Watchdog Blog

Mary C. Curtis: Who is a family?

Posted at 11:17 am, August 26th, 2008
Mary Curtis Mug

At the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, it was family night. The featured families challenged stereotypes of what family is and is not in America.

It was no surprise to me.

When Barack Obama’s family took the stage, it was the United Nations. It was all-American.

Attacks on Obama’s politics don’t bother me. If you don’t like his approach to health care or veteran’s rights, that’s fair game. But when people try to find something odd, something vaguely exotic in the mix of white, black, Malaysian, Asian and African in the Obama holiday photo, I take it personally.

The Curtis clan includes its share of Olsens and Macys. When you line us up, the hues range from light to dark, the mix from Norwegian American to African American. The woman I call mom is an 86-year-old, English-Irish lady in the Bronx. She is my husband’s mother, a retired social worker who didn’t bat an eye when I chose to become a working mom 25 years ago.

That’s something my late mother, whom I love and miss dearly, didn’t quite understand at the time. She stayed at home when her five children were little, so she questioned my choice. Irene Olsen’s support meant the world to me, then and now. My husband’s sister, Marian, doesn’t have children, but she treats my son as her own.

Maya Soetero-Ng, was listed on the convention schedule as Obama’s “half-sister.” But she did no such hedging in her remarks. She spoke warmly of a “big brother,” who opened her “mind and spirit” to a broader world. She said that the mother both shared taught them that “with a little imagination, we could dream the impossible.” The blended Obama family resembles an America, one of divorce and remarriage and divorce.

More Americans are looking for love and family where they can find it, where they find warmth and welcome. So you find foster families, and children connected by adoption who you might not — at first glance — peg as related.

Family night continued on Monday when Caroline Kennedy and a variety of relations paid touching tribute to “Uncle Teddy,” who delivered a speech full of emotion, if not his usual vigor. When you look at a Kennedy, you can’t mistake him or her for anyone else. Caroline said it’s Obama that is the heir to her father’s ability to inspire.

When the tributes turned to Obama’s wife, Michelle, it broke another stereotype, that of a dysfunctional black family. Their story was familiar to me, too. Her father went to work to support his wife and two children, even as he suffered and died too soon from multiple sclerosis.

Sounds like my dad, who worked two and three jobs to support his family. When Michelle Obama said she misses him every day, I knew just how she felt. I imagine a lot of others listening in felt the same way. The photo of Michelle, her brother Craig Robinson, her mom and dad, standing tight, could have passed for my childhood memory.

Barack and Michelle Obama, two people, from different circumstances with a blend of races in their backgrounds, came together because of shared beliefs and goals. Now they are raising a family, two girls with minds of their own, if their shout-outs to dad were any indication.

Every speaker on Monday night said it over and over: “Barack Obama’s story is an American story,” saying it often enough, it seemed, so others would believe it, too.

I knew it all along.


Just one generation of a particular Democratic family took the stage at Monday night’s convention. Jesse Jackson, Jr., a Congressman from Illinois and longtime Obama supporter, spoke on a stage he once shared with his father. While many would say Obama’s way was paved by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, it was, as the younger Jackson said, a “turning point.”

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