A Remarkable Mother

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9781416562450: A Remarkable Mother

A Remarkable Mother is President Carter’s loving, admiring, wry homage to Miss Lillian Carter.

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About the Author:

Jimmy Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, and served as thirty-ninth President of the United States. He and his wife, Rosalynn, founded The Carter Center, a nonprofit organization that prevents and resolves conflicts, enhances freedom and democracy, and improves health around the world. He is the author of numerous books, including Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, An Hour Before Daylight and Our Endangered Values. He received a "Best Spoken Word" Grammy Award for his recording of Our Endangered Values. All of President Carter's proceeds from this series will go to the Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains, Georgia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Early Family Years

Bessie Lillian Gordy was born in Chattahoochee County, Georgia, the fi fteenth day of August, 1898, and was one of the most extraordinary people I've ever known. She was the fourth of nine children, two of them adopted "double first cousins," and was described in news reports as "third cousin of U.S. Senators Jesse Helms and Sam Nunn, fourth cousin of Elvis Presley, and mother of President Jimmy Carter." We children thought this diverse heritage partially explained her interest in politics and showmanship, but not some of her other idiosyncrasies.

My mother's great-grandfather Wilson Gordy was the fi rst of his family to be born in Georgia, in 1801. He was descended from Peter Gordy, who was born in Somerset County, Maryland, in 1710. We've never attempted to trace the genealogy further, but some of the older kinfolks always said that the Gordys came from France. Wilson moved to West Georgia near the Chattahoochee River in the 1830s, soon after the Lower Creek Indians were forced westward and land was opened to white settlers. All of his possessions were in a large hogshead, with an axle through the center, which rolled down the narrow openings through virgin timber, drawn by his only horse. He soon became known as the best carpenter of what would be Chattahoochee County. Lillian's grandfather James Th omas Gordy was a wagon master during the Civil War and later county tax collector, and he married Harriet Emily Helms, whose parents came from North Carolina.

Lillian's father was James Jackson Gordy, named after an early hero of Revolutionary War days, and he was always known as Jim Jack. A federal government revenue offi cer in Southwest Georgia and later postmaster in Richland, he became one of the most astute political analysts in his changing communities. Mama's mother was Mary Ida Nicholson, daughter of Nathaniel Nunn Nicholson and granddaughter of Frances Nunn, whose family moved from the Carolinas to Georgia soon after the Revolutionary War.

My grandfather Jim Jack was thirteen years old when the "Northern oppressors" finally relinquished political and economic control of the state in 1876, and it was inevitable that there was still a legacy of North-South bitterness among the older relatives in the earliest political discussions I ever heard. Slavery was never mentioned -- only the unwarranted violation of states' rights and the intrusion of the federal government in the private lives of citizens. I remember that my mother was the only one in her family who ever spoke up to defend Abraham Lincoln.

I recorded some of my mother's comments about her family:

"Well, fi rst of all let me tell you about Mama. She seemed to be real quiet, but she never let Papa push her around. For instance, Papa was quite a dandy when he was young. He was engaged to another woman in Cusseta before he even met my mother, and the wedding was all planned. I never did know if it was a forced wedding or not, but when the time came he got on the train and disappeared, leaving his bride standing at the altar. He stayed away about three months, then came back and started courting Mama. When they were engaged, he was twenty-fi ve and she was just seventeen, but Mama was really feisty. She told him she wasn't going to even dress for the ceremony until she knew he was standing by and ready. She sat in a chair in the preacher's house, with her wedding dress on the bed, until Papa arrived at the church next door and the preacher came over and certifi ed that he was there. Only then did she get up, put on her wedding dress, and join him for the ceremony.

"Th e newlyweds moved to a little settlement called Brooklyn, just a crossroad with about a dozen families, where Papa had his fi rst job as schoolmaster. Mama always told us about the fi rst meal she cooked. Papa brought home some oysters, and she said the more she boiled them the tougher they got.

"Mama took care of the house and all of us children, with not much help from Papa. She had three children one right after another, and then Papa's brother either was shot or killed himself, and Mama took his two boys, my double fi rst cousins. Th ey were Catholics, and we made fun of them when they knelt down to pray or said their catechism. So Mama had fi ve babies at once, none old enough to go to bed without help. Th en she skipped three years and I came along, followed by three more -- all of us two or three years apart."

