Grandmother rarely seen, always there

Of the four people who helped shape young Barack Obama into the man who stands at the threshold of the American presidency, only one is left.

Barack Obama does not know if his maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, will live to see whether the improbable dream is realized. He left the campaign trail and arrived Friday at the modest apartment building near downtown where he once lived with his grandparents, to see her at least one more time.

“You know, we weren't sure, and I'm still not sure, whether she makes it to Election Day,” Obama said in an interview with “Good Morning America.” “We're all praying and we hope she does.”

The Democratic nominee crossed the country – he campaigned Tuesday night in Miami, 4,800 miles away – to see Dunham, whose 86th birthday is Sunday. The trip served to remind not only of Obama's biracial heritage but also the unusual and even exotic upbringing that shaped his life.

Dunham, Obama said, is the “rock” who provided financial and practical stability among the colorful and enigmatic characters who populated his young life: the Kenyan father who left early on, the anthropologist mother given to wanderlust, the dreamer of a grandfather who was, as Obama wrote, “always searching for that new start.”

But Dunham was the down-to-earth one. “She's where I get my practical streak,” Obama has said.

“She's the one who taught me about hard work,” he told a packed stadium in Denver the night he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. “She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life.

“She poured everything she had into me.”

The candidate often mentions Dunham on the campaign trail – including her days in a bomber assembly plant during World War II – and he never praises parents who sacrifice for their children without mentioning grandparents.

But Toot, as Obama calls her – a shortened version of “tutu,” the Hawaiian word for grandparent – is largely unknown in the political world. She has not played a role in his campaigns, although she was filmed here in Hawaii for a commercial Obama ran during the Democratic primaries, and her poor health in recent years has kept her at home.

Obama points to Dunham as an example of a generation of women who advanced despite sexist constraints.

She worked her way from the secretarial pool to become the Bank of Hawaii's first female vice president.