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 in Xi'an, China, last week, 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 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 given few interviews since her son-in-law became president.
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 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.
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."
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Marian Shields Robinson moved into the White House in 2009 after a lifetime in Chicago, where she was raised by a painter and a stay-at-home mother in a small house with seven siblings. She married and became a stay-at-home mom herself, raising two Ivy League graduates. Before retiring to help care for her granddaughters, she worked as a bank secretary.
When her daughter asked her to move from her Chicago walk-up to the White House, Robinson agreed. She knew she'd be worrying about them if she was back home. Still, Robinson drew lines between herself and what she called "Michelle's family." She moved into a room with a four-poster bed and sitting area on the third floor of the White House. The rest of the first family lives on the second floor.
"There are many times when she drops off the kids, we hang out and talk and catch up, and then she's like, 'I'm going home.' And she walks upstairs," the first lady told Oprah Winfrey early on.
Robinson wrote an essay published in Essence Magazine in 2012 describing her life as relatively typical. "One of my biggest blessings is getting to see my granddaughters grow up before my eyes. My job here is the easiest one of all: I just get to be Grandma."
In the early White House years, when Sasha and Malia were younger, Robinson would ride with them to and from school.
Robinson carves out time to visit her son Craig's family. When the first family travels to Hawaii for Christmas vacation, she has sometimes gone to see her son, daughter-in-law and their three children in Oregon.
She takes trips to Las Vegas with her friends, as the president noted in a 2010 speech there. "She comes quite frequently . . . maybe I shouldn't say that in front of the press," Obama said.
Robinson started running in her 50s and was a gold medalist in both the 50-meter and 100-meter races in the 1997 Illinois Senior Olympics. But she abandoned the sport after an injury that made her less competitive.
"If I can't do it fast, I'm not doing it," she said in Winfrey's magazine in 2007. "You don't run just to be running — you run to win."
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But being a perfectionist doesn't necessarily mean she's perfect, as her daughter has pointed out. The first lady revealed that her mother is a smoker and can be "pretty stubborn."
"She taught us that you can be open and honest about your own shortcomings and it doesn't necessarily mean your kids are going to adopt them," said Michelle Obama, describing one of the many lessons she has learned from her mother, to the women's website iVillage.
The first lady also told People magazine this year that her mother speaks her mind. "She does exactly what she wants to do every single day without apology," she added.
Case in point: When the first lady and her daughters hiked the Great Wall in Beijing, pausing to be photographed by journalists, Robinson stayed behind. On a plateau just below the high walkways, she took in the scenic view. With her sunglasses propped on top of her head and a bottle of water in her hands, she looked like she was exactly where she wanted to be.