It was a rare, almost intimate scene, between Michelle Obama and her mother, played out before the world. When a group of Chinese girls invited the first lady to skip rope at an event on the ancient city wall here, she kicked her heels off to slide on a pair of flats. Before an aide could swoop in and pick up her daughter’s shoes, Marian Robinson bent down to grab them.
Then, the 76-year-old grandmother beamed as Obama jumped.
Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, stood nearby, shyly hanging back as their mother took center stage. Robinson clapped and smiled.
For six days in China, the least-public resident of the White House was a central figure on the public stage. Overseas trips like the one Robinson took with her daughter and granddaughters last week provide an uncommon glimpse into their family dynamic and the critical role she has continued to play in the first family.
In Washington, Mrs. Robinson — or Mrs. R, as she is sometimes called — is anonymous enough to go around town undetected. Her private life is carefully guarded by the Obamas: She has only given a handful of interviews — to friendly media outlets — since her son-in-law became president and stays away from the West Wing.
In China, Michelle Obama proudly showed off her mother, and their bond was obvious. Max Baucus, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to China, tasked with introducing the first lady to Chinese students at Peking University, offered, “She’s so devoted to her mother, Mrs. Robinson.”
When Robinson left Chicago for Washington, she told an interviewer, “They’re dragging me with them, and I’m not that comfortable, but I’m doing exactly what you do. You do what has to be done.”
Five years in, Robinson seems to have settled into life in the White House, where she sometimes spends afternoons reading in a great hall that serves as the family’s living room on the second-floor residence. Her children have said she has built a busy social life, but she still remains a go-to person for ensuring her granddaughters, who’ve grown up as household names, maintain some normalcy.
It was this role she played in China, walking with her granddaughters as their mother drew the world’s attention or taking them to dinner when the first lady had other obligations.
It is a space in which Robinson has grown comfortable. She smiled brightly at China’s president, Xi Jinping, and outstretched her hand to him during a brief, formal meeting between the two first families. She greeted China’s first lady, Peng Liyuan, with a wave, and she strolled along as their group toured the Forbidden City, where emperors once dwelled. She chatted with Baucus while walking through the Summer Palace, an enchanting park of gardens, lakes and pavilions in Beijing.
During the meeting with Xi, Michelle Obama thanked him for welcoming her family — especially her mom. “Being able to see my mother, who doesn’t get to travel internationally often, walk through that ancient city, and to see her excitement and wonder, is a moment that I will treasure forever,” she told him.
Robinson, seated three chairs away from her daughter, quietly said “Awwww.”