Some may bemoan Barack Obama’s exit from the White House, others the departing dignity and grace of his wife, Michelle. I lament the leave-taking of a person who remained in the shadows of the First Family, who was rarely seen at photo opps, who was as elusive as she was influential.
The First Granny.
Marian Robinson moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. eight years ago, along with her daughter and son-in-law. She was recruited for the job of parental surrogate to Malia, then 10, and Sasha, 7. And it was a role she would play to perfection, usually far from the unforgiving TV lights and the grubby tentacles of rumor and insult.
She did not, however, escape the ogre du jour that is fake news. Weeks before the Obamas were due to move out, several news outlets picked up a post published by The Boston Tribune, a satire website, which was headlined “First Grandma Marian Robinson to Receive Lifetime $160K Government Pension.” As expected, many earnest corrections and clarifications soon followed.
We don’t know how Marian Robinson reacted to this, but she didn’t take to Twitter nor did she hold a press conference. Most likely she was content to remain in the background.
When the First Granny moved to Washington back in 2009, I was a newly minted abuela besotted by my twin granddaughters and my new role. I was captivated by Robinson, who had served as designated hitter while Michelle was on the campaign trail. Beyond that, I was acutely aware of the power and support wielded by the mothers of working women everywhere. Because my own late mother had cared for my children, I could trace my success — and the woman I had become — to her unstinting help with anything and everything that needed to be done.
Marian Robinson, though, had the added burden of living in a fishbowl. But she did this without a Secret Service detail and, in The Washington Post’s words, “as the least-public resident of the White House.”
Every president must weather the barbs of opponents and foes, but the Obamas’ tenure in the White House was marked by something far more insidious. The racist insults aimed at her daughter must have cut to the quick, and every time I read about one incident, then the next and the next, I thought of the good Mrs. Robinson. How angry and hurt and confused she must have felt. And I understood.
Several years ago, while my youngest was playing an impressive second base, a frustrated father from the opposing team shouted ethnic slurs at him. My initial reaction was to march up the bleachers and punch him in the face. Instead, I wrote a heartfelt column addressed to the bigot.
Marian Robinson didn’t even have that outlet to express her outrage.
It was a small coincidence that a week before she accompanied the First Family out of the White House, a report detailed how much American grandparents contribute, financially and otherwise, to the lives of their grandchildren. Michelle Obama certainly knew the value of her mother’s priceless assistance. In fact, she gave Robinson a shout out during an appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”
“I couldn’t have done this without you, Mom,” she said. Probably not.
Lucky Michelle, though. I never envied the First Lady her power, her fame or her address, but at that very public moment I was so jealous that she was able to express this daughterly gratitude for the entire world — but most importantly, her mother — to hear and savor. I wish I had done the same.