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Meet the First Mother-in-Law

Michelle had to beg her mother to join them in the White House. But now she's having a ball, writes David Usborne

Just back from a paparazzi-besieged dinner in a Georgetown restaurant, the First Couple slipped hand-in-hand last Saturday into an area of White House garden where no photographer could pry. Privacy at last! But what is that curtain-twitching they see on the third floor? Isn't that one of the granny-flat windows?

Some might have wondered at the wisdom of Barack Obama agreeing after his election to invite Marian Robinson, the mother of Michelle, to move with him and the family from Chicago to the new digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and give her her own suite just above the presidential apartments. At the very least, it promised to offer comedians a distractingly rich seam of First Mother-in-Law jokes.

History testifies to the risks of bringing the relations along when you attain the highest office in the land. Harry Truman had to suffer through the withering glances of his mother-in-law, Madge Gates Wallace, who moved in even though she never hid her disdain for him. We know little of what Ulysses S Grant thought of father-in-law Richard Dent, who also took up full-time residence in the White House.

But if the window lace was moving on Saturday, it was surely a draught. By all accounts, Mr Obama gets on famously with 71-year-old Ms Robinson. It was her hand that he was holding on that couch in a Hyatt hotel in Chicago on election night last November as they watched the first of the returns to see if victory was to be his. And she apparently well understands the difference between helping and interfering.

Nor is she the sort, it seems, who will pass critical comment about how things used to be done in her day. "You try to get your kids not to think in the same way you did when you were coming along because you pass down your issues and a lot of times, they don't apply in their time and their life," she said in one interview recently. "They will have their own issues; they don't need mine in their head."

Far from gagging to accompany her daughter and son-in-law to their less-than-humble new home in Washington, in fact Ms Robinson at first resisted making the move. For weeks before Mr Obama was sworn in, she put it about that all things considered she would rather stay in her own abode, an anonymous bungalow in the South Side neighbourhood of Chicago where she has lived her entire life. She had her friends there and her routines, including daily yoga classes taught by a younger brother, Stephen.

"I love those people, but I love my own house," she said early in the presidential transition. "The White House kind of reminds me of a museum and it's like, how do you sleep in a museum?"

And so it was that Barack and Michelle were reduced to begging Ms Robinson to uproot herself and join them in Washington. The girls had a lot to do with it. During the hectic months of the campaign, which included long periods when Michelle's presence was also required on the road, it was grandma who accompanied them to school every day and kept their routines going.

Michelle even resorted to recruiting her brother, Craig Robinson, head basketball coach at Oregon State University, to the cause. "My sister said, 'You've got to talk to mom, she's not moving," he told The New York Times. It made no difference apparently that Michelle was dangling a new life of non-stop excitement and glamour. "She doesn't want grand, she doesn't want great," her brother told her.

In the end, though, granny Robinson relented, but – at first, anyway – only with the welfare of her granddaughters in mind. "She didn't want anyone else taking care of the kids," said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a spokeswoman for Michelle. "She wanted to be the one there."

And indeed, as the First Lady has been drawn into the whirlwind of a packed daily diary, it is her mother who fills the breach, shuttling the girls back and forth to school or standing in for her at school functions. She helps with the homework, goes with them on play-dates to other homes and, most importantly, babysits whenever Barack and Michelle are out of town – or even just in Georgetown for dinner.

But even after she finally agreed to come along for the ride, Ms Robinson, who is widowed, made it clear that she intended to stay only as long as necessary to see the family and especially the two girls, Malia, 10, and Sasha, seven, settled in their new routines and school. Then she would return home.

So now we have passed the symbolic 100-day mark, is Marian feeling just about ready to leave? After all, how long was the "settling-in" period meant to last? The girls are doing well and so, judging by the handholding under the laurel trees, are Barack and Michelle. And it's springtime in Chicago.

Dying to return to the Windy City, however, she is not. The big news from the First Family is that far from just tolerating her time in the capital, granny is having a blast. That "glitzy life" that seemed so unappealing when her daughter first described it may not be so bad after all. Indeed, such is her gadabout life that Michelle has to reserve in advance if she wants her mother's baby-sitting services.

"She has a very full social life," the First Lady admitted with a smile during a lunch for members of Congress at the White House recently, "so much so that sometimes we have to plan our schedule around her schedule". The First Lady recently revealed to Oprah Winfrey that her mother has even taken to saying, "I'm going home", when retiring at night to her third-floor retreat.

Some of her new distractions are right there inside the White House. She has been spotted sitting in on a variety of events, including a musical performance recently for Black History Month as well as a children's book-reading event during the Easter weekend egg roll. She has the pleasure of being in close proximity not just to her children and grandchildren but now there is Bo too, the new First Dog. And if Bo makes a mess, it is no longer Marian who must wield the mop or bucket. She has staff all around.

Ms Robinson has an advantage over her daughter, meanwhile. Because she has mostly kept a low profile – though she did appear on the cover of Essence magazine last month alongside Michelle – she is not quickly recognised and is able to move around the capital city more or less unimpeded. She is a regular at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts where she eschews the stalls in favour of the presidential box, sometimes inviting artists to join her. On Sunday, she was back at the Kennedy Centre again, though this time accompanying her daughter, for a night celebrating women in the arts.

Grandmother Robinson also lunches with ladies. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post recently encountered her at a lunch hosted by Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Senator John Kerry. At the table, she came across as the "perfect grandmother you'd kill for: cosy, nice, sweet, friendly, dear".

It was Essence that asked the obvious question – are you enjoying being in the big house? "I really am," she replied. "You want to know why? Because my children are good parents. It makes it very easy to be a grandmother when your children are good parents."

She has been in the city for a few weeks only and already knows how to spin the media. And even the comedians for the most part have been steering clear of mother-in-law humour.