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Jimmy Carter remembers ‘Miss Lillian’

Known around the world simply as “Miss Lillian,” President Jimmy Carter's mother became America’s First Mama.  Now, Jimmy Carter presents an affectionate, funny and moving portrait of Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter in "A Remarkable Mother." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Known around the world simply as “Miss Lillian,” President Jimmy Carter's mother became America’s First Mama — irrepressible, often hilarious, always a fighter on behalf of the underdog. Now, Jimmy Carter presents an affectionate, funny and moving portrait of Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter in "A Remarkable Mother." Here's an excerpt:

Early family yearsBessie Lillian Gordy was born in Chattahoochee County, Georgia, the fifteenth 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 first 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 Thomas 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 officer 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, first 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-five 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 certified that he was there. Only then did she get up, put on her wedding dress, and join him for the ceremony.

"The newlyweds moved to a little settlement called Brooklyn, just a crossroad with about a dozen families, where Papa had his first job as schoolmaster. Mama always told us about the first 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 first cousins. They were Catholics, and we made fun of them when they knelt down to pray or said their catechism. So Mama had five babies at once, none old enough to go to bed without help. Then 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 satisfied with her way of life. She would spend all day in the house and garden, first preparing food for a big family, getting the children off to school, and cleaning the house. Then 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 puffs 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. Then 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 fire 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 affairs of their families and the community. I can see now that hers was a complete life, not much different 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-five 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. They 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 qualified, 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 Jefferson, 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 flour, meal, sugar, coffee, 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 open land to farm. It was a haven for Grandpa, away from the hurly-burly of home life. When he would finally tire of the solitude or feel that his official duties couldn't spare him longer, he would return home as though he had just been down at the drugstore, with no thought of apologies or explanations for his absence.

It was an accepted fact within our family that the Gordys couldn't get along with each other long enough to enjoy a full meal together. Sometimes on the way to Sunday dinner in Richland after church in Plains, Daddy and Mama would try to guess what would precipitate the main argument of the day. Although my father teased Mother about the Gordys' arguments, I don't remember his family ever having a Sunday meal together.

Grandpa Gordy was a restless man, always preferring to be somewhere else than with his own family or with boring companions. The only exception was my mother, whom he invited to serve as his assistant in the post office until she moved from Richland to Plains. Jim Jack finally lost his government job in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected, and had to become a dirt farmer, trying to support his family on a hardscrabble farm that he rented not too far from where we lived near Plains. I remember him, tall and slender, wearing overalls with a buttoned shirt and a bow tie, walking behind a muledrawn plow in a futile attempt to control Bermuda grass in a scraggly cotton field.Recently I found a small homemade diary book that Grandma Gordy kept from March 1932 until August 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression. The occasional entries concentrate on the status of her children, especially Tom, who was traveling all over the Pacific Ocean in the navy. During the time they were farming near Plains, one entry was extraordinarily personal: "Papa is somewhat peeved tonight about his mule, afraid he is sick. He said if the mule died I would have to look out for myself. I said I hope he dies then. He knew I did not mean that, but seems like I just can't say a word lately but what he takes it for the worst. Such is life." Then she wrote, "I should not have written the above, but have no rubber on my pencil to spoil it out."

Later, she wrote, "The old mule died Friday. This is two mules to die since we've been here. We will get along some way. God will not forsake us." Another entry, in February 1935, describes a notable characteristic of her husband: "J.J. has gone to Richland. Seems it would make him sick to not be going all the time. He loves to be on the go."My mother always remained very proud of her special relationship with Grandpa. She told me, "There was no doubt that I was Papa's favorite. Everyone in the family knew it. I guess one reason was that I didn't always accept what he said as the gospel truth, and would argue with some of his opinions. Looking back, I see that I was always careful not to go too far with it, and to back off if it looked like he was getting too aggravated. In a lot of cases, though, particularly when he and I were alone at the post office, I think he liked for me to speak up so we could have something of a debate.

"I read more than anyone else in the family — except him, of course — and I tried to learn about things that interested him. Sometimes he would give me a book he had just read, and we both looked forward to a fierce discussion about the subject. One thing I liked about working at the post office was that both of us could find time to read on the job. Another thing was that we probably knew more than anybody else about what was going on around Richland. Papa handled a lot of telegraph messages, and taught telegraphy to two of his sons. He had a way of absorbing the news, but always cautioned me about not repeating gossip we heard if it would hurt anyone. I loved Mama and Papa, but I have to admit that I was ready to leave home and go in nurses' training, and when I got to Plains I didn't go back very often."

I remember that after I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, in 1946, I borrowed my daddy's automobile and drove the eighteen miles from Plains to Richland. I stopped by my grandparents' home and enjoyed some sweet milk and blackberry pie while telling Grandma about my new career. She then told me that Jim Jack was downtown in Richland, "probably at the drugstore." I walked there and, sure enough, found my grandfather with some other loafers assembled around one of the glass-topped tables, drinking Cokes and engaged in a heated discussion of some local issue. I stood behind him for a few minutes, until one of the men noticed my uniform and indicated my presence to Grandpa.When he turned around, I could tell that he didn't recognize me, and I blurted out, "Grandpa, I'm Jimmy, Lillian's son." He shook my hand and said, "Boy, I'm real glad to see you again." Then he turned back and continued his conversation. I stood there a few minutes, then went back home and off to my first ship. That was the last time I saw him before he died a few months later.

The temperaments of the younger Gordys mirrored the stark differences in the characters of their parents. The girls had professional careers, married well, and raised fairly stable families, in some ways like their mother, but the boys were more like Grandpa — without his reading habits, interest in politics, or self-restraint regarding alcohol.

Excerpted from "A Remarkable Mother," by Jimmy Carter. Copyright © 2008 Jimmy Carter. Reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.