My grandmother Ida was calm, a homebody, and seemed to be perfectly satisfi ed with her way of life. She would spend all day in the house and garden, fi rst preparing food for a big family, getting the children off to school, and cleaning the house. Th en she would put on her sunbonnet and work in the large garden, bringing a basket full of seasonal vegetables back into the house.

She always cooked a big dinner at noon, including pies, cakes, or fruit puff s for a constant supply of dessert. After the dishes were washed, she would clean the kitchen, wash and iron the family's clothes, and take care of the kids coming home from school, being sure that they did their chores and completed their homework assignments. Th en she had to prepare supper, including leftovers plus a few fresh-cooked items. She was up each morning at 4:30 and would light up the woodstove while Grandpa, if he was home and it was winter, would make a fi re in the fireplace.

On Sundays, everyone went to Sunday School and church, so Grandma had to prepare most of the large dinner in advance, maybe cooking the biscuits and fried chicken after the services were over. For one afternoon a week, she joined some of the other ladies of the community in a quilting bee, all of them sewing while they discussed aff airs of their families and the community. I can see now that hers was a complete life, not much diff erent from that of most Southern women of the time. She was proud and grateful to serve the other members of her family, who more or less took her for granted, just helping with the chores when she asked them.

My mother told me, "At times when we were raised there were real hard times, but we got by. I can remember when Mama could send me to the store to get twenty-fi ve cents' worth of steak and it would feed all nine of us."

My grandfather was as wide-roving and flamboyant as my grandmother was home-loving and quiet. He was born in 1863 near Columbus, Georgia, and taught school for several years in Brooklyn before moving ten more miles to the larger town of Richland. Jim Jack was a man's man. He was tall, slender, handsome, and always well groomed and neatly dressed. Even on workdays, he preferred to wear a bow tie -- never a pre-tied one.

Jim Jack was totally committed to mastering the prevailing political situation, as his daughter, my mother, described proudly: "My father could tell you pretty close to what vote any man would get, not only in the county but even in the whole state. All my life when I was a girl, until I left home to be a nurse, I saw him do this. For local elections, he would write out his predictions of the outcomes and seal them in an envelope. The county clerk would put them in his safe, and then compare the results after votes were counted. But it was just interesting to me to see the lengths he would go to keep up with politics.

They would come in droves to see him."

Grandpa -- of necessity -- also demonstrated a remarkable understanding of national elections. During years that long preceded a civil service system in the U.S. government, he was nimble enough on his political feet to guess right in several presidential elections, shifting party allegiance to retain his appointment as postmaster in Richland. Earlier, when Warren Harding was elected in 1920, Grandpa went to make arrangements for the position in the small town of Rhine, the only rural Republican stronghold, where federal appointments were dispensed because of political support -- or bribes. Th ey had already allotted the postmaster's position but promised Jim Jack the next appointment and gave him an interim job as chief revenue agent for our region. As a former schoolmaster, he kept meticulous records, and I still have one of his notebooks covering two months in 1922, showing that he destroyed thirty-six stills during that time.

Later, I heard my father say that this was one job for which Grandpa and his sons were especially qualifi ed, having done business with most of the moonshiners in the area. Grandpa would take a "sociable" drink on frequent occasions, but I never knew him to be tipsy enough to lose his composure or bring ridicule on himself. He had two sons, though, who had serious problems with whiskey.

Jim Jack's only unswerving political allegiance was to Tom Watson, who was a Democratic congressman in North Georgia but was disavowed by his party when he advocated equal economic treatment for black and white workers and small farmers. Watson joined the Populist Party and in 1896 was nominated as vice president on William Jennings Bryan's Populist ticket. He was elected by Georgians to the U.S. Senate after he changed his political philosophy almost completely and ran on a racist platform.

My grandfather considered his own greatest achievement to be suggesting the concept of rural delivery of mail to Tom Watson, who got the proposal passed into law. Among mementos we inherited from Grandpa were letters between him and Watson on this subject, as well as Watson's biography of Thomas Jeff erson, which, for some reason, was dedicated to the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

A couple of times each year, my mother would get word that "Papa has gone again." Grandpa would pack a small suitcase, get a supply of fl our, meal, sugar, coff ee, side meat, some liquid refreshments -- and a good supply of books -- and tell his wife, "Ida, I'm going out to the farm for a while." She had learned that protests were fruitless, so she would tell him goodbye and expect to see him again in two or three weeks. They owned a small, remote farm in Webster County near Kinchafoonee Creek with a tenant shack on it, mostly woodland with not enough op...

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