Near the end of his latest book, former President Jimmy Carter describes the toll his mother felt his presidency had taken on her family.
"Recalling how she had first learned that I was projected to lose the 1980 election, Mama said, 'I was in the hospital with a broken hip when Jimmy came to my room and said he was going to lose. It was the day before the election, and all the news was about the anniversary of the hostages being held in Iran, and blaming it on Jimmy. I said, 'Good!' and I went back to sleep. I wanted him out—my whole family had been attacked and split wide open from Jimmy being president.' "Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter—Miss Lillian to the world—was never bashful about expressing her feelings whether or not people wanted to hear them. But like many women of her generation, she didn't really discover her own voice (at least outwardly) until after her husband, Earl, had died. An independent spirit dressed in loose-fitting dresses and often barefoot, she also was dutifully obedient of Earl, curtailing her job as a nurse when Earl insisted she needn't work.
Miss Lillian's influence over her children and especially the former president is the subject of Carter's latest book, "A Remarkable Mother," due out in time for Mother's Day by Simon & Schuster.
Crafted from the amazing journals, diaries and letters meticulously kept by the Carter family, Jimmy Carter weaves a loving, though not always flattering, portrait of the woman who most influenced his life. If this love letter does nothing else, it illustrates to us all how important it is to capture family memories and experiences as they are happening. These writings provide such wonderful insight. Though Lillian died Oct. 30, 1983 at the age of 85, she is very much alive in his book.
While their father read to the four Carter children—Jimmy, Gloria, Ruth and Billy—when they were young, it was Miss Lillian who encouraged their reading of current events. They would have magazines and newspapers at the table for every meal except for Sunday dinner. The Carter children, having grown up on a farm, realized quickly that if you were reading, you didn't have to work.
She also engendered in them the notion of service to others. In interviews later in her life, Miss Lillian would comment that the only thing to do in Plains, Ga., was to attend church (even though her own experiences there proved otherwise). Living on a main road, during the Depression, "When Mama was home, we never turned away anyone who came to our house asking for food or a drink of water."
A lifelong, vocal Democrat, Miss Lillian and Earl Carter's votes usually cancelled each other out. Carter's father became a Libertarian more in philosophy than in name, given his disenchantment with FDR's New Deal. "For some, including my father, these were sacrilegious acts, and a totally unacceptable invasion by the federal government into the private affairs of free Americans."
While Carter would not grow up to share his father's political views, he did share his "obsession with punctuality," something that Miss Lillian, as a member of the medical profession, did not necessarily abide.
Even though she worked sporadically as a nurse, Miss Lillian was always working at something including growing pecans, which provided the family with some side income, enough to fund vacations to major cities to see her beloved baseball. More than just a grower, she was also a shrewd negotiator and was able to earn more harvesting pecans than she did in a year of nursing. "Growing pecans … was like picking up money off the ground."
Baseball was like a religion to Miss Lillian. She consider it to be "one of God's special blessings" that she and Earl were present when Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"After our family became famous, she would call Tommy Lasorda to complain about managerial decisions he had made. When Mama died, we found a complete Dodgers uniform in her closet, even including cleats, with a love letter signed by the entire team," Carter writes.When Earl Carter died, Miss Lillian blossomed into the a true family matriarch, what her children describe as her "two different characters." She despised McCarthy, was a strong support of Democratic candidates devoted to civil rights at home and human rights abroad, and served as priest, banker, confident and in loco parentis for a bunch of Kappa Alpha boys at Auburn University.
The Carter family was ostracized for their support of Lyndon Johnson, but Miss Lillian had high hopes in his plans to address civil rights and poverty. Not only the Carter family matriarch, Miss Lillian was also the town matriarch. She once talked a young black boy down from the water tower when he wanted to kill himself. More than that, she brokered an agreement with the sheriff to see that the boy's father didn't continue beating him, which was what drove him to the top of the tower in the first place.
Reading that age was no barrier to entry, at age 70 Miss Lillian entered the Peace Corps. Her only request was to go somewhere warm where her nursing skills could be used. She wound up in Vikhroli, India. Initially stymied in her attempts to teach the villagers about birth control, she eventually wrote a play that helped get the message across. Realizing that the clinic was horribly under-supplied, she persuaded drug companies to donate samples. With little more comfort than her Mickey Spillane crime novels, she gave to India a piece of her heart.
