There was a time, Rosalynn Carter once confessed, when she dreaded going back to Plains, her tiny Georgia hometown. Actually, she was furious about it.
She was enjoying her life as a young sailor’s wife, relishing the freedom and sense of adventure that came from being so far from home. But then, her husband, Jimmy, decided without consulting her that he was quitting the U.S. Navy and moving them back to Plains to take over his family’s peanut business.
“I had been self-sufficient and independent from my mother and Jimmy’s mother,” Mrs. Carter, who died on Sunday at the age of 96, recalled several years ago in an interview. “And I knew that if I went home, I was going to have to come back to them.”
The anger faded. Eventually, she said, no matter where she was in the world, she was always eager to get home to Plains. But that long-ago conflict turned out to be pivotal: Her husband, who would go on to become the nation’s 39th president, realized she was not just along for the ride. They were partners.
Plains, a city of about 550 people, figured into just about every part of Mrs. Carter’s life. She was born there. She died there. It was also where a youthful romance blossomed and solidified into a union that weathered the familiar tensions of marriage as well as pressures and setbacks that few others could comprehend.
On Monday, many in Plains mourned the loss of a constant presence, someone who, with Mr. Carter, came to shape the community. “Look at everything around you,” Eugene Edge Sr., an 81-year-old city councilman, said by way of noting their impact.
But perhaps more than anything, many who knew the Carters and many who did not shared their sadness over the end of a marriage they admired for its endurance and the evident strength of the bond between the two people in it.
“The closeness of it,” said Stephanie Young, who lives in Plains and owns a trophy-and-gift shop. “Their love story is the most important thing they have achieved, in my opinion.”
She noted just how long it lasted, stretching well over seven decades: “A lot of people don’t make it to 77 years of living.”
Longtime residents were also thinking on Monday about Mr. Carter, now 99 and receiving hospice care at home for the last nine months, who would presumably feel that absence more than anyone.
In a brief statement released by the Carter Center, the former president called his wife “my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.”
“She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it,” Mr. Carter said. “As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”
As a couple, they shared incredible triumphs, including political victories that took them to the governor’s mansion in Atlanta and then to the White House. After leaving Washington in the early 1980s, they traveled the world and were celebrated for their achievements, including her advocacy on mental health issues and for caregivers.
It was not entirely a fairy tale. They had to navigate the humiliation of losing the presidency after one intense term, the frustrations of righting a faltering family business and the strains that come with growing older.
Downtown Plains.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times
“Their marriage was not a perfect marriage,” said Philip Kurland, who came to know the Carters well as the owner of a political memorabilia shop on the strip of businesses that constitutes Plains’s downtown. “There is no perfect marriage — I’ve been married 40 years, something like that.”
But he noticed how they always held hands and how Mr. Carter called her Rosie.
“They were totally cohesive, a total package,” Mr. Kurland said. “You never thought of one or the other. You always thought of them together.”
Mrs. Carter, one could argue, had known her husband since the day she was born. Mr. Carter’s mother, Lillian, helped deliver her and then brought over her son, then almost 3 years old, to meet her.
As a child, Mrs. Carter was drawn to the photograph that Ruth Carter, Mr. Carter’s sister and her own best friend, kept on her bedroom wall when they were teenagers, of her brother in his naval uniform. “I fell in love with that picture,” Mrs. Carter once said.
Years later, they went on a double date, riding to the movies squeezed in the rumble seat of an old Ford.
Decades into their marriage, Mr. Carter would still talk about his rebuffed proposals and his campaign to win her over. When Mr. Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, he told Katie Couric on “The Today Show” that he saw neither that recognition nor winning the presidency as his proudest achievement.
“When Rosalynn said she’d marry me,” he said, “I think that was the most exciting thing.”
They married in 1946 and a certain wide-eyed sweetness continued throughout their relationship. “It radiated,” said Cecile Terry, who knew the Carters from Maranatha Baptist Church, the congregation the couple helped start in Plains in the 1970s.
“I just thought that was precious,” Ms. Terry said. “You can tell by the tone of somebody’s voice just how genuine the feelings and affection were.”
But back to the bumps.
When they returned to Plains after Mr. Carter left the Navy, his wife, not yet 30, hardly spoke to him on the drive back. Decades later, the couple wrote a book together, “Everything to Gain,” about their experience after leaving the White House. The process caused so much friction that their editor had to intervene.
“Both of them described it to me as one of the low points of their marriage,” said Jonathan Alter, the journalist whose 2020 book “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life” is one of the most comprehensive biographies of the former president.
In recent years, they confronted a series of challenges presented by advanced age, including Mr. Carter’s battle with cancer and Mrs. Carter’s recent diagnosis of dementia.
Still, the modest ranch house they built in 1961, just off the main street in Plains, has always been the place she was most comfortable, with Mr. Carter at her side.
The house had been adjusted to accommodate their limited mobility in recent years. “They took out everything we might stumble over,” she said. But in 2021, she was still taking short walks every day and venturing into the immaculate, shade-covered garden outside her home, maintained by the National Park Service.
“That’s the best perk I ever had!” she said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, “it was just us,” the two of them, hunkered down at home, she said. “And it was great.”
The Carter Center announced on Friday that Mrs. Carter had entered hospice care, but many were surprised that her death came so rapidly. And they worried for her husband, or “Mr. Jimmy,” as he is often referred to around Plains.
“He’s lost his partner for so long,” Ms. Young said. “But I’m sure there’s some relief there as well, that she’s no longer suffering. She’s whole again. He’s a firm believer in that.”
That was the consolation; the belief in Plains that their relationship, this love story, had merely paused. A sequel, many were certain, was coming.
“I would be very lost and lonely,” Mr. Kurland said, trying to imagine Mr. Carter’s state of mind. “But on the other hand, when his day comes, he knows his lovely wife will be waiting.”