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President Jimmy Carter

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief meeting the 39th U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, at the White House in 1978. Photo from Leah Dunaief

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

This President’s Day saw two presidents much in the news, Joe Biden for his clandestine trip to Kyiv, and our 39th president, Jimmy Carter, for entering hospice care. Carter, who at 98 years old is the oldest former chief executive of the United States, signaled the end of his repeated hospital stays.

I had the honor of being invited to an out-of-town press conference at the White House during President Carter’s one term, and of course, the memory will always remain with me. It was my first of several such invitations, and I smile when I compare my Carter and subsequent Ronald Reagan visits. 

The year was 1978, the country was recovering slowly from severe stagflation, and everyone was watching their expenditures. Hence, it was not surprising that when lunch came in the middle of the event, it consisted of a boxed meal that we balanced on our laps in the Oval Office. In the box were two half sandwiches, one of cheese, the other of tuna salad. There was also a hard-boiled egg, accompanied by a small salt packet, an apple and a cookie. I confess to such high excitement that I don’t remember how the food tasted, just that I held the egg in one hand and sprinkled salt on it with the other. I do recall thinking then that I was experiencing one of the most amazing moments of my life at the same time that I was doing this most mundane action of salting my egg.

Carter talked about the economy, suggesting an optimistic view for the coming year, among other issues, and then we got up, formed a single line and moved toward him to shake hands for perhaps a three-second intro and photograph we could all carry back with us for the front page of our newspapers. I was toward the back of the line, and the photographer stood to the side, snapping away, as I drew closer to the most powerful man in the world. 

I tried hard to come up with something more to say than my name and where I was from. Then I remembered. His sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, had recently visited Stony Brook to speak about her Baptist evangelism, and rather than telling him my name, I mentioned covering that.

“Isn’t Ruth wonderful!” Carter exclaimed in his soft drawl as his Caribbean blue eyes widened with pleasure. He then proceeded to talk about her for at least two full minutes, how proud of her he was, as I noted that he was not much taller than I and that his hands were rough.

My visit, a couple of years later, to the Reagan White House for a similar event included a sit-down luncheon of lightly breaded veal served on French china and accompanied by a smooth red wine from France. And Reagan, much taller than I, told me as he shook my hand that he liked my red dress.

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Grandparent's Day is Sept. 9, 2018. Photo from Metro

For 40 years grandparents have had a day of recognition all their own, and rightfully so. Many grandparents play an essential role in the lives of their grandchildren, even at times helping to raise them.

The writer’s grandparents circa 1980. Photo from Rita J. Egan

President Jimmy Carter signed a proclamation in 1978 making the Sunday after Labor Day National Grandparent’s Day. Recently, a few friends and I were commenting on a Facebook thread about the importance of grandmothers and grandfathers in our lives. There were commenters who spent many weekends, holidays or summer vacations with them, or like me, actually lived with their grandparents.

I moved in with my grandparents, Hannah and Charlie Zimmerman, in Smithtown after my parents’ separation when I was in fourth grade. It was a bit of a bumpy ride at times. Having people raise me who grew up two generations before was a little tricky. There were a lot of things they wouldn’t let me do that other kids were allowed to because my grandparents didn’t get it. For one, I missed out on a lot of pajama parties because they didn’t understand the whole sleeping over someone else’s house when I had a bed and a home of my own.

Despite living with that and other old-fashioned rules, I learned a lot from my grandparents. They were young adults during the Great Depression, and I heard firsthand accounts about the era, which gave me a different perspective on finances when I experienced a couple of recessions or tight financial times of my own.

I also would go with my grandparents to visit great-aunts and great-uncles and second cousins — people I may not have met if I lived with my parents. In doing so and hearing my grandparents’ stories of their families, it left me with a deeper appreciation for my ancestors.

Grandparent’s Day is Sept. 9

Then, of course, there were the differences in our preferred styles of music, which in later years has only enhanced my knowledge of songs from a wide array of eras. There were plenty of Sundays watching “The Lawrence Welk Show,” many New Year’s Eves with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra playing in the background, and even a few nights singing along with Mitch Miller and the Gang.

My grandparents’ house was also where my creative side was nurtured. After my grandfather retired as a sheet metal worker from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he took up oil painting. I remember watching him at his easel, and I still have a few of his creations, including one he started when I first moved in. He would sit with me and help me with my school projects and taught me how to draw houses, trees and faces. While my creative talents may have developed in another way through writing, I don’t doubt for a second that being able to think creatively through drawing helped with my craft.

I lost my grandfather when I was 18 and my grandmother when I was 22. Despite that being decades ago, I still find myself many times in life saying, “Grandma was right about this,” or “Grandpa was right about that,” though I would shake my head at some of the advice when I was younger.

Many years later, I’m glad their advice and the memories live on. So, thank you to them and all the grandparents who make a difference in the lives of children.