Remembering a birthday present fit for a first lady

What does a world-trotting former president give to his lifelong first lady for her 90th birthday? Not what you’d think.
Former president Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter on the sidelines for a Falcons NFL football game on Sunday, Sept 30, 2018, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Former president Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter on the sidelines for a Falcons NFL football game on Sunday, Sept 30, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

As a former reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from1991 to 2018, Jill Vejnoska was present for many “larger than life events” with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter and regularly visited the Carters in Plains. Asked for her remembrance of Rosalynn, who died Sunday at age 96, Vejnoska said that, of all her interactions with the couple, “a smaller, very human moment stuck with me, no more so than now, when death has physically parted them after 77 years of marriage.” Here’s that memory and a link to the original AJC story.

A few weeks before her 90th birthday in 2017, I asked to interview Rosalynn Carter for an article about her amazing life and accomplishments. She gave the somewhat reluctant go-ahead, but asked that the interview focus primarily on two issues vitally important to her: mental health advocacy and caregiving.

I willingly agreed to those conditions for what would be an “exclusive” story. (The very opposite of an attention hog, Mrs. Carter apparently saw no reason to brag about reaching a milestone birthday to any other media outlets.) Off I trotted to the Carter Center, where she and her husband kept offices and a modest apartment. Only after we’d thoroughly covered those more serious and dear-to-her-heart topics did I throw out a few more personal questions.

In particular, I wondered, was there any birthday gift she was hoping to receive from her husband of 71 years?

He’d already given her one, she grinningly confided.

Hmm, I thought to myself. What exactly does a former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner give to the woman who has herself done pretty much everything worthwhile? A lovely hand carved piece of furniture perhaps (President Carter is an accomplished woodworker)? Or maybe he’d decided to dedicate his next bestselling book to her?

Guess again.

Turns out he’d gotten her a robotic vacuum cleaner.

You know, one of those indispensable machines that seems to glide across messy floors with a mind of its own, going where it knows it’s most needed to do the hard, yet essential work of making things better. And yet somehow it always manages to find its way back home to its charging base, the source of all its power and support.

My jaw practically hit the floor. Wait. ... You’re telling me the Carters vacuum?

Talk about your “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” moment.

It was only later that I came to see the gift as a perfect metaphor for their remarkable relationship. For some seven decades, they’d gone together wherever they were needed, making things better for the people and places they encountered. Yet even when they took up their own separate causes, as with her groundbreaking work that led to the creation of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, they always drew on each other for power and support. And most of all, love.

There may have been no better example of that than what occurred midway through that 90th birthday interview. The session was only to be with Mrs. Carter, I’d been advised several times beforehand by her press person. Don’t expect a busy President Carter to be there. And yet suddenly, there he was, gliding across the room to be by her side. Offering up fond and gently funny observations to help rocket boost my article on the extraordinary hometown girl about whom he’d told his mother after their first date, “She’s the one. I’m going to marry her.”

They’d always be each others’ home base, he really seemed to be saying.

He was right.

And as gifts go, that one was priceless.

010906-STUDIO: Portrait of AJC reporter Jill Vejnoska. (PHIL SKINNER /staff).

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

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