The honorable Zell Miller of Young Harris, was raised by a remarkable mountain woman. Folks around those parts called her “Miss Birdie” while her son, a man who would grow up to influence Southern and national politics in a tremendous way, would always call her “Mama.”
Miller, both in his prime and now, is a mighty man. A former Marine with a lot of backbone. He will look directly at his toughest critics or most formidable enemies and speak his truth without batting an eye. Nothing has ever backed him down or caused him to stumble from a path that he believed to be right. But when it came to Mama, his voice would always soften and often his eyes would fill. He learned both toughness and softness from her. He learned to toil long and hard, stay the course of right, and care fiercely about others.
When the baby, who would grow up to become a multi-term lieutenant governor, two-term governor and U.S. senator, was only weeks old, his daddy died.
If you have ever seen that little hamlet that lies nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians from which he springs, then you know that there wasn’t an abundance of opportunity. It’s now a place of second homes for the wealthy and those who look for a sweet place of retirement far from the bustling cities.
But back then, life was challenging. Winters were hard and testing. Summers were filled with days extremely long and bone-wearying as the farmers scurried to make the most of a growing season of corn, beans and tomatoes.
My reflection on the admirable Miss Birdie comes because recently I spoke to a conference of medical professionals at the Brasstown Valley Resort. This, like a few other treasures, is owed to Zell Miller. He loves his mountains and wanted to preserve them in a way that would serve that purpose as well as provide employment for the locals. The same can be said about Gatlinburg and Dollywood.
As I stood to speak, impulsively, I gave them a quick snapshot of those mountains, Brasstown Valley, and Zell Miller which led me to say, “He lives just up the road a piece in a house made of hundreds of river rocks which his mama, a widow woman as they say around here, carried up from the river to build a house for her family. The senator and Miss Shirley still live in that house.”
From that, I got to thinking about Miss Birdie, a stoic mountain woman filled with faith and determination to overcome. She labored long and hard. She did not complain or allow self-pity. What little they had, she shared when a neighbor was in need. That’s the way it was with those God-fearing mountain folks. Often, their backs slumped with the weight of life’s burdens, their brows were laden with lines of worry and their hands calloused from many a day of hard work.
I recall that most often when Daddy prayed, he would ask, “Lord, bless the workings of our hands.” He, too, came from the kind of stock from which Zell Miller rose up. It was a simple but heart-felt prayer. They would labor endlessly but turned to the Lord to see it through to fruition.
Those mountain folks looked the hardest of times in the eye and stared them down. My aunt, a product of those mountain ways, was married 70 years to her great love. He died a few years before she died and, in typical mountain fashion, she carried on.
There was no sentiment or regret when once she said to me, “He died. I hated it. I got over it. You carry on.”
These stoic women never had time for self-pity — that only distracted from “getting on with getting on” as our folks are liable to say.
It’s nothing short of being rock-solid admirable.