.” Ann coped by alertly observing each new setting while remaining a bit detached, and she taught her son to do the same. She grew to relish moving through different worlds that way. She was always “dislocating the center,” as a friend put it. Her son would come to yearn for stability, a sense of self and place.
“She was a very strong person in her own way,” the president told Scott, “able to bounce back from setbacks, persistent — the fact that she ended up finishing her dissertation. But despite all those strengths, she was not a well-organized person. And that disorganization, you know, spilled over.” He said she took too much for granted that everything would just work out, and that had it not been for his grandparents, particularly the more conventional Madelyn, “there to provide that floor, I think our young lives could have been much more chaotic than they were.”
The same global upbringing that lent Barack an Indonesian calm and an outsider’s curiosityalso led him to seek a more traditional family life. And so he chose Michelle Robinson, a woman who had returned to the South Side of Chicago after Princeton and Harvard, whose mother had stayed home when her children were young, whose father never missed a day of work at the city’s water-filtration plant. “She moved systematically through her life, making sensible, considered decisions, each building to the next,” Scott writes.