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Originally published Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

Memories of Obama's mother

This is going to sound strange, Maxine Box says, but 50 years later, she can't forget it: Barack Obama's mother used to crack her knuckles...

Seattle Times staff columnist

This is going to sound strange, Maxine Box says, but 50 years later, she can't forget it:

Barack Obama's mother used to crack her knuckles."Constantly," Box told me as we sat in her Bellevue home on the eve of Super Tuesday, talking about Stanley Dunham, the girl with the man's name and the son who could be president of the United States.

Box, 65, was Dunham's best friend at Mercer Island High School, where they were members of the Class of 1960.

"Obama Mama," is how they refer to her in the school's front office when reporters come around. The Mercer Island Reporter. The Chicago Tribune. Staffers got used to pulling out the 1960 yearbook, until it was recently misplaced.

Same with Box's copy of the yearbook; it's in her house somewhere.

But it doesn't matter — the memories are still clear as day.

And Box wants to keep them that way, to somehow honor the friend who died of ovarian cancer in 1995, before she could see what her son would accomplish; that he would become one of the final two Democratic candidates in the race for president.

Politics may divide us, but a mother's pride, well, that's a feeling that easily crosses party lines.

"She'd be overwhelmed that he's done what he's done," Box said of her friend. "To think that your child has grown up to be this fine man that so many people love. ... "

Box called her friend "Stannie," a nickname for Stanley. She was named for her father, who wanted a boy — and the girl knew it. As a result, their relationship was strained.

"He was hard on her, in that he picked on her," Box said of Stanley Dunham, a furniture salesman in downtown Seattle.

"He had a sarcastic humor," Box said, "and she could give it back."

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Dunham's mother, Madelyn, a bank employee, was "very quiet and serious" and often protected her daughter from her husband's sarcasm, Box said. (She is still alive, but the Obama campaign has not made her available for interviews).

Dunham and Box were part of a close group of girls who attended football games and sock hops but didn't really date. They listened to The Limeliters, The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four. Their parents played cards together.

Dunham and Box walked home together after school, usually stopping at Box's house for mint-chocolate cake before Dunham went on to the Shorewood apartments, where she lived with her parents.

"I don't remember prolonged intellectual discussions," Box said. "But we were all questioners. It was the feeling of the whole school. We were on the debate team, we knew about current events."

And they felt "destined" to attend college.

Box wanted to work with children, and got a teaching degree at the University of Washington.

Stannie "was such a good student, very intellectual and above all of us. Not just thinking about boys and clothes."

When her father took a job selling furniture in Hawaii, Dunham moved with them and enrolled in the University of Hawaii.

Not long after, Dunham wrote Box that she had met a Kenyan grad student named Barack Obama. They married and had a son.

For all the tension Dunham had with her father, Box said, her parents stood by her when her marriage fell apart a few years later.

Dunham eventually remarried an Indonesian man and moved to Jakarta. At one point, she sent her son, Barack, back to Hawaii to live with her parents for a year.

Later, Dunham worked with international relief agencies, focused on women's development.

Box last saw her friend in 1961, when she visited Seattle on her way from Honolulu to Massachusetts, where her then-husband was attending Harvard.

"She seemed very happy and very proud," she said. "She had this beautiful, healthy baby. I can see them right now."

If only Box could see them together again; her friend with her son, the U.S. senator. The husband and father. The presidential candidate.

Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope" is dedicated "To my Mother, whose loving spirit sustains me still."

Box has vowed to support Obama.

"And not just because of knowing his mother. I would have the same feelings. But this makes it extra special."

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Hey, bring that yearbook back!

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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