“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
(A shortened version of this was published as a guest editorial by the Northwest Florida Daily News)
Carrie Nelle Moye, died at her home in Santa Rosa Beach on Friday, September 28, two weeks shy of her 79th birthday.
She had been diagnosed with cancer one year earlier. “Very treatable,” said the oncologist. But the cancer proved as tenacious as she was. When it became clear in May that the standard chemo and radiation hadn’t worked, she traveled with family to MD Anderson in Houston for surgery. “Totally operable,” said the surgeon. But this time the cancer proved even more tenacious than she was. Between the consultation in June and the scheduled surgery in July, a pre-op MRI showed that the disease had advanced beyond help or hope. Surgery was cancelled, and the palliative-care team was called in. “Weeks or months,” said the doctor, “sadly, not years.”
As the news went from grim to grimmer, Carrie Nelle told each doctor along the way that she believed in extending life, but not in extending death. Her life, she knew, had been more than she could have dreamed as a girl on a Georgia farm, and she accepted the end with quiet resignation and good humor, insisting on a hug and a laugh from every member of her medical team before leaving the Houston hospital one last time.
An intrepid cousin, Kelly Askin (of Destin and St. Simons Island), drove 20 hours to Texas in her family’s RV to transport the patient back in fully reclined comfort to the home she loved in Santa Rosa Beach on July 21. She never left her house again.
With the help of an extraordinary pair of hospice nurses, her family learned how to care for her, comfort her, and even change her sheets without moving her from bed (not easy). There were many difficult days in those months, but there was also plenty of laughter — and way too much tv. (Her last words were, “Slow down!,” as a daughter clicked through the Netflix Original options, yet again, before finally settling on “Ozark.”)
She assured everyone that she was not afraid of death, just did not want to say goodbye to her children, or the many other people she loved in her life. And she loved fiercely until the end. Like her ever-firm handshake, the strength of her hugs never diminished, even as her body faded away. In the end, death came quickly and mercifully, before she experienced the severe pain doctors had quietly predicted.
She lost consciousness on September 27. She had told family to assume that she could hear no matter what. So they sat beside her that day, warm hands on hers, watching Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate, an event she would have never missed. Then they turned off the TV and turned on Gershwin, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor.
She died peacefully the next morning, with her best friend and family by her side, just as she had wanted. A lifelong insomniac (so much racing through that head), she insisted that no one feel sorrow at her death. “Rejoice that I am finally asleep.”
Carrie Nelle Moye was born on her family farm in Barnesville, Georgia, on October 11, 1939. She was the youngest of four children born to farmer and one-time Georgia State Parks Director Alexander Newton Moye and Willie Nell (Keen) Moye, a tenderhearted mother, hardworking farmwife, and exceptional cook.
At 11 pounds, 3 ounces, with a head full of curly black hair, Carrie Nelle was a force of nature from birth. Her mother claimed she started talking at three months. She just as quickly learned to talk back. Family lore has it, when a schoolteacher scolded her big brother Floyd on the playground, she stage-whispered, “Ain’t none of your business, old gray-haired Dumas.” Fortunately, the Dumas in question was a distant aunt.
Carrie Nelle had a lifelong love of language and grew into a gifted student, speaker, and writer. Chasing her siblings around the farm also turned her into a formidable athlete, who broke several land speed records in the 40’s. At least it felt that way.
Valedictorian of her class at Gordon Military College High School – and proud captain of the cheerleading squad -- she went on to Emory University in Atlanta, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
She wore the “key” on her watch as a badge of honor for the rest of her life.
College hadn’t been easy. Reared in a strict Primitive Baptist home, she chose Emory (of Methodist origin) knowing her father would not cover the cost. So she lived with relatives near the school and worked at Sears to pay her way.
In June, 1960, after her junior year, she married F. C. Thompson, Jr., an Alabama farm boy turned Emory medical student on an ROTC scholarship. Five months after graduation, she had her first child. A second soon followed, as the family moved from Georgia to Texas with the Air Force.
On November 21, 1963, she bundled up her infant and toddler to join a small crowd greeting President Kennedy and his wife as they flew into Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. She recounted the thrill of running beside the motorcade with her stroller, making eye contact with Jackie in her pink pillbox hat – then the horror of the next day’s news from Dallas, “I fell to my knees in grief.”
In the weeks that followed, she traveled to Dallas to retrace JFK’s path and seek out the home of Lee Harvey Oswald. When she spotted his landlady in the front yard, she called out to her by name to talk, an encounter she chronicled in the family photo album.
Then came a move to Hill Field in Utah, the birth of a third child, the death of her mother, and crippling depression.
With the encouragement of her psychiatrist husband, she gradually emerged from the darkness, found a job, and slowly built a career outside of the home. She maintained for the rest of her life that “a happy mother is a good mother,” whether it meant staying home full-time or venturing out into the workforce. Eventually, she fully embraced the changes and freedoms that came with the 60’s – foremost, the freedom to announce often and loudly: “I’m not the least bit domestic!” (Though she did make an excellent apple cake.)
