On her 70th birthday, Lillian Carter wrote a letter to her family from India, where she was serving as a nurse in the Peace Corps.
"If I had one wish for my children," she wrote, "it would be that each of you 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, and not worrying if you don't please everyone."
"Miss Lillian," as she came to be known, became America's First Mama when her oldest son, Jimmy, moved into the White House in 1977. He's still not worrying about pleasing everyone.
A strong, independent and outspoken woman who liked to drink, gamble and play poker, Lillian Carter joined the Peace Corps at age 68 and would later become a favorite guest on the talk shows of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and others. She loved visiting Las Vegas and Reno, where Carson, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra would arrange for her to spend several days at a casino where they were performing.
"We children never understood how Mama could be so lucky, but she managed to win about $1,500 during every visit," former President Jimmy Carter writes in A Remarkable Mother, a charming portrait of the woman who inspired his lifetime of service to others.
He makes no attempt to sugarcoat what he calls her "forceful and demanding personality . . . My mother had strong and almost unchangeable likes and dislikes and never made any attempt to conceal her feelings."
Bessie Lillian Gordy was born in Chattahoochee County, Ga., in 1898, the fourth of nine children and her father's favorite. She trained as a nurse at the onset of World War I, a profession that brought her close to the black community and the problems of the underprivileged.
She married Earl Carter, who later became a prosperous farmer, businessman and community leader, and they had four children. Jimmy, the oldest, would become the best known, but Gloria (the motorcyclist), Ruth (the evangelist) and Billy (the baby and big mouth) would all get more than their share of attention.
Gloria, Ruth and Billy, along with their father, all died of pancreatic cancer, a bizarre fact that Carter notes in the book but makes no attempt to explain.
After her husband's death in 1953, Miss Lillian blossomed, increasingly searching for "whatever was provocative, adventurous, challenging and gratifying," her son writes. She was a housemother for a fraternity at Auburn University for eight years and bought a new Cadillac every two years.
But her life changed dramatically when she joined the Peace Corps in 1966, as her letters home reveal.
First published in Away from Home: Letters to My Family, the 1977 collection has just been reissued with the publication of A Remarkable Mother. Jimmy Carter refers to parts of those letters when writing about Miss Lillian's struggles in India, where she often went hungry and lost weight, got blisters and sores on her feet from walking 4 miles a day to and from the clinic where she worked, and treated leprosy patients with medicine she sometimes had to pay for herself.
Back home in Plains, Miss Lillian got numerous invitations to talk about her experience; she made a total of 670 public appearances all over the country before getting involved in her son's political campaigns. Dedicated to civil rights, she was a lifelong Democrat and headed the local campaign for Lyndon Johnson, taking a lot of heat in racist Georgia for her views.
Later, campaigning for her son, she was often depicted in the national media as rustic and unsophisticated. A cartoon in the Washington Post showed her leaving an outdoor privy with a straw coming out of her ears.
In her final years, Miss Lillian fell and broke her hip — and had to be persuaded by her family not to drive. In the summer of 1983, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and died a few months later, at 85.
A Remarkable Mother may not measure up to all of Jimmy Carter's nearly two dozen books, including An Hour Before Daylight, a lovely and haunting memoir the New Yorker called "an American classic." But it's a fine tribute to a fine woman. The former president tells some wonderful stories here about a woman who was truly remarkable.
Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer in Houston.