Friday, August 21, 2015

Thinking of Jimmy Carter

 Author's Note: Many years ago, I wrote this essay about my Dad and Jimmy Carter. The recent news of President Carter's cancer diagnosis is sad and I heard about it while visiting my parents in Florida, where my Dad is still recovering from his coma. I remembered this essay and am posting it now as a tribute to both men, still strong despite the challenges of a life of hard work and debilitating health issues.
My parents with the Carters at Maranatha Baptist Church in October 2003)
 My Dad, Jimmy Carter and me
February 2003

I have a crush on Jimmy Carter. I think he can fix all the worlds’ ills and strife just by opening his mouth and allowing that soft, gentle Southern accent to pick everyone up in its great big ever-loving, peanut farmer richness and get everyone to start remembering just what is important in this world. Like peace, shelter, dignity, rights. I’m not alone in this feeling, am I? The man did, after all, win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Maybe it was because Jimmy Carter was the first president I ever voted for. That is a memorable experience – voting in one’s first presidential election. It is a huge civic and mature responsibility especially when combined with an equally exhilarating milestone – reaching the legal drinking age. I was of age, in Texas, in my first semester at college and voting for a United States president – who won! It doesn’t get much more memorable than that.

Or, maybe it’s because he resembles my dad. My mother has always maintained that I have been drawn to men who look like my dad – blonde, fair skinned, blue eyed. I once kicked my pediatrician’s stethoscope across the room and hid under a table, all because, according to my mother, he had dark hair and didn’t look the slightest bit like my dad. I was pretty sure it was because he was messing with my dress and he had a huge needle in his hand. I was four, I’m supposed to be discriminating? My dark, chocolate-eyed, Italian husband doesn’t believe that theory, and hasn’t for the last some-odd years. But the fact remains, there is a resemblance between Jimmy Carter and my dad. I have definitely done a few double takes when I’ve seen Mr. Carter on TV– “Hey, what’s my dad doing on CNN?” Then I realize – oh – it’s just Jimmy Carter.

Looks aside, there are other similarities between Mr. Carter and my dad. They are both family men, married to the same woman for almost 50+ years, in their 70s, seemingly ready to retire and yet working harder now than when they had real jobs. Mr. Carter’s real job, of course was being president of the United States. My dad was a chemical engineer at General Electric. Now they are both peace activists working against time and tide of popular thought to prevent war, pain and suffering.
My brother writes a monthly newsletter from Hollywood, where he moved to keep warm. One of them referred to the emails that our dad sends us – daily. With the war in Iraq being waged daily on TV, the internet and in our hearts, the emails come fast and furious alerting us to peace vigils, phone calls to make, petitions to sign, and other people-driven contributions required to remind people that peace is good – war is bad. This activism has not just recently occurred, however. We attentive offspring have been watching our parent’s commitment to good causes all our lives. Because you don’t think my dad did all this alone? The very least he needed was my mother’s support. The best he got was her complete agreement in the issues and causes he felt needed the most attention. Hunger, race relations, conflict resolution, and yes, peace.

And here I sit, going to work everyday, reading or, sometimes not reading, all the emails I get, wondering, who thought it was a good idea to get this man a computer? I feel like I did when I was in grade school gym class. I hated gym class. Besides the fact that we had to wear these ridiculous blue gym suits – ugh – even the most un-athletic of us were forced to participate in very excruciating athletic calisthenics. Like jump rope. I guess my gym teacher also didn’t resemble my dad, because I didn’t like her very much either. Anyway – when the group jump roping started, everyone had to line up and jump in, jump for 10 counts or something and then jump out. Please – could I just wear this stupid gym suit to classes all day instead? It would be less painful. The anxiety I developed waiting to jump in, jump for the expected number of jumps and jump out was unbearable. I would let the other girls cut in line – they liked this crazy jumping!

And that’s how I feel about all this peace activist stuff – I am waiting for the rope to come around at just the right time so I can jump in and not make a fool of myself, or not fall down and get laughed at. What do I do? What can I do?

If I wasn’t so uncoordinated, I would smack myself in the forehead. Of course it has been before me the whole time – my whole life in fact. I’ve seen what one man – or woman – can do, both on the worldwide stage and the personal. My dad will never have a non-profit, nongovernmental organization named after him, like Mr. Carter. But believe me, he works hard at the same causes with the same impressive dedication. Mr. Carter has unlimited resources at his disposal and he has the dignity to use them with respect. There probably aren’t too many people out there who will say “no” to a former president. Plenty of people say no to my dad. But that’s ok – because he just gets back on the phone, computer, or podium and asks again. I have two role models before me, one whose website I can visit and research the latest work on conflict resolution and one I can call on the phone and ask advice from – that would be my dad. If I haven’t learned by now that one person can make a difference than I haven’t been paying attention. Or, to quote Mr. Carter’s Nobel Acceptance speech, “an individual is not swept along on a tide of inevitability but can influence even the greatest human events.” So where does that leave me? I guess I just get in there and jump.

(My mother sent President Carter's office a copy of this essay. 
He read it and sent a short note back in return.)

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