But she was good at so many other things. In time, back in Atlanta, she found a job to match her talents as Southeastern Regional Director of Unicef. She traveled throughout the Southeast, speaking on behalf of the world’s neediest children. In this capacity, too, she traveled to some of the poorest places on earth, visiting Unicef projects. The experience changed her forever, and she returned to her own life with a renewed and heightened sense of civic duty, and a gut need to push back against oppression of any form – especially as it pertained to women and children.
She joined the boards of many civic associations, including the YWCA, Girl Scouts, The Hunger Project, Emory Alumni Advisory Board, UN Council of Atlanta, and was named one of the “Ten Leading Ladies of Atlanta,” by civic leaders at the ripe age of 37.
She became an outspoken proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, stumping for ratification throughout the Southeast, debating anti-ERA stalwart Phyllis Schlafly on state-wide television, and delivering the pro-ERA address before the Georgia State Legislature in 1977 and 1980. While the amendment suffered a crushing defeat in Georgia, and, finally, the nation, she continued to fight for the rights of women until her dying day.
But she also loved men. Never without a suitor in her teen years, she married at 20, was a mother of three at 25, divorced amicably at 42, then fell in love again, this time with a UN diplomat stationed in Geneva. Together they lived in Switzerland, New York, Lebanon, Jordan, and Algeria. She quickly acquired UN press credentials and began a new career as a freelance journalist, with occasional full-time office jobs, including a stint at Royal Jordanian Airlines in Amman, where her business card read simply “Expert”.
Posted to Algiers in 1989, she taught English as a foreign language and continued freelance writing until things fell apart. In 1991, Algeria descended into civil war, and all non-essential UN personnel were evacuated. Her partner was essential; she was not.
She evacuated to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, and there she stayed, earning a masters degree in history, writing a regular column for the national publication “Liberal Opinion Weekly” (one editorial, to her infinite delight, drew a phone call from Barbra Streisand), and playing lots and lots of bridge, eventually reaching the rank of Life Master.
In 1992, she married Bob Bannerman. He was a retired deputy director of the CIA and lifelong Republican, she a fervent Democrat many years his junior, but they forged a bond of mutual respect and affection. Both loved their country and their community, and worked, in their own ways, to make things better through civic engagement. They shared a special passion for protecting the beautiful sugar-white beaches of the Gulf Coast.
After Bob’s death in 2002, Carrie Nelle vowed never to marry again. It was enough, she said, “to have loved and been loved by three wonderful men.” But she kept making friends, and continued to immerse herself in public life.
She was committed as a citizen to observing first-hand what our elected officials were doing, and rarely missed a monthly meeting of the Walton County Board of Commissioners. While she never ran for office herself, she was an active member of the Walton County Democratic Executive Committee, the Democratic Women’s Club, and a precinct chair for the Democratic Party. She organized a speaker series for the progressive First Monday Salon, and regularly dropped off cookies of thanks at the Sheriff’s Department.
In recent years, she joined the Emerald Coast Philosophical Society, and even took up meditation, claiming she had never felt so calm in her life. But that didn’t stop her from getting riled if someone said “girl” when they should have said “woman.” And please, no gum. Ever.
While she was a proud Southerner, whose Georgia accent became only more pronounced as she traveled the globe, she never stopped fighting against the more brutal legacy of the Old South, forever trying to move her beloved region and nation toward the more tolerant, generous, just society she envisioned.
At times, she grew impatient with the slow pace of change.
A few months before her death, she had a friend drive her 40 miles up to the courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, the county seat, where the flag of the Confederacy still flies. She was scouting out the site, devising a plan to shimmy up the pole and rip the flag down (with a boost from her pick-up truck and the shoulders of a very tall friend). She never got the chance.
But Walton County voters can decide the issue for themselves on November 6, in this great, imperfect democracy of ours. Then maybe Carrie Nelle Moye-- fighter, lover, traveler, mother, friend, citizen -- can finally rest in peace.
In lieu of flowers, please vote.
“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . We – even we here – hold the power, and bear the responsibility.” –Abraham Lincoln
Carrie Nelle Moye is survived by her sister, Ruth Keene Gadebusch of Fresno, CA, brother Floyd Moye (Twila) of Barnesville, GA, (brother Alex died in 2005), son F. C. Thompson, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, daughters Moye Thompson (Doug Suisman) of Santa Monica, CA, and Ashley Claire Thompson (Eric Prenowitz) of Leeds, England, grandchildren Claire, Teddy, Anna, and Eva, best friend David Garr, and countless cousins. Special thanks to the families of Fred & Jan Moye and Steven & Monta Rae Purser, and all the other nieces and nephews who gave her a special place in their hearts as Auntie. She was, in the words of one niece, “larger than life. She embodied the grand possibilities of life’s adventures.”