(Published in Georgia Magazine, 1999, written from the perspective of my 12 year old self.)
In August, Brinson, Georgia is the hottest place on earth. The heat hangs visible outside the windows of our brand new 1972 Chrysler Town and Country wagon; the streets bubble with melted tar. We hate the heat, but the bugs revel in it. Swarming gnats lend nervous motion to the quiet countryside. They enjoy this time of day when they are even more irritating than the local mosquitoes.
Brinson: it’s hardly a plush vacation spot.
Yet we vacation here every summer; to us, there is no place more magical than this town because this is where our grandmama lives. From our car windows, we spy endless fields laid out with a buffet of giant jelly rolls. Black crows swoop down in an attempt to make a dent in the feast before them. As the station wagon bumps its way over Brinson’s railroad tracks, trees, bewitched by a past field fire and left unproductive, beckon us down the road to Grandmama’s house. In daylight, these witchy trees are harmless. But when night falls, they will taunt us with their sharp, unnatural forms and earn their nickname.
The short dirt path that is Grandmama’s driveway leads us to the back of her white clapboard farmhouse. We run toward the house, our flip-flops squishing rotten figs fallen from Grandmama’s trees. Grandmama is waiting for us at the door when we bound up the brick steps. The screen door, speckled with holes repaired with criss-crossed fishing twine, squeaks a welcome. Its spring, having lost its spring decades earlier, leaves the door clinging to the side of the house.
Quickly wiping our figgy feet on the rubber door mat provided for that purpose, we spill into the dining room. The wood paneled room, made bright both by the wall of open windows on one side and the gallery of family photos on another, welcomes us with a flood of the familiar. The table dominates the room. An enormous oak construction, it is thick and sturdy enough to withstand armies of excited grandchildren. An oscillating fan keeps a summer breeze moving through the room. We make silly sounds in front of the fan, just to hear how it contorts our voices. We take turns; we laugh; we are at Grandmama’s house.
The kitchen hints that Grandmama has spent her day laboring in love over her famous Southern fare. The sweet smell of just-baked peach cobbler directs us to the bubbling desserts anxiously waiting for us to finish our supper. Black-eyed peas, seasoned with a meaty ham bone, simmer in one corner of the stove; green beans from the garden are cooking on low on another eye. Fresh corn, shucked and silked, is piled pyramid style in a pan on the counter. And judging from the potato peelings heaped in a bucket by the door, supper will include real mashed potatoes, not the boxed kind we always have at home. The biscuits aren't ready yet. But the fresh baked aroma floating from the oven lets us know they are coming.
Later, we'll go out and rock on the front porch and tell stories about the abandoned school across the street. We will walk to the country store on the corner or go to visit our cousin up the road. Maybe we'll even search the garden for a ripe watermelon. But for now, we'll just stay right here in Grandmama’s dining room and wait for supper.
Three hundred people packed the tiny sanctuary. Folding chairs made an extra row across the back of the church and latecomers were seated in the choir loft. (We’d been early, thank goodness.)
“Good Morning. Do we have any visitors here today?” The teacher asked. We all laughed at the preposterous question.
“I’d like to know where you’re from.” The laughter died down as the teacher walked over to face the section to his right. “Would you folks tell me the name of your home state or country?”
“South Carolina.” “Texas.” “Bosnia.” Guests called out their addresses in turn. “California.” “Maryland.”
“Oh, Maryland,” our teacher smiled in recognition, “I used to live in Washington, D.C.” That Jimmy Carter—what a kidder.
The class met in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church (it’s the only room large enough for the crowd) where President Carter teaches Sunday School about 30 Sundays a year. The week following this one he was scheduled to be away—had to monitor the elections in Palestine.
Our family of five and my parents, Harold and Gloria Mitchell, joined hundreds of other travelers early that Sunday morning in the line to enter Maranatha Baptist. We were cleared by federal security and seated. Once the church filled, we were given specific instructions about how to respond to President and Mrs. Carter and to the Secret Service workers. Then, the pastor said a prayer and when we lifted our heads, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States of America, strolled across to the podium.
Can you believe it? There I was, in this tee-tiny itty-bitty church and there was Jimmy Carter: my life-long hero. Right there. Close enough to hug. And guess what? He’s not even close to ten feet tall. Unbelievable.
No kidding, I was really surprised that Jimmy Carter is not in some way larger than life (shucks, even Yao Ming is and he's just a basketball player). But disappointed? No way. Because part of the wonderful thing about meeting Jimmy Carter is finding out that he is not extraordinary. He is an 82 year old man who teaches Sunday School every Sunday unless he is out of town with his wife. He is a dad and a granddad (“eleven grandchildren and one great grandchild,” Mrs. Rosalyn bragged to my mother, like any grandmama would). He loves to fish and hunt and tinker around in his workshop. He’s a church-going country boy from a small church in a small town that he dearly loves. He’s a lot like my Daddy, and my father-in-law. Two of the most extraordinary men I know.
A few months after our visit, Mother asked Daddy what he wanted for his upcoming 70th birthday. He thought for just a moment before he said, “I want our kids and their families to meet us in Plains to hear President Carter teach Sunday School.” Generally speaking, in our family what Daddy wants, Daddy usually gets. (Daddy doesn’t want much.) So, right around November 13, 2006, the sixteen of us descended on Georgia’s tiniest famous town. We went back to Sunday School, we stayed in Plains Inn, and we visited the historic sites around town. Overall, it was a pretty ordinary visit. But in Plains, ordinary is downright spectacular.
Note: We loved our visits to Plains and highly recommend the trip. It sounds unlikely, but you really can make a weekend of it. The museums in Plains are interesting and well-done and in Americus--a short drive from Plains--you'll find the headquarters for Habitat for Humanity with the Global Village. Koinonia Farm, started by Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, is also in Americus. We stayed at the Plains Inn, a bed and breakfast in town. There are also hotels in Americus.