A buzz rippled across the pews at the First Baptist Church. The pastor announced that the following Sunday, President and Mrs. Carter would be coming to town. They not only would be attending the morning worship service, but the pastor announced Mr. Jimmy and Miss Rosalynn also would join the congregation for the annual dinner-on-the-grounds. My mother could hardly contain herself.
Imagine, she thought, preparing a meal for the former president of the United States! My father was not all that impressed. President Carter was a Democrat, he reminded mother. But when it came to home cooking, Kathy Starnes was bipartisan.
She firmly believed that world peace could be achieved through a dinner table piled high with hams, country fried steak, buttermilk biscuits, butter beans, sweet potato pie and a few gallons of sweet tea.
Mom left church that afternoon with a newfound sense of purpose — sort of like a Paula Deen on crack. She was determined to prepare a dish that would change the course of history, a dish that future generations would define as the turning point in American politics. The dish she selected: potato salad.
Mom ordered dad to the supermarket with a list of ingredients. Only the finest would do — potatoes, onions, celery, mayonnaise, a variety of spices — and her secret ingredient, a dash of mustard. She started off the week making practice batches, working night and day, much to the chagrin of my father, who did not care for potato salad.
By Thursday mom was getting exasperated. The potato salad was either too lumpy or too mushy. She tossed aside her apron and huffed out of the kitchen. "I’ve only got seven days to get this right," she complained.
My dad wasn’t very helpful.
"I don’t see what the big deal is," he replied. "It only took God six days to make the world." Fortunately, she didn’t have a cast iron skillet handy.
Mother called her prayer circle for a bit of divine intervention and it must have worked. On Sunday morning she produced a potato salad worthy of a former peanut farmer-turned-president.
There’s nothing quite like a Sunday afternoon dinner-on-the-grounds, especially for Southern Baptists. Here’s how it works: After the Sunday sermon, the congregation is dismissed to the fellowship hall where tables are piled high with all sorts of homemade goodness, fresh fried chicken, country hams, congealed salads, biscuits, greens and more pies than you can shake a stick at.
Everything, and I do mean everything, is made from scratch. Why, showing up at a Baptist church with a bucket of KFC might just get you kicked off the membership role.
The preacher that day was particularly longwinded. He took us to the lake of fire and to the pearly gates, tossing in some hell, fire and brimstone for good measure. And after singing all five verses of the invitation hymn, the congregation had worked up quite an appetite.
Mr. Jimmy and Miss Rosalynn dutifully got in line and began loading up their plates and, sure enough, both managed to find room for some of my mother’s potato salad. A while later, Miss Rosalynn came over to meet my mom and, with a flourish of grace, she pronounced the potato salad absolutely delicious.
Well, praise the Lord! My father was relieved, I was astonished and my mother was on cloud nine. First lady Rosalynn Carter loved her potato salad. And mom was a registered Republican!
It seemed like such an insignificant moment in life, but to my mother that compliment meant the world. Many years later and many miles away from Georgia I would come to understand why.
The telephone call came shortly before I delivered the evening newscast. The voice on the other end sounded distant and void of emotion. He identified himself as a police officer.
"It is my duty to inform you…"
I asked him to stop, somehow hoping that if he did not recite his message it wouldn’t be true. But it was. My mother was gone. After 61 years, her heart simply ran out of seasons.
I’ve thought a lot about my mother’s life. She could’ve done whatever she wanted. She was a gifted and beautiful singer. But she chose to make her life at home.
She was a housewife and the kitchen was her kingdom. She never achieved fame or fortune. Instead, she found joy in cooking a good meal and found satisfaction in the full bellies and empty plates at her table.
During her funeral, the preacher asked for people to share something special about my mom. The piano player went first. She said it might seem odd, but she would always remember my mom’s sweet potato pie. Then, somebody else chimed in about her cornbread dressing. There were a few nods, and a few amens. Then, Aunt Lynn got teary-eyed when she talked about momma’s ambrosia.
And then, I remembered that day a long time ago at the First Baptist Church. I remembered my mother beaming with pride at her presidential potato salad. My mother used her culinary gifts to serve up heaping helpings of love, piled high with sugary sweetness and a dollop of buttery goodness on top. It was her legacy.
I was reminded of that a few days ago as I was walking near a bakery. I was lost in my thoughts — truly dreading this first Mother’s Day without her. Until, that is, a passing aroma caught my attention. That smells like cinnamon, I thought as a smile crossed my face. The kind mom used to put in her muffins. Maybe this Mother’s Day won’t be so bad after all.