February 11, 2008 in City

Connect: A long life of lessons to share

Pia K. Hansen Staff writer
 
Brian Plonka photo

Willie Earthman, 99, makes her own dresses without using patterns.
(Full-size photo)

Quotes from Willie Earthman:

What’s your best piece of advice? “Always be honest. Don’t lie. I just can’t have that, if people lie.”

Do you have any vices? “I never smoked a cigarette, and I never had a drink in all my life.”

Do you have a wish that was never fulfilled? “I’ve gotten most anything I wanted, except I really wanted a machine gun. But look at me, I’m too little to hold it up – it was too heavy.”

On raising children: “When you have a child, teach that child something worthwhile.”

On being a strong-willed and independent woman all her life: “Sometimes my husband would look at me and say, ‘I don’t know where you come from.’ And I’d say I come from two people who brought me up right.”

Mementos from a long and well-lived life cover every open space in Willie Earthman’s white house. Photos and knickknacks crowd the coffee table and the mantelpiece. A dream catcher hangs from the ceiling light, and a stole made from two silver-gray foxes hangs from a dumbwaiter in the little hallway.

Born the year of the Model T Ford, in 1908, Earthman turns 100 in July. She lives on her own in Spokane’s South Perry neighborhood.

“How am I holding up? There ain’t nothing holding me up but myself,” Earthman says, rustling around, finding a place to sit. And then she begins telling her story.

She was born in Mississippi. Her family includes a Scottish grandmother and a grandfather who came from India.

“I got good remembrance,” she says. “I got sent to school to get my education – so no one can misuse me.”

There were four older boys and two younger girls in the family; Earthman is the only one still alive.

“What you were told to do, you did that,” says Earthman. “We didn’t have no wishy-washy raising the children like there is now.”

She remembers a childhood in which the world was clearly divided between what was for adults and what was for children.

“I look at children now and how they disrespect elderly people, you hear what I’m saying?” Earthman says. “Back then, what grown folks talked about wasn’t in the kids’ ears all the time like it is today.”

Her family had some land, and as a young woman Earthman ended up running a sawmill outside of Gulfport, Miss.

“That was unusual, yes it was, but I did fine with all the men,” she says. “I can tell you exactly how much lumber went into building this house we’re sitting in.”

There were also sheep farmers in the family.

“My grandmother made this fine wool cloth on a machine; I still have a tablecloth she made,” Earthman says, rubbing her fingers together, showing the feel of the cloth.

Her fondness for clothes and sewing took root back then.

Today, Earthman has closets full of dresses and gowns she’s made – every outfit with matching shoes and purses – and her living room is full of snapshots from church and social gatherings where she’s impeccably dressed in her own creations.

“I never bought a pattern in my life, I just get the material and go make it,” she says. “That way I can have a dress in just the color I want.”

From Mississippi, Earthman moved to Spokane with an older brother.

Her parents followed soon after. At Bethel AME Church, where she is still active as an usher and a regular at service, she met her husband James, who was from Memphis, Tenn.

“He was a railroad man and a Christian. We married in 1940,” she says. The couple had two children – a boy Arealous and a girl Arnithia – but only Arealous “Ace” Earthman, 52, is still alive.

Spend any time with Earthman and the restlessness of a person who’s used to getting up in the morning and putting in a day’s work quickly becomes evident.

“I worked. I always worked. I was cooking for rich people; all my life that’s what I did,” Earthman says. “Every day, I went to their home. I’ve worked for so many families over the years, I can’t remember them all.”

Earthman’s cooking is legendary and so is her way with home remedies, like the whiskey and camphor mixture she keeps at hand.

“This is for the arthritis,” says the woman, who insists she’s never had an actual drink. “You get some castile soap and you wash the leg and dry it good, then apply this when you feel the ache. It kills the misery right away – but don’t you buy no cheap whiskey.”

For body odor, she says to make a lather of baking soda and water and put that in the offending armpit.

“It’ll kill that odor,” Earthman says.

She says what she knows about home remedies she learned from the Indian side of the family.

“They always knew what weed, I’d say it was a weed, to go and get, and to make the tea and feel better,” says Earthman. “I’ve never had a headache in my life. I don’t mind sharing my remedies. I ain’t losing nothing by being nice.”

Jerrelene Williamson, president of the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers, says Earthman is an incredible role model.

“I wouldn’t say she’s had a hard life, but she’s done just about anything and she’s always got some advice for you,” Williamson says. “And she is so well-known in the African-American community – she’s a person who’s always there, always doing, she’s an inspiration to many people.”

Ace Earthman agrees.

“She’s been a staple and inspiring force in my life,” he says. “It does make you kick yourself when you see someone who’s 99 and still trying to get around, and maybe you don’t always feel like it.”

The best piece of advice he ever got from Earthman?

“Well, honesty has always been a strong suit with her,” Ace Earthman says. “But you know, honesty can cut both ways – sometimes you don’t like what you are hearing.”

Though small of stature, one gets the impression that Earthman is a force to be reckoned with.

When the police showed up at her door recently, she wasn’t too concerned.

“They knocked and said, ‘It’s the law! We got a call from here,’ ” Earthman says and then she starts giggling. “And here I come to the door with my shotgun and the officer says to lay my gun down so they can talk to me.”

She’s laughing full force now: “I laid it down so they could come in. I don’t know; I hadn’t called them. Then, the next day, they sent this woman to check on me, I guess, since I was 99 years old and on my own and all that.”

And so life goes on a day at a time.

“They call me ‘Mother Willie’ now, at church,” Earthman says, trailing off, “it must be because I’m so old now. Could be everybody’s mother there.”


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