Obama mother-in-law on White House life: ‘Bigger than anything’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s mother-in-law lived her entire life in Chicago, so it was only natural that her move to the White House came with some resistance. Try it for three months, her son-in-law says the family suggested.

A year later, it seems Marian Robinson is here to stay.

She spends a lot of time looking after granddaughters Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8, but has been carving out a new life for herself, too. In the words of the president, she’s become “quite the lady about town.”

The widowed Mrs. Robinson has made friends and has had friends over to the White House. She goes shopping on her own, enjoys visits to the Kennedy Center and takes Malia and Sasha to and from school just about every day — all while enjoying a level of anonymity that has Obama and her own daughter, first lady Michelle Obama, feeling both pleased and a bit envious at the same time.

“She’s quite the lady about town,” Obama said. “But the nice thing is that she just walks out the gate and goes.”

Mrs. Robinson has given few interviews since moving to the White House. But she has made it clear that she was cool to the idea of moving and that she only did so reluctantly. She left several siblings behind in Chicago.

“They’re dragging me with them, and I’m not comfortable with that,” Mrs. Robinson, 72, told CBS television last year. “But I’m doing exactly what you do: You do what needs to be done.”

Mrs. Obama recently said her mother seems content in her new home.

“She wasn’t completely kicking and screaming, but it was clear that her preference would be to remain in her old life, and that this new White House, all this stuff, she could just hear about,” the first lady said.

“So I’m happy that she’s really settled in and feels like this is home for her, as well,” Mrs. Obama said.

For anyone, life in the White House is, well, life-changing, and it has been for the first mother-in-law as well.

Mrs. Robinson took her first trip abroad last year, flying aboard Air Force One with the family to Russia, Italy and Ghana. With the family, she got to meet the pope, tour Rome’s ancient Colosseum and inspect a former slave holding compound on the coast of Ghana.

She joins the family for weekends at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. But she did not join them in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, for summer vacation, or in Obama’s native Hawaii at Christmas.

Her bedroom is on the third floor of the White House (the First Family occupies the second floor), and she doesn’t eat dinner with the Obamas every night so that “Michelle’s family” can have time together.

Mrs. Robinson is protective of her privacy, yet seems to enjoy being out and about, too.

She attends many White House functions, including musical events in the East Room — such as a celebration last week of music of the civil rights era — the annual Easter Egg Roll and November’s black-tie, state dinner for India’s prime minister.

Her only solo public appearance came last summer when she and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a family friend from Chicago, read storybooks to elementary school pupils. Answering some of their questions, she described her life as “wonderful” and said the White House is “much bigger than anything I’ve ever been accustomed to.”

She even has an unofficial nickname: FGOTUS (pronounced fuh-GOH’-tus), an acronym for First Grandmother of the United States.

Obama told radio host Tom Joyner that his mother-in-law has been having fun hanging out with Betty Currie, former President Bill Clinton’s personal secretary, and using the president’s box at the Kennedy Center. She recently saw the Alvin Ailey dance troupe there.

Mrs. Obama jokes that her mother has gotten so busy doing her own thing that “pretty soon she’s going to come and say, ‘You know, I can’t pick up those kids. I’ve got so much going on.’”

Those kids were a big reason the Obamas wanted Mrs. Robinson to move in with them.

She had become kind of a surrogate parent to the girls because their own parents traveled so much during the 2008 presidential campaign — their mother mostly on day trips, their father for longer stretches at a time. Mrs. Robinson retired from her job as a secretary at a bank to shuttle them to play dates and after-school activities.

She helped her granddaughters get settled in a new city, a new home and new schools. Like their grandmother, Chicago is the only place they had ever lived.

And although she spoke last summer of “beginning to feel left out” because the girls are growing up, she remains an important presence in their lives, as much as they are in hers.

Mrs. Robinson’s other three grandchildren live out West, where son Craig is the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University. He has a teenage son and daughter, Avery and Leslie, and 6-week-old son Austin.

Her husband, Fraser, who worked swing shifts at Chicago’s water plant despite crippling multiple sclerosis, died in 1991.

Mrs. Robinson’s move to the White House puts the Obamas in the same category with at least 1 million American families in which the head of the household shares the home with both his or her parents and children, according to AARP, which represents people age 50 and older.

Many of these arrangements aren’t because the grandparent can’t live on their own anymore, but because being there somehow makes life better, said Elinor Ginzler, AARP’s senior vice president for livable communities. That includes looking after grandchildren.

Multigenerational living arrangements are becoming more common, rising to 6.2 million households in 2008, up from 5 million in 2000.

Having presidential relatives living in the White House isn’t new. Mrs. Robinson is just the latest to do so.

Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law, Frederick Dent, lived there for a few years. Harry S. Truman’s mother-in-law, Madge Gates Wallace, moved in despite her dislike for Truman. Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith, had both her mother, Sally Bolling, and sister, Bertha, live with them.


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