By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
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.
Her primary daily task is to shepherd her grandchildren to and from school, and even that has stretched her comfort zone. For years, Marian drove 40 minutes to work near the Chicago Loop through hellacious weather and traffic, chauffeuring Hale to her job en route. Now, Marian sits in the back with the Obama daughters, who have been required to ride with the Secret Service since August, friends said.
"I think the hardest thing in her situation is that making new friends is almost impossible," said Wilson, the godmother. "I don't know how anybody makes friends from inside the White House. And when you get to our age, making friends anywhere is hard."
So the only option -- for Marian, for the Obamas -- is to bring their old friends to Washington. As Michelle said goodbye to the Chicago entourage at the end of the inauguration weekend, she encouraged a handful of friends and in-laws to immediately buy plane tickets for return trips to Washington. Wilson is back in town this weekend. Michelle's brother, Craig, a college basketball coach at Oregon State, will travel across the country with his family of four as much as possible. Friend Yvonne Davila will visit from Chicago with her two young daughters. A revolving door of aunts, uncles and cousins will provide a constant rotation of familiar faces.
"They've made it abundantly clear that we're welcome," said Yvonne Shields, a former in-law and one of Marian's closest friends.
The Robinsons used to vacation in White Cloud, Mich., where they shared rustic cabins in the woods, so transitioning to sleepovers at the White House has required some fine-tuning. A few hours after Obama took the oath of office, he asked Wilson if she and her husband were going to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.
"Oh, no, I can't do that," Wilson said. "I'd be the one who broke the glass and spilled my coffee on the Gettysburg Address."
Wilson stayed in Room 303 instead -- a suite with its own bathroom -- and Craig Robinson and his wife slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. Craig, who had never even toured the White House before, retired to a rosewood bed from the 1860s. He woke up and walked on the Truman Balcony, where 11 presidents have entertained the world elite.
"We're a pretty down-to-earth family from the South Side of Chicago, so nobody can get their arms around this whole thing," Craig said. "When all of our family was in there, it almost felt like: 'Wait. Are we at somebody's kitchen table? Because this can't actually be the White House.' The kids were off playing, and some of us adults sat back and just said: 'Can you believe this? Are you kidding?' "