Rosalynn Carter returns one last time to the place where she found the most comfort

To them, she was more than the first lady.

Rosalynn Carter was a wife with strong opinions and few reservations about sharing them, a mother who had to intervene when her eldest son’s disastrous attempt to bake a cake led to a kitchen fire, a grandmother who kept blueberries in the freezer, and a great-grandmother who would race to the little ones with their walker.

“She was the happiest whenever a new baby was born,” Josh Carter, one of her grandsons, recalled Wednesday from the pulpit of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, a small farm country town in Georgia that she never strayed too far from even when he was drawn out into the world.

The simple red brick church, where Mrs. Carter prayed for decades, was filled for her funeral Wednesday with people who knew her as a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt, neighbor and friend. Her husband, Jimmy, who is 99 and has been in the hospital since February, was also there, sitting in a wheelchair near the front of the church.

Since her death on November 19 at the age of 96, Mrs. Carter has been remembered as a force for change in transforming the role of first lady, challenging mental health stigmas and taking on diseases like guinea worm that were once considered intractable. The day before, in a spacious sanctuary in Atlanta, she was celebrated by presidents and all living first ladies.

But Wednesday’s service was less about the wider world and more about the family she adored and the community she shaped.

“Her family, her neighbors, her friends all knew her as someone who didn’t think about herself, but about others and the needs of others,” said the Rev. Tony Lowden, a former pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church who became close to the Carters in recent years.

The service explored what might seem like a stark contrast. Mrs. Carter lived a seemingly limitless life as she soared to the highest reaches of political influence and ventured into some 122 countries. Yet she also felt the constant pull of home, returning to the comforts she’d found in Plains, dozens of miles from any interstate or even traffic lights. She was buried there Wednesday, in the grounds of the modest ranch house she and Mr. Carter built in 1961, just off the town’s main road.

Her children and grandchildren portrayed her as formidable, with an unrelenting drive that many saw as key to her husband’s rise to the presidency and the success of their work at the Carter Center after leaving the White House. She was also described as defying gender norms as her marriage evolved into a relationship that had an “equal basis,” as John William Carter, her eldest son, put it.

“It occurred to me that Dad got used to Mom disagreeing with him because she was so good at it,” her son said during the service. “She became a partner in the truest sense of the word.”

He believed the sense of determination and steely diplomacy of a parent raising a large family – with three sons and a daughter – was evident at Tuesday’s memorial service in Atlanta, where, at Mrs Carter’s invitation, Democrats and Republicans stood side by side.

“My mother had a funeral with three presidents and six first ladies,” said John William Carter, known as Jack, “and I believe the reason she was able to do that was because of what she learned from us guys and what she had taught my father.”

Josh Carter said his grandmother was not motivated by power, especially when it came to her work on mental and public health issues and protecting democracy. “Mom was motivated by people,” he said. “She saw people in forgotten corners of forgotten places as people who had hopes and dreams and who were worthy of love.”

He pointed out that he called her mum because she was only 47 when her first grandchild was born – too young to be called a grandmother, she claimed. And so, he would always have to clarify, “Do you mean ‘mom’ mom” — his birth mother — or ‘Rosalynn’ mom?”

Josh Carter also remembered seeing her in a conference room at the Carter Center — where she and her husband hosted world leaders and held important meetings — chasing small children and playing peekaboo.

And he remembered family vacations with his grandparents at Disney World. She loved Tower of Terror, a ride that simulates a free-falling elevator. “Many members of the Secret Service did not share this view,” he said.

In his eulogy, Pastor Lowden encouraged people to look at Mrs. Carter’s life as a lesson, noting how much she was loved, even by people who didn’t know her. It was virtually impossible, he said, “to find anyone who had anything bad to say about Rosalynn Carter — not one word, not one newspaper article, not even one person on the left or anyone on the right.”

But she didn’t achieve that, he said, by staying out of the fray and keeping quiet. It was quite the opposite. “Will women across our nation have a little Rosalynn in them?” he said. “Are they willing to fight for those who are hurt, broken, broken in spirit?”

He could see her influence in their church community, as she and her husband remained active in the church well into their 90s. Maranatha Baptist Church was founded by people who left Plains Baptist Church in the 1970s after that congregation voted against allowing blacks to join.

“She loved you,” Pastor Lowden told the Maranatha congregation. “She loved this church, she loved why it was created and she loved what it stood for.”

She also loved her husband, he said.

“I’ve won the prize,” Pastor Lowden said, imagining the message Mrs. Carter might want to convey to her husband from the afterlife. “Tell him I beat him and I’m waiting for him.”

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