The Carters’ hometown mourns the love of its life

There was a time, Rosalynn Carter admitted, when she dreaded returning to Plains, her small Georgia hometown. In fact, she was furious about it.

She was enjoying life as a young sailor’s wife, relishing the freedom and sense of adventure that being so far from home gave her. But then her husband, Jimmy, decided without consulting her that he was leaving the U.S. Navy and returning to Plains to take over his family’s peanut business.

“I was self-sufficient and independent from my mother and Jimmy’s mother,” Mrs. Carter, who died Sunday at the age of 96, recalled several years ago in an interview. “And I knew that if I went home, I was going to have to come back to them.”

The anger faded. Ultimately, she said, no matter where she was in the world, she always looked forward to returning home to Plains. But that long-ago conflict proved pivotal: Her husband, who would become the country’s 39th president, realized she wasn’t there to do it. They were partners.

Plains, a town of about 550 people, figured in almost every aspect of Mrs. Carter’s life. She was born there. She died there. It was also where a youthful romance blossomed and solidified into a union that overcame the familiar tensions of marriage as well as the pressures and setbacks that few others could understand.

On Monday, many people in Plains mourned the loss of a constant presence, someone who, along with Mr. Carter, came to shape the community. “Look around you,” said 81-year-old city councilman Eugene Edge Sr., emphasizing their impact.

But perhaps most of all, many who knew the Carters and many who did not shared their sadness at the end of a marriage they admired for its durability and the obvious strength of the bond between the two people .

“Proximity,” said Stephanie Young, who lives in Plains and owns a trophy and gift shop. “Their love story is the most important thing they have accomplished, in my opinion.”

She noted how long it lasted, spanning seven decades: “A lot of people don’t make it to 77 years old. »

Longtime residents also thought Monday of Mr. Carter, now 99 and receiving hospice care at home for nine months, who would likely feel that absence more than anyone.

In a brief statement released by the Carter Center, the former president called his wife “my equal partner in all that I have accomplished.”

“She gave me sound advice and encouragement when I needed it,” Mr. Carter said. “As long as Rosalynn was in this world, I always knew someone loved me and supported me.”

As a couple, they shared incredible triumphs, including political victories that took them to the governor’s mansion in Atlanta and then the White House. After leaving Washington in the early 1980s, they traveled the world and were celebrated for their accomplishments, including his advocacy for mental health issues and caregivers.

It wasn’t entirely a fairy tale. They had to deal with the humiliation of losing the presidency after an intense mandate, the frustrations of turning around a declining family business and the tensions of aging.

“Their marriage wasn’t perfect,” said Philip Kurland, who knew the Carters well as the owner of a political memorabilia store on the shopping street that makes up downtown Plains. “There’s no perfect marriage. I’ve been married for 40 years, something like that.”

But he noticed that they were still holding hands and that Mr. Carter called her Rosie.

“They were totally cohesive, a total package,” Mr. Kurland said. “You never thought about one or the other. You always thought of them together.

Mrs. Carter, one might say, had known her husband since the day he was born. Mr. Carter’s mother, Lillian, helped deliver him and then brought her son, then almost 3, to meet her.

As a child, Ms. Carter was drawn to the photo that Ruth Carter, Mr. Carter’s sister and her own best friend, kept on her bedroom wall when they were teenagers, of her brother in his Navy uniform. “I fell in love with this picture,” Mrs. Carter once said.

Years later, they went on a double date, going to the movies squeezed in the noisy seat of an old Ford.

Decades after their marriage, Mr. Carter still spoke of his rejected proposals and his campaign to win her over. When Mr. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, he told Katie Couric on “The Today Show” that he considered neither the recognition nor winning the presidency his proudest achievement.

“When Rosalynn said she would marry me,” he said, “I think that was the most exciting thing.”

They married in 1946 and a certain wide-eyed sweetness continued throughout their relationship. “It radiated,” said Cecile Terry, who knew the Carters from Maranatha Baptist Church, the congregation the couple helped found in Plains in the 1970s.

“I just thought it was valuable,” Ms. Terry said. “You can tell by the tone of someone’s voice how genuine the feelings and affection were. »

But back to the bumps.

When they returned to Plains after Mr. Carter left the Navy, his wife, not yet 30 years old, barely spoke to him on the way home. Decades later, the couple wrote a book together, “Everything to Gain,” about their experience after leaving the White House. The process caused so much friction that their editor had to intervene.

“They both described it to me as one of the low points in their marriage,” said Jonathan Alter, the journalist whose 2020 book “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life” is one biography. the most complete of the former president. .

In recent years, they have faced a series of challenges brought on by advancing age, including Mr. Carter’s battle with cancer and Ms. Carter’s recent diagnosis of dementia.

Yet the modest ranch they built in 1961, just off Main Street in Plains, was always the place she felt most comfortable, with Mr. Carter at her side.

The house has been adapted to accommodate their limited mobility in recent years. “They took away everything we could find,” she said. But in 2021, she still took short walks each day and ventured into the pristine, shady garden outside her home, maintained by the National Park Service.

“This is the best advantage I’ve ever had!” she says.

During the coronavirus pandemic, “it was just us,” the two of us, holed up at home, she said. “And it was great.”

The Carter Center announced Friday that Ms. Carter had entered hospice care, but many were surprised that her death came so quickly. And they worried about her husband, or “Mr. Jimmy,” as he is often called on the Plains.

“He lost his partner for so long,” Ms Young said. “But I’m sure there’s also some relief, that she’s no longer in pain. She is whole again. He firmly believes in it.

That was the consolation; the belief within Plains that their relationship, this love affair, had simply ended. A sequel, many were certain, was coming.

“I would be very lost and alone,” Mr. Kurland said, trying to imagine Mr. Carter’s state of mind. “But on the other hand, when his day comes, he knows his lovely wife will be waiting for him.”

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