Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s loyal mother, dies at the age of 86

WASHINGTON >> Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother and an anchor of the Obama family who moved into the White House and provided stability for her two granddaughters as the family adjusted to Washington, died Friday in Chicago. She was 86.

Her death was announced in a statement from Michelle Obama, former President Barack Obama and other family members. The statement gave no reason.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Robinson was known as a down-to-earth matriarch who became an emotional burden for her daughter and granddaughters, Malia and Sasha, as well as the former president.

When Obama became the first black person to run for president in November 2008, he watched the returns with his mother-in-law. Their hands were folded as they watched their future change.

But Robinson remained much the same. “Just show me how to operate the washing machine and I’ll be done,” she said after moving into the White House, the Obamas recalled in their statement.

Robinson was never comfortable with the trappings of the White House, preferring to eat her dinner on a TV tray in her third-floor suite. “The only guest she wanted to meet was the Pope,” the family said.

In addition to Michelle Obama, Robinson’s survivors include her son Craig and six grandchildren. Her husband, Fraser Robinson III, died in 1991.

Robinson’s move to Washington, in January 2009, was initially expected to be temporary, to help her daughter and granddaughters adjust. At the time, she was hesitant to commit to a life in a bubble in the White House, but even as she resisted, she revealed the determination and sense of humor she had tried to instill in her children.

“In the end, I will do everything,” she told reporters at the time. “I may be a little worried, but I’ll be there.”

Robinson stayed in her White House suite for most of Barack Obama’s eight years in office. She continued the duties she began during his first presidential campaign, including enforcing bedtimes for her granddaughters, running their baths and making sure they got to school on time. Eventually she adjusted, attending events at the Kennedy Center, hosting friends from Chicago and occasionally hiring a babysitter to watch the girls.

“The girls needed her,” the family statement said. “And in the end she was our support and strength.”

She had been an example of support for her daughter. In her memoir “Becoming,” Michelle Obama wrote that she wanted to be a career woman and a “perfect” mother, just like her own mother.

“I had so much: an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep panoply of ambition,” she wrote. ‘And I was wise enough to acknowledge my mother in particular for teaching me this.’

Marian Lois Shields Robinson was born in Chicago on July 29, 1937. Her father, Purnell Shields, had moved to Chicago from Alabama in the 1920s to escape the Jim Crow South. Her mother, Rebecca Jumper, was a nursing assistant. As a young woman, Marian “quickly and madly fell in love with Fraser Robinson, another South Sider with the strength of a boxer and the cool sense for jazz lovers,” according to the family.

The Robinsons married in 1960. Craig Robinson was born in 1962, Michelle in 1964.

The Robinsons raised their children in a second-floor apartment on Euclid Avenue, on the South Side, where they interacted with a rotating cast of extended family members, including a great-aunt who learned piano and lived in the first-floor apartment.

Michelle Obama said her mother and other family members, including her older brother, largely protected her from the civil rights protests that roiled Chicago and much of the nation in the late 1960s. Instead, she said, she grew up listening to the tinkling of piano keys rising from the floor below.

When Michelle Obama was in elementary school, Robinson asked that her daughter be moved to a third-grade gifted class, an act of advocacy that Obama credits with helping change her life.

As the Robinson children grew up, they said, she offered her support, whether Craig “decided to leave a lucrative finance job to pursue his dream of being a basketball coach” or “Michelle married a man crazy enough to to enter politics.’

Robinson was with her daughter and granddaughters when they ran upstairs to see the White House residence for the first time after Barack Obama won the November 2008 election.

Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said Bush’s daughters, Barbara and Jenna, had invited the Obama family for a tour of what would be their new home.

McBride recalled in an interview that Robinson was quiet as the White House chief greeted the family. But if she was nervous, she didn’t show it.

“She followed her daughter and her granddaughters on this adventure,” McBride said. “It’s a reminder that no matter how lofty it may seem, and how unattainable it may seem, anyone can live there and build a family life and a family home.”


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.