A Remarkable Mother
By Dr. Ahmed S. Khan*
Mothers are unique; they offer unconditional care and love for their children, and never ask for anything in return. Every soul has a unique story about his or her mother. Former US President Jimmy Carter, a prolific writer, in his 20th book, A Remarkable Mother, offers readers one unique and the amazing story of his mother, Lillian Cater (1898-1983). The book, launched around the Mother’s Day, is based on diaries, letters and interviews of family and friends.
A Remarkable Mother chronicles Lillian's life and her achievements spanned over eight decades of the twentieth century. President Carter has ascribed to his mother the inspiration of his own life’s work and achievement. The author, using a simple but eloquent style, narrates various facets and phases of her life: from growing up in rural Georgia to pursuing a professional career as nurse, from dealing with race issues in the South to serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in India, from expanding her interests as a widow to helping her son become President, and from becoming America’s first Mama to exerting her influence on President Carter’s administration.
President Carter starts the book by introducing his mother, “Bessie Lillian Gordy was born in Chattahoochee County, Georgia, the fifteenth day of August, 1898, and was one of the most extraordinary people I‘ve 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 US 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.”
On the education of his mother and her nursing profession, Jimmy Carter writes, “Mama received a much better education than most other girls her age because of her constant reading and her determination to pursue a medical career. She said, ‘I signed up to be a nurse when the army was asking for nurses. That was in 1917, when I was nineteen, and I was very patriotic…In those days nurses were not like they are now…Nurses made little money and were not highly respected. They were thought of as servants, often improperly abused or even seduced by doctors.’ ”
Lillian married Earl Carter, who later became a successful farmer, businessman and community leader. The marriage yielded four children: Jimmy (President of the United States, Gloria (the motorcyclist), Ruth (the evangelist) and Billy (the farmer and businessman). Rather than being a protective parent Lillian was a go-getter. She used to teach her children by example. After her husband died in 1953, Lillian transformed herself from a wife into a matriarch.
Describing how his mother managed home, the author writes, “When Mama was not nursing, she was in charge of the house. She was up before first light to fix breakfast for us, usually after my father had already gone to the barn or fields to get all farming tasks under way. On school days he would get us all fed, dressed, and on the way with lunch in a paper sack or on-gallon lard bucket. Summertime was much more pleasant, I would often go early to the field with Daddy, and if it was near home, we might come in later in the morning for breakfast. Mama usually had some help with heavy cleaning, and she sent our dirty clothes off in a long square-bottomed white oak basket to be washed each week by a black family near Plains who provided this service for the community. Relieved of most household duties, my mother was free to pursue her chosen profession -- both in these really years and for three more decades.”
Jimmy Carter also recalls his mother’s frugal ways of running home, “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.” His mother also instilled reading habits in her children, Jimmy Carter recalls, “Mother also encouraged her children to read. The children were excused from doing chores if they were reading. Mother allowed them to read through meals on the dinner table.”
Jimmy Carter has the unique honor of being the first US President to be born in a hospital. Recalling about his birth the author writes, “When the time came, my mother presumed that I would be born at home, as were all the other babies at that time, but Doctor Sam said there was an empty room in the hospital, and she might come back to work quicker if he could deliver the baby there. Mama never failed to mention that Daddy was out at a fish fry and poker game when she began having labor pains and didn’t get home until real late to take her to the hospital.”
Remembering growing up in a segregated society, the author writes, “In the rural community of Archery, we children were raised intimately with our black peers. All of my playmates were black, and I was absorbed in their culture --- except when I went, somewhat reluctantly, to school or church. We played, wrestled, fought, went fishing, and hunting, and worked in the fields together --- as equals. When my parents were away, I slept in the home of Rachel and Jack Clark, an admirable black couple who nurtured me and introduced me to many aspects of life. In my book about our childhood, An Hour before Daylight, I concluded that, in addition to my parents, only two of the five people who shaped my life were white. My mother was the only white adult I ever knew who had a similarly equal relationship with our neighbors.”
