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Obama never really knew his biological father, who died in a car crash in Kenya in 1982, and his grandfather died in 1992, three years before his mother. But Obama's grandmother was always there. She took care of Obama when he was 10 and returned to Hawaii to attend school while his mother spent a few years continuing her anthropological research in Indonesia. At the time, his grandparents helped Obama get a scholarship to Punahou, an élite prep school on the island. All three of them lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment on Beretania Street in Honolulu.
Dunham, Obama wrote in Dreams, was motivated by "the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism of her ancestors." "So long as you kids do well, Bar," she would tell him, "that's all that really matters."
Obama has said that his biggest mistake was not being at his mother's side when she died of cancer in Hawaii in 1995 at the age of 52. Dreams from My Father had come out only four months before, and he was starting his first campaign, for the Illinois state senate. Her death came quickly, and he didn't make it back in time.
This time, he did not make the same mistake. Since February 2007, as Obama pursued his presidential dream, Dunham watched her grandson on TV from her apartment. This fall, she cast her ballot for him, in early, absentee voting. And two weeks ago, for two precious days, he got to thank her in person for helping make him what he is and could be.
With reporting by Dan Nakaso / Honolulu