Each of us lives a life of contradictory truths. We are not one thing or another. Barack Obama's mother was at least a dozen things. S. Ann Soetoro was a teen mother who later got a Ph.D. in anthropology; a white woman from the Midwest who was more comfortable in Indonesia; a natural-born mother obsessed with her work; a romantic pragmatist, if such a thing is possible.
"When I think about my mother," Obama told me recently, "I think that there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn't comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box."
Obama's mother was a dreamer. She made risky bets that paid off only some of the time, choices that her children had to live with. She fell in love--twice--with fellow students from distant countries she knew nothing about. Both marriages failed, and she leaned on her parents and friends to help raise her two children.
"She cried a lot," says her daughter Maya Soetoro-Ng, "if she saw animals being treated cruelly or children in the news or a sad movie--or if she felt like she wasn't being understood in a conversation." And yet she was fearless, says Soetoro-Ng. "She was very capable. She went out on the back of a motorcycle and did rigorous fieldwork. Her research was responsible and penetrating. She saw the heart of a problem, and she knew whom to hold accountable."
Today Obama is partly a product of what his mother was not. Whereas she swept her children off to unfamiliar lands and even lived apart from her son when he was a teenager, Obama has tried to ground his children in the Midwest. "We've created stability for our kids in a way that my mom didn't do for us," he says. "My choosing to put down roots in Chicago and marry a woman who is very rooted in one place probably indicates a desire for stability that maybe I was missing."
Ironically, the person who mattered most in Obama's life is the one we know the least about--maybe because being partly African in America is still seen as being simply black and color is still a preoccupation above almost all else. There is not enough room in the conversation for the rest of a man's story.
But Obama is his mother's son. In his wide-open rhetoric about what can be instead of what was, you see a hint of his mother's credulity. When Obama gets donations from people who have never believed in politics before, they're responding to his ability--passed down from his mother--to make a powerful argument (that happens to be very liberal) without using a trace of ideology. On a good day, when he figures out how to move a crowd of thousands of people very different from himself, it has something to do with having had a parent who gazed at different cultures the way other people study gems.
It turns out that Obama's nascent career peddling hope is a family business. He inherited it. And while it is true that he has not been profoundly tested, he was raised by someone who was.
In most elections, the deceased mother of a candidate in the primaries is not the subject of a magazine profile. But Ann Soetoro was not like most mothers.
Stanley Ann Dunham Born in 1942, just five years before Hillary Clinton, Obama's mother came into an America constrained by war, segregation and a distrust of difference. Her parents named her Stanley because her father had wanted a boy. She endured the expected teasing over this indignity, but dutifully lugged the name through high school, apologizing for it each time she introduced herself in a new town.
During her life, she was known by four different names, each representing a distinct chapter. In the course of the Stanley period, her family moved more than five times--from Kansas to California to Texas to Washington--before her 18th birthday. Her father, a furniture salesman, had a restlessness that she inherited.
She spent her high school years on a small island in Washington, taking advanced classes in philosophy and visiting coffee shops in Seattle. "She was a very intelligent, quiet girl, interested in her friendships and current events," remembers Maxine Box, a close high school friend. Both girls assumed they would go to college and pursue careers. "She wasn't particularly interested in children or in getting married," Box says. Although Stanley was accepted early by the University of Chicago, her father wouldn't let her go. She was too young to be off on her own, he said, unaware, as fathers tend to be, of what could happen when she lived in his house.
After she finished high school, her father whisked the family away again--this time to Honolulu, after he heard about a big new furniture store there. Hawaii had just become a state, and it was the new frontier. Stanley grudgingly went along yet again, enrolling in the University of Hawaii as a freshman.
Mrs. Barack H. Obama Shortly before she moved to Hawaii, Stanley saw her first foreign film. Black Orpheus was an award-winning musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus, a tale of doomed love. The movie was considered exotic because it was filmed in Brazil, but it was written and directed by white Frenchmen. The result was sentimental and, to some modern eyes, patronizing. Years later Obama saw the film with his mother and thought about walking out. But looking at her in the theater, he glimpsed her 16-year-old self. "I suddenly realized," he wrote in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, "that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen ... was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life, warm, sensual, exotic, different."
By college, Stanley had started introducing herself as Ann. She met Barack Obama Sr. in a Russian-language class. He was one of the first Africans to attend the University of Hawaii and a focus of great curiosity. He spoke at church groups and was interviewed for several local-newspaper stories. "He had this magnetic personality," remembers Neil Abercrombie, a member of Congress from Hawaii who was friends with Obama Sr. in college. "Everything was oratory from him, even the most commonplace observation."
Obama's father quickly drew a crowd of friends at the university. "We would drink beer, eat pizza and play records," Abercrombie says. They talked about Vietnam and politics. "Everyone had an opinion about everything, and everyone was of the opinion that everyone wanted to hear their opinion--no one more so than Barack."