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By Michelle Obama

The first time I visited, he picked me up in his car, a snub-nosed, banana- yellow Datsun he’d bought used on his loan-strapped student budget. When he turned the key, the engine revived and the car spammed violently before settling into a loud, sustained juddering that shook us in our seats. I looked at Barack in disbelief.

“You drive this thing?” I said, raising my voice over the noise.

He flashed me the impish, I-got-this-covered grin that melted me every time. “Just give it a minute or two,” he said, shifting the car into gear. “It goes away.” After another few minutes, having steered us onto a busy road, he added, “Also, maybe don’t look down.”

I’d already spotted what he wanted me to avoid—a rusted-out, four-inch hole in the floor of his car, through which I could see the pavement rushing beneath us.

Life with Barack would never be dull. I knew it even then. It would be some version of banana yellow and slightly hair-raising. It occurred to me, too, that quite possibly the man would never make any money.

He was living in a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Somerville, but during my recruiting trips Sidley put me up at the luxe Charles Hotel adjacent to campus, where we slept on smooth high-quality sheets and Barack, rarely one to cook for himself, could load up on a hot breakfast before his morning classes. In the evenings, he parked himself in my room and did his schoolwork, giddily dressed in one of the hotel’s thick terry-cloth robes.

At Christmastime that year, we flew to Honolulu. I’d never been to Hawaii before but was pretty certain I’d like it. I was coming from Chicago, after all, where winter stretched through April, where it was normal to keep a snow shovel stashed in the trunk of your car. 1 owned an unsettling amount of wool. For me, getting away from winter had always felt like a joyride. During college, I’d made a trip to the Bahamas with my Bahamian classmate David, and another to Jamaica with Suzanne. In both instances, I’d reveled in the soft air on my skin and the simple buoyancy I felt anytime I got close to the ocean. Maybe it was no accident that I was drawn to people who’d been raised on islands.

In Kingston, Suzanne had taken me to powdery white beaches where we dodged waves in water that looked like jade. She’d piloted us expertly through a chaotic market, jabbering with street vendors.

“Try dis!” she’d shouted at me, going full throttle with the accent, exuberantly handing me pieces of grilled fish to taste, handing me fried yams, stalks of sugarcane, and cut-up pieces of mango. She demanded I try everything, intent on getting me to see how much there was to love.

It was no different with Barack. By now he’d spent more than a decade on the mainland, but Hawaii still mattered to him deeply. He wanted me to take it all in, from the splaying palm trees that lined the streets of Honolulu and the crescent arc of Waikiki Beach to the green drape of hills surrounding the city. For about a week, we stayed in a borrowed apartment belonging to family friends and made trips every day to the ocean, to swim and laze about in the sun. I met Barack’s half-sister Maya, who at nineteen was kind and smart and getting a degree at Barnard. She had round cheeks and wide brown eyes and dark hair that curled in a rich tangle around her shoulders. I met his grandparents Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, or “Toot and Gramps,” as he called them. They lived in the same high-rise where they’d raised Barack, in a small apartment decorated with Indonesian textiles that Ann had sent home over the years.

 

And I met Ann herself, a plump, lively woman with dark frizzy hair and the same angular chin as Barack. She wore chunky silver jewelry, a bright batik dress, and the kind of sturdy sandals I would guess an anthropologist might wear. She was friendly toward me and curious about my background and my career. It was clear she adored her son—almost revered him—and she seemed most eager to sit down and talk with him, describing her dissertation work and swapping book recommendations as if catching up with an old friend.

Everyone in the family still called him Barry, which I found endearing. Though they’d left their home state of Kansas back in the 1940s, his grandparents seemed to me like the misplaced Midwesterners Barack had always described them as. Gramps was big and bearlike and told silly jokes. Toot, a stout, gray-haired woman who’d worked her way up to be-coming the vice president of a local bank, made us tuna salad sandwiches for lunch. In the evenings, she served Ritz crackers piled with sardines for appetizers and put dinner on TV trays so that everyone could watch the news or play a heated game of Scrabble. They were a modest, middle- class family, in many ways not at all unlike my own.

There was something comforting in this, for both me and Barack. As different as we were, we fit together in an interesting way. It was as if the reason for the ease and attraction between us was now being explained.

In Hawaii, Barack’s intense and brainy side receded somewhat, while the laid-back part of him flourished. He was at home. And home was where he didn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone.

Excerpted from Becoming, by Michelle Obama. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of the Penguin Random House LLC, New York in 2018. This is the third of four selected excerpts from books around the world, across cultures, to celebrate the season of love.

 

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