Once upon a time, there was a girl named Georgia Katherine Cunningham but everyone called her Kate.
Kate was born with entirely too much gumption. When she was a baby, she actually picked her own name. She was so independent that on her first day of life, lying in her hospital crib in the nursery–where Kate’s father, Randy, was trying to capture her first moments of life on camera–Kate refused to cooperate.
He kept saying, “Georgia. Georgia. Look over here, Georgia,” yet Kate wouldn’t acknowledge his presence. So he tried, “Georgia Katherine. Katherine. Sweetheart. Sugar Bear,” and nothing worked. Finally Randy said, “Kate! Kate! Look over here.” At that, Kate rolled over and smiled at her father.
Some doctors say newborns don’t smile, but Randy took it as a sign. He went back to the room where his wife, Caroline, was resting with their oldest daughter, Macy, and Jacqueline, Caroline’s mother, his girls’ “Grand-Mère”.
“Well, we can’t call the baby Georgia,” Randy told his family.
“Why ever not?” Caroline asked. “We already filled out the birth certificate.”
“She won’t respond to her name,” he said.
“Of course she doesn’t know her name,” Caroline protested. “She’s only a few hours old.”
“I know, but she responded to Kate,” and Randy recounted the story of how their second daughter preferred to be called Kate.
“There are lots of Southern women who go by their middle names,” Grand-Mère stated. “And wasn’t Kate your mother’s name?”
“It was indeed,” Randy smiled.
That was it. From then on out she was Kate. However, Kate knew she was in trouble whenever Caroline hollered, “Georgia Katherine!” But Kate was rarely on her mom’s rotten side. Her older sister, Macy, had that covered.
As sisters only two years apart, Kate and Macy looked similar with the same light blonde hair but Kate had blue eyes like Randy while Macy had green eyes from Caroline and Grand-Mère. Despite the fact that Kate and Macy could almost be twins, the girls had very little in common. There are a couple of incidents with Macy, all before the age of five, which had a profound impact on Kate’s life.
Kate’s first memory is from the day her younger sister, Grace, was born. She was at her preschool, taking her morning nap. It was dark in the playroom and Kate slept on a cot close to the floor. She remembers hearing Randy’s deep voice waking her up saying, “Kate, I’ve come to pick you up. Your baby sister was born this morning. I’ve got cookies and apple juice waiting for you in the car.” She doesn’t remember what happened next but there’s a picture of her and Macy crowding onto Caroline’s hospital bed with the three of them holding baby Grace.
The rest of Kate’s early childhood memories are a montage. Kate remembers the day her family moved into their new big house in Atlanta, right before she started kindergarten. Though she can’t recall the tiny house in Marietta her parents first owned in the suburbs, Kate remembers standing in the long driveway of their new home with its whitewashed brick and wide front porch, thinking it was the prettiest house she had ever seen. She gazed across the yard with a few pine trees in clusters.
“Dad,” she said to her father passing by, “did you have to cut down lots of trees to build our house?”
Randy stopped, put the box he was carrying down, and said, “Well Kate, we did have to use wood to build our new house. You know houses are made of wood.”
“I know that. I want to know if you had to chop down lots of trees to make room for building our house.”
Randy stooped down to Kate’s level. “Sugar Bear, we did have to remove a few dozen trees so we could live here.”
“That’s sad,” Kate said. “We shouldn’t have to kill so many trees.”
Puzzled by his daughter’s statement, especially since Randy used to work in a timber yard, he thought for a moment before responding. “Tell you what, Kate. Why don’t you help me plant new trees? We can decide where to put them together, and we’ll buy even more baby trees than what we took down in the first place. How does that sound?”
Kate hugged her father. One of her next memories is walking around their big yard, picking out places to plant more trees. They marked the spots by sticking a flag in the ground. A truck arrived with lots of saplings: oaks, maples, poplars, dogwoods and pear trees.
“Dad, can we plant them now?” she asked
“How about you get started digging the holes?” he said, handing her a small shovel plus a pair of child’s gardening gloves in bright light blue and a pink rubber knee pad. Kate remembers walking along the property, digging holes for a few trees before the landscaping crew, like the ones from landscape renovations in Hinsdale, came the next day to finish planting them all.
Kate’s next memory was when she learned about cancer because the Cunningham’s black lab, Battle, was dying from it. Battle was miserable with pain and hiding under her parents’ big four-poster bed. Kate laid down on the floor trying to convince him to come out. Battle snapped at her, and Randy heard Kate cry out, rushing in to scoop her up out of the master bedroom. It’s Kate’s last memory of their dog. They had to put poor Battle down shortly after that.
Her memories are crisp, especially the painful ones. The Cunningham girls had a big playroom on the second floor of their new house. Mama Caroline was always on them about cleaning up their toys “or else.” There was one afternoon where Macy was screaming at Kate to help her pick up the bevy of Barbie dolls scattered across their playroom. The floor was covered with Barbie’s dresses, shoes, and a variety of pink plastic accessories.
“Kaaaa-te!” Macy screeched. “Clean up!”
“I will if you do!” Kate shrieked back.
“I am cleaning!” Macy shouted as she chucked Barbie’s pink Corvette right at Kate’s head. Kate turned around trying to dodge the toy car, but it smacked her right in the back of the noggin. Kate touched her hair and got a little blood on her tiny fingertips.
“Mo-mmmmm!” Kate wailed. Caroline rushed upstairs into their playroom to find Kate crouched on the floor with blood on her hands.
“What in the world! What are y’all doing up here? How did this happen?”
