|Page 2 of 3 < >|
From the Second City, An Extended First Family
Marian built a life entrenched in routine, and almost all of her activities revolved around family. Until she retired last year, she carpooled to her job as an assistant in the trust department of a downtown bank with her sister Grace Hale, who lives in a duplex around the corner. On Thursdays, Marian took a yoga class taught by her brother Steve Shields. She visited a downtown hair salon on Saturday mornings and then went to River Oaks Mall with Hale, who doesn't drive. Afterward, the two women treated themselves to lunch, usually at Red Lobster or Bennigan's, before stopping to do their weekly grocery shopping on the way home.
"We are longtime doers of everything," said Hale, 68, who works at a medical company. "We like things simple. We've never needed too much. All of us have our lives here, and we have them set the way we like."
After Obama announced plans to run for president in February 2007, the extended family worked to adapt. Marian, who had never before wanted to retire, quit her job so she could watch over Malia and Sasha and sometimes spent the night at their home in Hyde Park while the Obamas campaigned. She listened to the girls' morning piano practice and then ferried them to school, tennis, gymnastics, dance and drama -- a modern parenting schedule that sometimes made Marian yearn for actual retirement, she joked.
Still, she loved being around her grandchildren, and she insisted on watching them rather than hiring a babysitter. In the Robinson family, nobody relied too heavily on babysitters. With dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins nearby, Marian thought, why would you?
"I've heard Barack and Michelle say that their greatest comfort was having Marian watching the girls and a whole other rotation of us waiting and ready to back her up," said Wilson, the godmother. "Her being with those girls kept their lives normal."
Normal -- it was the goal they strived for, and a target that became increasingly elusive. Marian took a trip to a fundraiser at Oprah Winfrey's mansion and marveled at closets that looked bigger than her house. Hale accepted well wishes from strangers who rode with her on the No. 14 public bus that she takes each morning to work. At the Democratic National Convention, Wilson was crying alone in the Obama family box during Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech, grateful for anonymity, when she received a text message from her daughter: "Mom, they keep showing you on TV and you're wiping your nose with a paper bag. Get a tissue."
"It was like our private space was slowly disappearing," Wilson said.
The extended family continued to throw the usual parties -- a bash at Wilson's suburban home on Mother's Day, a get-together with about 60 people for Obama's birthday in August -- but now Secret Service agents secured the perimeter and gratefully accepted leftovers. The Obama daughters continued to visit the same friends for play dates, but now they rode in dark Chevy Suburbans driven by agents who had memorized the girls' favorite Jonas Brothers songs.
Marian adapted to one change at a time, steadfastly refusing to look ahead. While other family members predicted an Obama victory, Marian remained skeptical until election night. She hesitated to move into the White House -- it would be like living in a museum, she once said -- until she visited in November and saw her room. Even when she finally decided to leave Chicago, Marian told friends the move might only be temporary. She would stay in Washington as long as the family needed her, she said, and probably no longer.
"She's 71 years old, you know, and I wouldn't say she's set in her ways, but she certainly was comfortable in them," said Craig Robinson, Marian's son. "Moving, even if she had to move just downtown from where we lived in Chicago, it would have been a little bit of a daunting task to get her arms around. I don't think I'm telling any tales out of school when I say that she had to think hard about going to the White House. She knew it was going to be a serious change."
The White House isn't a bad place to stay, Marian has told friends, but it still lacks the comforts of home. She went for a walk downtown every day while staying at Blair House, but leaving the White House grounds requires security coordination and planning. Staff members have offered to help her find a yoga class, but she joked that she would rather take her brother's class in Chicago via webcam. Every Saturday, Marian calls her sister Grace Hale to make sure she found her own way to the grocery store.
Marian confessed to friends in Chicago that she is worried about boredom, and they suggested she volunteer for a few hours each day for a government agency, possibly doing accounting. Marian agreed to look into it; she has always been good with numbers.