Regarding dealing with the race issues, the author writes, “Without any fanfare, Mother just ignored the pervasive restraints of racial segregation. It should be remembered that in those days so-called ‘separate but equal’ was the law of the land --- ordained by the US Supreme Court and strongly enforced by all local authorities in the South and much of the North. The social separation applied to schools, churches, transportation, and access to the systems of politics and justice. Where we lived, black citizens had their own (inferior) public schools, attended their own (superior) churches, and did not have the right to become registered voters or to cast a ballot --- certainly not to hold public office. They did not serve on hurries, and their proper place in courtrooms was in balcony, a remote corner, or as the accused.”
Commenting on his family, the author writes, “Mama helped to provide a special background for our relatively protected and disciplined lives in Archery. I was born in 1924; Gloria two years later, and Ruth in 1929. Our brother, Billy, was a latecomer, thirteen years younger than I and only four years old when I left home to go to college, and the navy. We siblings led separate lives. Except for family outings involving our parents, my two sisters and I had little in common during my earlier years.” Remembering his brother, Billy, the author recalls, “Mama often said that Billy was the smartest of her children, and none of us argued with her. He read at every possible moment -- books, magazines, newspapers.” Recalling his brother’s role in his presidential campaign the authors writes, “When I was campaigning for president, Billy represented our family at home in Plains, and with his independent spirit, wit, and sometimes excessive consumption of alcohol, he became a focus of news media attention. Once, when accused of being eccentric; he replied, “I’ve got one sister who spends all her time on a motor cycle, another who is a Holy-Roly preacher, a mother who was in the Peace Crops when she was seventy years old, and my brother thinks he’s going to be President of the United States. Which of our family do you think is normal?”
Remembering her relationship with his younger sister Ruth, the author writes, “Ruth, always enjoyed a special status in our family. Although I was only five years old, I remember vividly when she had pneumonia and was expected to die. Mama was disturbed when Daddy lifted Ruth’s inert little body from the crib. She cried out, ‘Earl, what in the world are you doing?’ He replied, ‘I’ am going to let her see the sunshine one more time,’ and held her up to the window so she could look out into the yard. When he put her back on the pillow, we all knelt down and prayed for her. Ruth Survived and thrived…Ruth was a strong but gentle soul. Neither Daddy nor I ever had a significant disagreement with her; she had a close and loving relationship throughout our lives.”
Describing the depression years, and the caring and generous nature of his mother, the author observes, “Our house was located on the main highway and railroad running from Savannah on the Atlantic seacoast westward across Georgia and the continent. During some of the worst years of the Depression, the most frequent travelers we saw in front of our house were tramps, some looking out of open boxcar doors as the trains passed and a far greater number walking down the dirt road, in both directions. They were usually men traveling singly or in small groups, but every now and then an entire family would go by. Even as late as 1938, almost one-fourth of American workers were unemployed, and many came south for the warmer winters or just looking for employment. When Mama was home, we never turned away anyone who came to our house asking for food or drink of water. They were invariably polite, and most of them offered to cut wood or do some other yard work in return for a sandwich or some leftover fried chicken or biscuits. We enjoyed talking to them and learned that many were relatively well educated and simply searching for odd jobs of any kind. One day the lady from another farm on our road came to visit, and Mama commented on how many tramps she had helped that week. Mrs. Bacon said, ‘Well, I’m thankful that they never come in my yard.’ The next time we had some of the vagrant visitors, Mama asked why they had stopped at our house and not the others. After some hesitation, one of them said, ‘Ma’am, we have a set of symbols that we use. The post on your mailbox is marked to say that you don’t turn people away or mistreat us.’ After they were gone, we went out and found some unobtrusive scratches, and Mama told us not to change them.”
Remembering his mother’s strong character and independent thinking, the author writes, “Mama was one of the strong, able, and independent Southern women who became a powerful societal force during the generation or two after the War Between the States because of what had happened to the men and boys. Many were dead or incapacitated, or were rendered ignoble by their military defeat and the loss of their prestige, property, and political rights during the imposition of the carpetbagger governments. Every community knew these matriarchs, who were envied and sometimes despised because of their eccentricities, but always respected.”
