He called her “Toot” – short for “Tutu,” the Hawaiian word for grandmother. He often acknowledged Madelyn Dunham as the woman who helped to raise him in Hawaii while his single mother worked abroad. “Toot’s” last acknowledgment of him before her death this month at 88 was the absentee ballot she mailed in to add her vote to the millions that elected her grandson to become the 44th President of the United States. She died before the election, but she probably knew in her heart that he would prevail.
When Barack Obama heard how very ill his beloved grandmother was, he interrupted his presidential campaign to go to her side. Another, lesser man might have said, “The campaign has only a few more days to go – I’ll wait and go to see her then. She’ll understand.” But in a sign of smart and compassionate decision making, he knew that the time to go was now, he flew to her side, and he was able to see her one last time.
Like many other grandparents raising grandchildren, Madelyn Dunham exerted an important influence on the young Barack. He has acknowledged her as having had an impact that “was meaningful and enduring.” According to the blog “Hawaii Insider,” a relationship like theirs is described by the Hawaiian word “‘ohana,” which means “family,” and comes from “‘oha,” which means the offshoot of the taro root, the staple food of Hawaii. Family, then, is a place to feed each other and to be fed. As one Hawaiian proverb has it, “Ike aku, ‘ike mai, kokua aku, kokua mai; pela iho la ka nohana ‘ohana,” or “Recognize others, be recognized, help others, be helped; such is a family relationship.” I couldn’t think of a better explanation for the meaning of family.