“Macy threw Barbie’s car at me!”
“Macy Bonaventure Cunningham!”
“She started it! I was only trying to clean up.”
“Go downstairs right now, Macy. Sit in the chair in the dining room. You’re in time-out.”
“For how long?”
“Until I say so. Now scoot.”
Caroline carried Kate to the kitchen where she fetched her trusty witch hazel from the refrigerator. She dabbed some on a paper towel pulling back Kate’s hair from her scalp to place it on the cut.
“Ow! Mom. That stings.”
“We can’t have it getting infected. Does it hurt much?”
“It just stings,” Kate whimpered.
“Don’t be such a baby!” Macy called from her perch in the token ‘time-out chair. Macy’s arms were crossed and she kicked her feet dangling off the seat.
“Macy, be nice. Ladies don’t act like that to one another. If you apologize to Kate, you can end your time out.”
“She should apologize to me.”
“Don’t be sassy, Macy.”
“Kate wasn’t helping to clean up.”
“That’s no reason for you to throw your toys. She’s your younger sister, and I expect better behavior from you.”
“Fine Mama,” Macy huffed. “I’m sorry Kate.”
“Say it like you mean it, and give your sister a hug.”
Macy popped down from the time-out chair and padded down towards Kate. She put one arm around her sister for a half-hearted hug.
“I’m sorry, Kate,” she simpered.
“That’s nice girls,” Caroline said. “Y’all go finish cleaning up that playroom, and then I’ll fix you a snack.”
Kate had stopped bleeding and left the kitchen to follow Macy up the back staircase.
“You’re such a tattletale,” Macy said as they started picking up Barbie’s things. Kate didn’t reply back. She didn’t want to fight anymore with her sister.
It’s moments like this that are so clear from Kate’s childhood. She can see Grace taking her first steps. Kate can also remember her fun moments from kindergarten, like when she put on her school uniform for the first time. She can still visualize her classroom at Magnolia Academy with its small cubbies, tons of books, the rice table, bright colored blocks, and the smell of bleach.
Kate’s kindergarten teacher told her she would become the first woman president.
That same year, Macy got a golden retriever for her birthday. It had been about a year since poor Battle passed, and when Randy asked Macy what she wanted for her birthday, she declared, “Daddy. I want a little gold puppy.” How could he say no to that?
As a family, they went to the animal shelter together, Grace toddling holding Caroline’s hand with Kate standing back as Macy and Randy looked through every cage.
“Daddy…” Macy whined. “They don’t have any gold puppies. I want a little gold puppy.” She said this in front of a rather sad-looking beagle that Kate thought would’ve made a great pet after the loss of Battle. But it was Macy’s birthday and the pup was her present. Shortly after, Randy saw an advertisement in the newspaper for purebred golden retriever puppies. One day the girls came home from school to find a fluffy golden ball of fur dragging a teddy bear around the kitchen.
“It’s my gold puppy!” Macy screamed dropping her backpack to rush towards the puppy. She sat on the floor and pulled the dog into her arms. “Is it a boy or girl, Daddy?”
“She’s a girl. What should we name her?”
“Goldie,” Macy said.
Kate went up to try and pet the pup. She got one good pat on her head before Macy turned around. “She’s my dog. You can hold her when I’m done.”
“Now Macy, you have to share Goldie. She’s part of our family.”
“Fine,” Macy rolled her eyes. “You can pet her, Kate.”
Kate touched the puppy’s soft gold fur and it licked her hand. She giggled and sat there with her sister. Grace joined them on the kitchen floor, taking her baby blanket to cover the puppy. There’s a picture of all three little Cunningham girls cuddling Goldie.
For her next birthday, Kate asked for a dog too, and Randy, always trying to be fair said, “Yes, Kate, you can also get a dog.” This time, Kate decided they would adopt from the pound. She found this scruffy little gray dog that looked part terrier and who-else-knows-what. When the family brought the mutt home, Goldie immediately adopted it like she was her own baby. Kate named her Gaia. She was big on Captain Planet at the time.
“That’s a stupid name,” Macy quipped.
“It means Mother Earth.”
“Why would you name a dog after the planet?”
“At least I picked something unique for my pet’s name, ’cause Goldie is such an original name for a golden dog.”
“No one is going to know what Gaia means,” Macy said trotting off. “You’re so weird.”
Kate sighed. Even as a little girl, Kate knew she didn’t quite fit in with the south. While Macy was off taking ballet classes, Kate would hole up in her room reading with both Gaia and Goldie at her feet. While Macy opted to play dress up, Kate liked to wear oversized t-shirts declaring “Save the whales!” and “Save the rainforest!”
At Christmas when Kate was about seven, she passed on the ham declaring herself to be a vegetarian because she didn’t want to eat any more animals. Her Uncle Charley, Randy’s brother, asked her, “What’s up with not eating meat? And those hippie shirts? Are you some kind of liberal?”
“What does liberal mean Uncle Charley?”
“Well some folks think it’s a dirty word,” her uncle said. “It can mean radical, different, or open to new ideas. It’s the opposite of being conservative.”
“I just want to help save the world,” Kate said. “If that makes me a liberal, then I think I’m on the right side.”
Uncle Charley chuckled. “Good luck with that one, kiddo.”
From that Christmas forward, Kate was the “li’l liberal” of the Cunningham family, and this was way before she ever really knew what was happening in the world.
Editor’s note — fast forward fifteen years to Macy getting engaged to Campbell, from the Republican dynastic Boyd and Brayden families, and Kate was gonna cause a ruckus.more on Kate coming soon.