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Guest column | James Pettican

Obama daughters are lucky to have two 'moms'

President Obama’s daughters Sasha, left, Malia, right, and mother-in-law Marian Robinson arrive for a recent performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock at the White House.

Associated Press

President Obama’s daughters Sasha, left, Malia, right, and mother-in-law Marian Robinson arrive for a recent performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock at the White House.

Now that the White House has a first grandmother in residence — first lady Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson — my thoughts go back to my own two-mom childhood.

Actually, my grandmother didn't move in with us; we moved in with her. My single-parent grandmother had run a successful boarding house for years, but when the years began to take their toll, she gave up her business and we moved into it. That occurred after we returned from a two-year stint in Australia, where my father, an engineer, was in charge of re-assembling locomotives, shipped in pieces from England.

Eventually, there were five kids to be raised and nurtured, so our two "moms" had plenty to do. My grandmother was "Mum" and my mother was usually "Mother" since "mom" was not a frequently used term back in the 1920s and '30s.

Even though separate duties and areas for each "mom" eventually evolved, they were interchangeable to us kids and we could take our fears, tears or giggles to either one. In actuality, our grandmother ran the kitchen with our mother serving as an apprentice while doing the laundry for eight people and tending to the kids' ever-changing needs and wants.

My mother found time to pursue a career in classical music as a pianist and singer, but only to a certain point. In 1927, she entered a national talent hunt sponsored by RCA-Victor and won a chance to go to New York for additional studies and appearances. At that point, however, she bowed out, not wishing to leave her growing family. That decided, she resumed her usual local piano recitals and church soloist positions.

Unlike today's soccer moms, neither of our moms could drive. Back then, most women didn't drive, as there was less need to. Our school was two blocks away, and across from it, the family church. Our family doctor was two blocks in another direction and would always make a house call if we needed one. There were no supermarkets yet and grocery, produce and meat markets were all within two or three short blocks.

As for organized sports for kids, big back yards took care of our needs. We organized our own pickup baseball and touch football games. Basketball was not very much on our radar until we got to high school, where there was an indoor gym. Cafeterias were hard to find, however, even in high schools, as most kids walked home for lunches prepared by stay-at-home moms.

We lived in a fairly large suburb of Pittsburgh, so the big city's downtown was just a few miles away, easily traversed by the trolley car, which stopped a block from our house. On Sundays, all-day passes were available for a quarter, so once a month or so, I would buy one and ride all over the city by myself from age 10 on. No one would chance that today, even if the trolleys were still running.

Our grandmother marched us all off to church on Sunday and, after attending catechetical class, we were duly confirmed into a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran church. Today, none of us are formal church members, but I'll leave it to the psychologists to explain that.

I imagine that first granny Marian Robinson will be a tower of support for first daughters Malia and Sasha and will manage everything from showering to snacking, not to mention the ever variable nuances of growing up.

So, the first daughters will be in good hands, just as we were.

I was in the service in 1942 when my grandmother died. At first, my commanding officer thought the "Mum" in the telegram was my mother. But when he found out it was my grandmother, he was unable to grant me an emergency furlough because grandmothers were not considered close enough relatives.

I still regret missing her funeral, but I know she would understand. She always did.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

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Obama daughters are lucky to have two 'moms' 03/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 6:36pm]

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