By Cynthia Tucker
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In a heartbreaking twist, Madelyn Dunham — her grandchildren called her “Toot” — died less than 48 hours before her grandson was elected the first black president of the United States. Let’s hope she knew that he would reach the pinnacle of American politics; she had as much to do with the man he became as anyone.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama often used his Kansas-born grandparents as stand-ins for ordinary Americans who worked hard, loved their country, played by the rules. Yet there was something about Stanley and Madelyn Dunham that was not at all ordinary. For white Americans of their time and place, they showed an extraordinary willingness to set aside the social customs of the day to embrace, to love, even to adore their biracial grandson.

These days, it’s hard to remember how unusual that was. All around us, in big cities and small towns, we see interracial couples and their progeny. I’ve seen plenty of white grandparents holding little kinky-haired dark-skinned toddlers.

But when Obama was born in 1961, that was not only unusual but also frightening in many quarters of an America that still observed a strict color line. The open acceptance of interracial marriage (or even sexual liaisons) didn’t just upset the status quo; it didn’t just represent a staggering blow to convention; it also drove a dagger into centuries-old notions of racial purity.

As Obama has pointed out, when his mother, Stanley Ann, married his Kenyan father, Barack, in 1961, interracial marriage was still illegal in 22 states. When Dean Rusk’s daughter became engaged to a black man in 1967, the romance was considered so scandalous that Rusk reportedly offered his resignation as secretary of state. (Happily, President Lyndon Johnson refused it.)

Yet Stanley and Madelyn, simple Kansas folk, refused to be scandalized. They may not have danced in the streets over their daughter’s union, but they didn’t allow it to estrange them from her and her child.

It was Obama’s mother who was the restless spirit with a relentless curiosity about the world. In a 2004 preface to the re-release of his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama spoke of his mother as “the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and … what is best in me I owe to her.”

But his grandparents took their own journey into a new world as they helped to rear their grandson, proudly introduced him to strangers and reveled in his accomplishments. They were not perfect. They had their prejudices, their occasional lapses into common stereotypes about black Americans, as Obama pointed out in his remarkable speech on race in March.

In that same speech, however, he described his grandmother as the “woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world.”

The man Obama has become reminds us of something we already knew: It’s amazing what unadulterated love can accomplish in the life of a child.