Lillian Cater proved to be effective on the campaign trail during her son’s 1976 presidential election campaign. The author writes, “Since I ultimately defeated Gerald Ford by a very narrow margin. I think it’s accurate to say had my mama not been on the campaign trail. I probably would not have won … By the time the other candidates woke to what was happening; they had already lost the election.”
Lillian Carter delivered more than 600 public speeches both in the US and overseas during her lifetime, and befriended many celebrities and world leaders. She played the role of the Carter administration’s goodwill ambassador around the globe. She almost persuaded the Carter administration to let boxing champion Muhammad Ali bargain with Iran for the American hostages.
Commenting on his mother outspokenness, President Carter writes, “Mama had developed a reputation for expressing unorthodox opinions and not being constrained by any outside advise … The officials in the State Department were always quite nervous about what she would do or say that might violate protocol and damage relations between our government and that of the country she was visiting.”
Discussing about Lillian’s new interests as a window, the authors writes, “One night, early in 1966, my mother saw a television advertisement for Peace Corps volunteers with the slogan ‘Age is no barrier.’ She immediately sent a letter volunteering to serve…Her only request was to be sent ‘where it’s warm, people have dark skins, and need a nurse’s services.’ (She was posted in India.)”
Recalling Lillian’s initial days in India, President Carter writes, “Mother was informed that her primary duty would be to implement Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s family planning program. As a registered nurse, Mother would be responsible for educating the families on birth control measures…her duty assignment would be near Bombay, in a community called Vikhroli… One of the brightest spots in Mama’s memories about the Peace Crops was Mr. Vinod, the gardener. Often surreptitiously, he would bring her flowers and vegetables. She tried to pay him but he refused…Mr. Vinod had a daughter named Madhavi, about seven years old, and in order to repay the gardener, Mama offered to teach her to read and write, in English. They would go to a quiet place on the nearby hill, and one day Mr. Vinod asked permission to take their photograph together. It was later used on the cover for an edition of Mama’s letters.” In October 2006, when President Carter visited Vikhroli for his Habitat for Humanity program, he discovered that the little girl his mother taught reading and writing English had grown into a lady who earned a doctorate and became the vice chancellor of a university.
Describing her problems of settling into a new culture, the author writes, “Mama had been in Vikhroli about six months, and she became so discouraged with language, vasectomies, not using her nursing skills, and the sight of the leprous woman, that she decided to resign from the Peace Corps and return to Plains. ‘India was killing me,’ she wrote. ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer --- the dirt, the squalor, the poverty, the apparent insensitivity to the suffering of others, the restraints on my activities…I just didn’t have the strength to bear the horrible cruelty and indifference.’ ”
Commenting on Lillian’s culture shock, the author writes, “In some ways, Mama was looked upon as an untouchable because she was involved in the handling of human wastes and performed many of the personal duties that servants provided for high-caste Indians. The caste system always bothered her, and she expressed some resentment toward Prime Minister Indira Gandhi because of this and the rigid family planning restraints that she imposed. Mama commented often about her difficulty in determining which person was supposed to perform which task --- much worse than the divisions of responsibility within American labor unions…an executive in the local bank was of special interest, as Mother observed him several times. She wrote, ‘The cashier has a servant to pick up the phone and hand it to him when it rings. Then when he finishes the conversation he nods slightly and the servant rushes back to replace the receiver. Now the phone is within two feet of the cashier! When I tell them I wash my dishes and clothes and do my own cooking, they don’t believe me. I wipe off the injection table and chairs at the Clinic, and clean up blood from the floor. Anyone else would lose face by doing that. I love to shock them, and they bring their friends to watch me wash off a cabinet! When I bandage a foot or leg, my patient often bends down, puts a hand on each of my feet, and Salaams.’ ”
In summer of 1983, Lillian was diagnosed with breast cancer and died a few months later at age 85. She championed the underdog. A Remarkable Mother is a wonderful tribute to a great mother. A fascinating read: indeed it is a remarkable story about a truly remarkable mother.
(*Dr. Ahmed S. Khan (firstname.lastname@example.org), a senior Professor in the EET dept. at DeVry University, Addison, Illinois, is the author of The Telecommunications Fact Book and the co-author of Technology and Society: Issues for the 21st Century and Beyond)