An E-Mail from Obama's Sister

  • Share
  • Read Later
Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

Senator Obama sheds tears while talking about his grandmother Madelyn Dunham.

Barack Obama's sister has not emerged in public since the death of their grandmother two days before her brother's historic presidential election, but in a post-election e-mail to close friends, Maya Soetoro-Ng said, "I wept tears of joy for all of us on Tuesday. He may not be a perfect man. Certainly, he has often said that he'll likely be an imperfect President, but he is a good man, a smart man, a disciplined soul who balances temperance with determination and courage. We've made a great choice, I assure you."

Their maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died two days before the Nov. 4 presidential election in the two-bedroom apartment where Dunham raised Obama. The e-mail was shared with this reporter (and with the daily Honolulu Advertiser). (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)

In the final run-up to Election Day, Obama abruptly changed his campaign schedule to fly home and visit Dunham, who was dying of cancer at the age of 86. After her death was announced on Election Day eve, he spoke movingly of her at a final campaign appearance, tears streaming down his face. Services for Dunham have not been announced, and the Honolulu mortuary handling the arrangements, Borthwick Mortuary, has not returned phone calls. Obama's campaign, however, says he will return home to Honolulu sometime in December, prior to his Jan. 20 Inauguration 5,100 miles away in the nation's capitol. (See pictures of Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.)

During a family vacation in August, Obama brought his family to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which overlooks the apartment where he grew up. Obama and his children left two leis at niche No. 440, where the ashes of his grandfather Stanley Dunham are in an urn behind a bronze plaque. Stanley Dunham was an Army sergeant in World War II; he died of prostate cancer in 1992. Officials at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific have since been contacted by Borthwick Mortuary about holding a service for Madelyn Dunham, says Gene Castagnetti, the cemetery's director. Stanley Dunham's niche is large enough to hold another urn. If the family decides on that arrangement, Sergeant Dunham's bronze plaque covering the niche would be removed and replaced with another that would include his wife's name, birthday and date of death.

As it turned out, Dunham's koa (wood) urn arrived on Election Day, Soetoro-Ng wrote in her e-mail. Soetoro-Ng surrounded the urn with pictures of Dunham's late daughter Stanley Ann Dunham (the mother of Soetoro-Ng and the President-elect), Dunham's grandchildren and her great grandchildren — "all of us who benefited so much from her steady voice and hand," Soetoro-Ng wrote.

Soetoro-Ng could have accepted her brother's invitation to be by his side on election night in Chicago. But, as she had for much of the past eight years, she chose to stay in the apartment on Beretania Street where Dunham raised Obama as a boy and where Soetoro-Ng later cared for her. In the post-election e-mail, Soetoro-Ng writes of the sometimes conflicting emotions surrounding her grandmother's death and brother's success — and of the need to unplug for a while with her husband Konrad and their 4-year-old daughter Suhaila on Oahu's rural North Shore. She writes that she has been flooded with e-mail messages "of both congratulation and condolence .... There's a wide swatch of emotion cutting through me, sometimes swirling, never simple ... a briny mixture of elation, sadness, determination, regret, pride, hope, fatigue. You can imagine ..."

Dunham, whom Obama called Toot (a form of Tutu, the Hawaiian word for "grandparent"), never showed self-pity or fear as she faced the end of her life, Soetoro-Ng writes. But Dunham could be wickedly funny. "When she saw the number of flowers that had been sent to her," Soetoro-Ng writes, "she said, 'Oh my ... with all of this hullabaloo, it's going to be embarrassing if I DON'T die.' I gave her a chuckle and of course told her that I wouldn't at all mind such an embarrassment, and then I invited her to stay and dance with me into the New Year. She couldn't stay, but she certainly tried, and defied expectations again and again."

See pictures of Obama's campaign.