"I didn't dream that in this remote corner of the world, so far away from the people and material things that I had always considered so necessary, I would discover what Life is really all about, sharing yourself with others—and accepting their love for you is the most precious gift of all.She returned to Vikhroli during the first year of Carter's presidency and was greeted by 10,000 people, many of whom called her "Lilly behn" (our sister Lilly). She told them, "I was happier walking here, sometimes barefoot, than I am now coming in the president's plane."
"If I had one wish for my children, it would be that each of you would dare to do the things and reach for goals in your own lives that have meaning for you as individuals, doing as much as you can for everybody, but not worrying if you don't please everyone."
It seems that all of her children took her advice to heart. When Billy Carter was once asked about his eccentricities, he told the interviewer that one sister rode a Harley-Davidson, one was a holy-roller preacher, his mother entered the Peace Corps at age 70 and he ran a farm and occasionally drank too much. "Which one of our family do you think is normal?" he said.
Each in their own ways, the Carter children embraced their mother's wish. Writing in a wonderfully southern storytelling fashion, Carter describes how he told his mother that he was running for president. He visited her at the house in Plains, sat down and put his feet up on the coffee table, to which she replied, "Get your dirty feet off of my table!"
"After some preliminary discussion, I told her that I had made a very important decision and wanted her to know it.It was an hour later before she realized he was serious and she said, "I think you can do it, and I want to help." Help she did. Her diaries during the campaign show that she met with more than 500 groups of supporters and made up to five campaign stops a day. She endured endless chiding and comparisons by the press, some of whom referred to her as "Rose Kennedy without the hair dye" and someone who wore "drip-dry dresses."
'Well, what is it, Jimmy?'
'Mama, I've decided to run for president.'
Startled, she asked, 'President of what?'
Her relationship with the press was tenuous. She was skeptical but at the same time developed relationships with people like Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson. And occasionally she would use the press to send her son messages on the campaign trail (he should "quit that stuff about never telling a lie"). During the inauguration when Carter's press secretary told everyone not to speak to the press, Miss Lillian retorted, "Jody, you can go to hell. I'll talk to whom I please."
Ironically, the matriarch and key campaigner was practically left at home when the Carter family was leaving Plains for the inauguration. Everyone thought somebody else had picked up Miss Lillian.
"I raced back to her home and found her, stony-faced and furious, sitting in her living room. Her first comment to me was, 'I've decided to stay at home and not to attend the inauguration.'Miss Lillian traveled the world on behalf of her son's administration. She always gave the State Department pause, as they worried what she would say or whether she would violate diplomatic etiquette. She did on occasion, though to no great detriment. She called King Hassan of Morocco a "damn foreigner" for offering her 21 bottles of perfume. In her high heels she practically slid into the new Pope John Paul II (much to Rosalynn's chagrin and the pope's delight) and she told her son that Ireland was her favorite place and "if she could have another month there she could resolve the problem between the Catholics and the Protestants."
"She was soon persuaded to go with us, but she never let us forget that we had left her behind."
After her papal visit with Pope Paul VI (one of his last visitors before he died) she said if she had another lifetime to live she would be a Catholic because they didn't have a problem with a drink in the afternoon or a game of poker now and then (a game she much preferred over bridge).
While with Pope Paul, in advance of her trip to West Africa, the two prayed for an end to a devastating drought in that region. While Miss Lillian was in Mali a few days later, torrential rains came. All these years later, Carter says people of that region still feel the prayers of Pope Paul and Miss Lillian ended the drought.
Carter's love for his mother is rooted in all of those wonderful complexities of a mother-son relationship. Unconditional love, occasional embarrassment, exasperation, adoration, shared laughter, protectiveness and the sense that with such a person behind you, anything is possible—even becoming president.
But her love spread far beyond her family's close circle. In October 2006, the Carters visited Vikhroli, India, as part of Habitat for Humanity. They had the chance to meet with a number of villagers whom Miss Lillian had helped, including one young girl she had taught to read who was now president of a university.
Word of the day
raconteur: a person who excels in telling anecdotes