In some families, the person who makes everything possible is the one who stands still. Barack Obama's grandmother Madelyn Dunham, who died on Nov. 3 at 86, was married to a man fueled by bluster and possibility, who moved the family five times before settling in Hawaii. Her daughter inherited that restlessness, marrying an African, then an Indonesian and building a life in Jakarta. And then there was the grandson who captured a nation's imagination.
But standing at the center of these questing characters was Dunham, a Maypole in a business suit and sensible shoes. When her husband went to war, Dunham went to work on a bomber assembly line. When her daughter had a baby and dropped out of college at 18, Dunham got a job at a bank, becoming the family's primary breadwinner. When Obama's mother returned to Indonesia, a teenage Obama wanted to stay in Hawaii; Dunham made space for him in her small Honolulu apartment. She was "the one who taught me about hard work," Obama said, accepting his party's nomination in August. "She poured everything she had into me."
Throughout her grandson's campaign, Dunham declined to talk to reporters. She played bridge and followed the race closely on TV. "So long as you kids do well, Bar," she would tell her grandson, "that's all that really matters." Dunham's death on the eve of the election meant she would never see how well her grandson did. It's a tragedy she probably would have accepted with grace.