In his memoirs, Dreams of My Father, Barack Obama writes about being sent by his mother from Indonesia to Hawaii so he could enter the American education system. He lived with his grandparents for many months before his mother and sister shifted to Hawaii.
Here are some memories of Barack’s grandparents, especially his grandmother, Toot:
Such exchanges became familiar to me, for my grandparents' arguments followed a well-worn groove, a groove that originated in the rarely mentioned fact that Toot earned more money than Gramps. She had proved to be a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank, and although Gramps liked to say that he always encouraged her in her career, her job had become a source of delicacy and bitterness between them as his commissions paid fewer and fewer of the family's bills.
Not that Toot had anticipated her success. Without a college education, she had started out as a secretary to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth. But she had a quick mind and sound judgment, and the capacity for sustained work. Slowly she had risen, playing by the rules, until she reached the threshold where competence didn't suffice. There she would stay for twenty years, with scarcely a vacation, watching as her male counterparts kept moving up the corporate ladder, playing a bit loose with information passed on between the ninth hole and the ride to the clubhouse, becoming wealthy men.
More than once, my mother would tell Toot that the bank shouldn't get away with such blatant sexism. But Toot would just pooh-pooh my mother's remarks, saying that everybody could find a reason to complain about something. Toot didn't complain. Every morning, she woke up at five a.m. and changed from the frowsy muu-muus she wore around the apartment into a tailored suit and high-heeled pumps. Her face powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her downtown office before anyone else. From time to time, she would admit a grudging pride in her work and took pleasure in telling us the inside story behind the local financial news. When I got older, though, she would confide in me that she had never stopped dreaming of a house with a white picket fence, days spent baking or playing bridge or volunteering at the local library. I was surprised by this admission, for she rarely mentioned hopes or regrets. It may or may not have been true that she would have preferred the alternative history she imagined for herself, but I came to understand that her career spanned a time when the work of a wife outside the home was nothing to brag about, for her or for Gramps—that it represented only lost years, broken promises. What Toot believed kept her going were the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism of her ancestors.
“So long as you kids do well, Bar,” she would say more than once, “that's all that really matters.”
Source: Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1995, 2007), 56-57.
A review of this book can be found at Reviewing Books and Movies.
Dr Geoff Pound
Image: Gramps, Barack and Toot.