Marian Lois Shields Robinson — our mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother — had a way of summing up the truths about life in a word or two, maybe a quick phrase that made everyone around her stop and think. Her wisdom came off as almost innate, as something she was born with, but in reality, it was hard-earned, fashioned by her deep understanding that the world’s roughest edges could always be sanded down with a little grace. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Know what’s truly precious. As a parent, you’re not raising babies — you’re raising little people. Don’t worry about whether anybody else likes you. Come home. We’ll always like you here. She grew up one of seven children on the red-lined South Side of Chicago, the daughter of Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper.

When she was a teenager, her parents separated and her mother supported herself as a nursing aide. Her father, because of the color of his skin, wasn’t allowed to join a union or work for larger construction firms, and he grew mistrustful of a world that seemed to have little place for him. Yet many mornings, he would wake the kids up at sunrise by blasting jazz records as an alarm clock. She learned early that even in the face of hardship, there was music to be found. As a young woman, she studied to become a teacher before working as a secretary. She fell quickly and madly in love with Fraser Robinson, another South-Sider with a boxer’s strength and jazz-lover’s cool. Together, they raised two children, Craig and Michelle, in a tiny upstairs apartment on Euclid Avenue in South Shore. She volunteered for the PTA and taught her children to read at an early age, sitting together as they sounded out words on a page, giving them the strength and confidence to walk to school — and out into the world — all on their own. She once chewed out a police officer who had accused Craig of stealing a bike, demanding that the adult apologize to her son. On summer nights, she’d pack the family into the car with a steaming plate of chicken for a trip to the drive-in movies.

On New Year’s Eve, she’d pass around pigs in a blanket and raise a toast to Auld Lang Syne. And every night, for years on end, she and Fraser would hold court at the dinner table, where they indulged all manner of questioning, teaching their children to believe in the power and worth of their own voices. When Craig decided to leave a lucrative finance job to pursue his dream of coaching basketball, she was there with her wholehearted support. When Michelle married a guy crazy enough to go into politics, she was just as encouraging. At every step, as our families went down paths none of us could have predicted, she remained our refuge from the storm, keeping our feet on solid ground. On Election Night in 2008, when the news broke that Barack would soon shoulder the weight of the world, she was there, holding his hand. With a healthy nudge, she agreed to move to the White House with Michelle and Barack. We needed her. The girls needed her. And she ended up being our rock through it all. She relished her role as a grandmother to Malia and Sasha — just as she doted on Avery, Leslie, Austin, and Aaron. Less encumbered by the responsibilities of motherhood, she’d indulge in a little more fun and games while keeping any danger of spoiling her grandchildren safely at bay. And although she enforced whatever household rules we’d set for bedtime, watching TV, or eating candy, she made clear that she sided with her “grandbabies” in thinking that their parents were too darn strict. The trappings and glamour of the White House were never a great fit for Marian Robinson. “Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,” she’d say. Rather than hobnobbing with Oscar winners or Nobel laureates, she preferred spending her time upstairs with a TV tray, in the room outside her bedroom with big windows that looked out at the Washington Monument. The only guest she made a point of asking to meet was the Pope. Over those eight years, she made great friends with the ushers and butlers, the folks who make the White House a home. She’d often sneak outside the gates to buy greeting cards at CVS, and sometimes another customer might recognize her. “You look like Michelle’s mother,” they’d say. She’d smile and reply, “Oh, I get that a lot.” After the White House, she returned to Chicago, reconnecting with longtime friends, trading wisecracks, travelling, and enjoying a good glass of wine. She passed peacefully this morning, and right now, none of us are quite sure how exactly we’ll move on without her. As a mother, she was our backstop, a calm and nonjudgmental witness to our triumphs and stumbles. She was always, always there, welcoming us back home no matter how far we had journeyed, with that deep and abiding love. For Barack and Kelly, she was the best mother-in-law anyone could hope for. We would tease her sometimes that she’d need to stop thinking that she was “imposing” on us because we always wanted to see more of her, not less.

As a grandmother, at every stage of their lives, from infancy through adulthood, she stood secondary watch over her grandchildren’s growth and development, inspiring them, listening to them, telling them she was proud of them, and making them feel loved like they were remarkable in every way. As a sister, aunt, cousin, neighbour, and friend to so many, she was beloved beyond words by countless others whose lives were improved by her presence. We will all miss her greatly, and we wish she were here to offer us some perspective, to mend our heavy hearts with a laugh and a dose of her wisdom. Yet we are comforted by the understanding that she has returned to the embrace of her loving Fraser, that she’s pulled up her TV tray next to his recliner, that they’re clinking their highball glasses as she’s catching him up with the stories about this wild, beautiful ride. She’s missed him so. “The whole world is full of little Craigs and little Michelle,” she’d often remind us, underlining the beauty and potential within every child. As always, she was right. What is also true — although she adamantly denied it — is that there was and will be only one Marian Robinson. In our sadness, we are lifted up by the extraordinary gift of her life. And we will spend the rest of ours trying to live up to her example. –Michelle, Craig, Barack, Kelly, Avery, Leslie, Malia, Sasha, Austin, and Aaron


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