From the Second City, An Extended First Family
Sunday, February 1, 2009
A bus filled with about 50 of President Obama's friends and in-laws arrived at the White House just after midnight, as Inauguration Day came to a close, for what they called a "housewarming party." The group had celebrated more than a dozen moves together over the years, usually with casual dinners in bungalows on the South Side of Chicago. This time, they wore rented tuxedos and gowns as a small army of presidential staffers ushered them past Secret Service agents and into the East Room.
Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's mother and the family matriarch, came downstairs from her new bedroom, and the family reunited on an oak parquet floor underneath crystal chandeliers. Celebrities and political power brokers greeted them. Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis played trumpet while caterers handed out hors d'oeuvres and flutes of champagne.
About an hour into the reception, Obama returned from his whirlwind tour of 10 inaugural balls. His wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, went to bed, exhausted. But the new president called over a photographer and explained that he wanted one final memento from the historic day. He gathered his in-laws -- teachers, secretaries and retirees from a self-described middle-class black family in Chicago -- and posed with them beneath a 1797 portrait of George Washington in his velvet suit.
"I was just trying to soak it all in, and then this realization hit me," said Steve Shields, 57, Michelle Obama's uncle. "It was like, 'Okay. This is different. All of the sudden, we are the family that's, like, at the center of the universe.' "
To help him adjust to Washington, President Obama has lifted an entire network of unassuming friends and in-laws from the South Side into the capital's stratosphere. None of them has been more suddenly transported than Robinson, 71, who has moved from the walk-up home where she spent 40 years to the historic mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She has a room on the third floor, one level up from the Obamas, with a four-poster bed, a walk-in closet, a television set and a small sitting area for guests. She can walk down the hall to visit Malia and Sasha in their playroom, where the girls will spend as much time with their Nintendo Wii as Grandma allows. Or she can step over to the solarium to read on a plush couch or gaze out the bay windows, with their sweeping views of the Washington Monument and the city beyond.
Robinson sometimes yearns for her anonymous life in Chicago, but she is committed to making the president and first lady feel at home. And she is hardly alone in that commitment. Kaye Wilson, godmother to both Obama daughters, will visit about once a month to cook family favorites and twist Malia's hair. More than a dozen other friends and relatives -- some of whom have never so much as visited Washington -- are scheduling spring sleepovers in the White House.
How well the group handles its rise to extended first family could foretell the president's happiness in his new job. Obama generally shied away from new friendships during his political ascendancy, preferring the company of the people who had babysat his daughters and thrown his birthday parties -- people who would retell familiar jokes. As the state senator became a U.S. senator and waged a successful campaign for the presidency, the extended network provided a cocoon of normalcy. Now, as extended first family, the friends and in-laws wonder: Can normalcy ever be re-created?
"The way [the Obamas] got this far was with support from all of these people in Chicago," said Wilson, the godmother, who works as an artist and consultant in Olympia Fields, Ill. "They always had people to depend on, friends who watched the girls and took care of things so some part of their life could stay the same. That group has to stick together. We have to find a way to make their lives comfortable in Washington."
Until last week, the family nexus had remained 700 miles to the west, at a two-story house on Euclid Street in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. Robinson and her husband, Fraser, rented a small apartment on the house's second floor from an aunt, who lived downstairs. As toddlers, their children, Michelle and Craig, shared a large bedroom. It was a tidy home in a predominantly black, working-class neighborhood -- safe and affordable -- and Marian Robinson loved it. She sent Michelle and Craig to the elementary school down the block and took them to South Shore Methodist Church across the street.
In that house, she raised two future Ivy League students, cared for her dying aunt and sick husband, and lived alone as a widow for almost two decades. She parked on the street and shoveled snow off her sidewalk. In the winter, she played the piano or watched home improvement shows on an aging television surrounded by pictures of four generations of her family. On summer days, she read the entire newspaper and then worked crosswords and other puzzles on her brick sun porch.
It was home, and she never planned to leave.
Few in the Robinson family have ever left Chicago. Marian grew up the daughter of a painter and a stay-at-home mother in a small house with seven siblings on the South Side, and all five of her surviving brothers and sisters still live within 15 miles. They gather every few months for holidays and impromptu dinners. When Michelle married Barack Obama, who had no family nearby, the Robinsons adopted him as one of their own and threw his birthday parties.