Obituary: Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother, dies

Michelle Obama with Marian Robinson
Michelle Obama once described her mother as "my rock and my best friend… a guiding light throughout my life." [Michelle Obama]

Marian Robinson shunned the spotlight and rarely gave interviews - her daughter, Michelle Obama, once described her as a "sweet, witty companion who doesn't need the limelight".

But it was that privacy, tightly guarded by the Obamas, that afforded Robinson the rare luxury of being able to live relatively freely in the White House and without the usual scrutiny that follows every first family - while still enjoying the perks of being the president's mother-in-law.

Growing up in Chicago, she may never have dreamed that her daughter would one day be the first lady of the United States. On election night, holding Barack Obama's hand, she said to him: "Well, it's just a little overwhelming, isn't it?"

Robinson moved into the White House - albeit reluctantly at first - and played a unique and crucial role. As the affectionately known "first grandma", she brought some normality to the lives of her granddaughters, Malia and Sasha.

In 2019, Barack Obama said: "I've always appreciated her steadiness, her perspective, and the way a wisecrack from her reverberates around the room."

Following her death on Friday at the age of 86, the former president paid tribute in a statement to the "extraordinary gift of her life".

'A deeply segregated Chicago'

Marian Lois Shields was born in 1937 in Chicago's South Side and grew up in a small house with seven siblings.

She married Fraser Robinson III, a pump operator for Chicago's water department, in 1960, and they had two children - Craig in 1962 and Michelle two years later. Robinson worked as a secretary and for a bank before becoming a stay-at-home mother.

Michelle Obama often talks about growing up on the South Side of Chicago - the poorer part of the city that has a large African-American population. In the 1960s, Chicago's public schools were still actively resisting racial integration.

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A proud mother

Marian and Fraser Robinson worked hard to ensure their children could go to some of the best schools in the country. Mr Robinson continued to work full-time even after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the pair took out secret loans to afford the school fees.

"We just wanted our children to understand that a good education was their ticket to a better life, a chance to have more and be more," Robinson once said.

It paid off - both Craig and Michelle graduated from Ivy League universities.

In Michelle Obama's podcast, she talks to her brother about the honest and open discussions they would have with their parents as children, where nothing was off limits and no question was too embarrassing to ask.

"She always took us seriously, carefully considering what we had to say and responding with thoughtful questions, and plenty of encouragement," Mrs Obama said.

This resulted in her brother scoring so highly on a sexual education test that concerned teachers called his parents to the school for a meeting.

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After 31 years of marriage, Fraser Robinson III died in 1991. Marian stayed living in the family home in Chicago until she moved to the White House in 2009.

'First grandma'

When that day finally came, Robinson moved into the White House "kicking and screaming", according to her son.

Having never lived outside of Chicago, she prized her independence and was reluctant to leave her friends, weekly yoga classes and the "itty-bitty house" she had lived in for decades.

"The White House reminds me of a museum, and it's like, how do you sleep in a museum?" she said to People magazine at the time.

Marian Robinson dressed up and giving children Candy with the Obamas
Robinson took part in the White House's Easter and Halloween traditions, and would often wear fancy dress costumes [Getty Images]

But she soon adjusted, and took up a unique role as "first grandma" to the Obamas' daughters, Malia and Sasha, who were aged 10 and seven at the time.

"My job here is the easiest one of all: I just get to be Grandma," she wrote in Essence Magazine in 2017.

Robinson insisted on doing her own laundry and also taught the girls how to do theirs. She rode in the motorcade that took Malia and Sasha to school, to take the edge off the trip that involved three cars and at least four armed security agents.

She was the constant in a life of travel, tours and long days for Barack and Michelle Obama, taking the girls to play dates, piano lessons and dance class.

"When I wasn't home at the end of the day, grandma was there," Michelle said in an interview with Gayle King of CBS in 2018.

In her podcast, Michelle remembers that "sleepovers at Grandma's were the biggest night of the week, because you'd get them food that they shouldn't be eating... they slept in your bed, they kicked you out of your bed, I can't believe it, you let them tear up your house and make forts out of the couch."

Life in the White House

The matriarch quickly learned to embrace her new life in Washington DC - and made the most of the opportunities - attending dinners and concerts, and going to events at the Kennedy Center where she could sit in the president's box.

"She has a very full social life, so much so that sometimes we have to plan our schedule around her schedule," Michelle Obama said in 2009.

Not nearly as recognisable as her daughter or son-in-law, Robinson was able to go about her life quite freely, leaving the White House without security, and walking around the city.

She had a third-floor suite in the White House - and often announced "I'm going home", as she headed upstairs.

Marian Robinson walking along with Michelle and Barack Obama
Marian Robinson often joined her family on trips to Camp David, the presidential country retreat [Getty Images]

Robinson joined the first family on a number of overseas trips - both for holidays and official visits, including accompanying her daughter and granddaughters on an official visit to China without Barack Obama in 2014.

It was a rare glimpse into the close relationship she had with Michelle, Malia and Sasha - and the bond between the four was obvious.

Robinson hung back with the sisters while her daughter took centre stage, and in a touching mother-daughter moment, grabbed Michelle's heels out of the way when the first lady switched to flats to skip rope with some students.

Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan
Robinson joined her family on a number of official visits, including to China in 2014 [Getty Images]
Michelle Obama with her mother and daughters walking out of Air Force One
A trip to China gave the public a rare glimpse into the strong bond between Robinson and her family [Getty Images]

Supportive mother-in-law

Robinson was initially against Barack Obama running for president.

"I felt like this was going to be a hard life. I was worried about their safety and about the girls," she told Gayle King in 2018.

But gradually she warmed to the idea, and eventually became one of his biggest supporters.

A now-famous photo of the pair on election night quietly holding hands as the news broke that he would be the next president epitomised the quiet solidarity she had with her family.

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Marian Robinson will be remembered by many as the loving, grounded and tough-minded matriarch of the White House, who took to a role she did not ask for and at first did not want, with dignity and selflessness to become the bedrock of the Obama family.

Here's to you, Mrs Robinson.

Marian Robinson waving in 2011
[Getty Images]