Willie Earthman arrives each day at the East Central Senior Center, dressed for a party. And why not? When you are 102, each new day is a celebration.
On a recent morning, she sat at a table at the senior center, wearing a red dress she’d made herself, topped with a glittering gold-sequined jacket. “My grandmother taught me how to sew,” she said. A half-dozen necklaces dangled from her neck and rings sparkled from every finger.
Born on July 13, 1908, in Pascagoula, Miss., Earthman and her four older brothers and two younger sisters worked with their parents on a 40-acre farm owned by the Parker family. “There wasn’t no discrimination,” she asserted. “Mrs. Parker and us all worked together.”
Her grandparents had arrived in America on a ship from India and settled in the area along the Gulf of Mexico.
Earthman said, “There ain’t nothing wrong with my remembrances!” and proceeded to share one of her earliest memories involving the first time she heard a curse word. Taking a sip of ice water from a red plastic cup, she relished the tale.
“These boys were playing stick ball and a boy got hit with the ball,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Son of a bitch!’ I didn’t know what that was and my friends told me it was a curse word. I can just see that boy’s face, and I still pray for him.”
Her parents impressed on her the importance of treating others with consideration. “They told me every child has the same feelings as you have, so you treat ’em right.”
When Earthman’s father started a lumber mill, she worked alongside him, and at age 18 she took over the business. She can describe every piece of machinery in the mill because she learned to operate all of them.
“My daddy called me darling,” she said with a smile. “A lady friend told me, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna baby you your whole life!’ But I didn’t care because I was my daddy’s darling.”
The family eventually moved to New Orleans, where Earthman cooked in a boarding house. “I knew how to cook polecat – they call ’em skunks,” she said. “You couldn’t tell that meat from any other.”
In the 1930s she and her family moved to Spokane when her father took a job in the area. Earthman found work cleaning houses and cooking, and bought a home. At age 27, she married James Earthman. “He told me he’d been watching me for two years and that he’d never been around a woman like me,” she recalled. “I told him up front, ‘I don’t need you. I own my own home.’ ” She laughed. “But he wanted to marry me, anyway.”
The couple had a daughter who died in infancy and a second daughter, Arnethia. At age 47, Earthman gave birth to their son, Ace. “Didn’t neither of my kids come up ignorant,” she asserted. “I taught my children their times tables and how to read and write before they started school.”
Her marriage proved solid and enduring. “James was an honest and upright man. There was never a cross word between us.” She paused to take another sip of water, and when asked if James had treated her well her brown eyes flashed. “Well, he had to, didn’t he?”
Her husband died in her arms in 1985. “When he took that last breath, I said, ‘Oh, God, baby, you done left me.’ ”
She found solace in her faith. A longtime member of Bethel AME, Earthman said, “I love to go to church. I know the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and you know what? You won’t find God discriminating in the Bible!”
At Bethel AME, she is known as Mother Earthman. “She is the mother of our church,” said Una McDowell, another longtime church member and close friend of Earthman. “Until recently, she was still setting up communion the first Sunday of every month.”
She uses her considerable culinary skills at Bethel as well. McDowell said, “Whenever something is happening at the church, she brings her pound cake.”
According to McDowell, there’s much to learn from spending time with Earthman. “She knows what she wants and she speaks her mind. I’ve learned to be true to yourself and others from her.” McDowell chuckled. “She’s known to say her only regret is that she never owned a machine gun!”
How important is Earthman to Bethel AME? Pastor Lonnie Mitchell said they named the church recreation center after her. “Mother Earthman’s slogan is ‘I love everybody,’ ” said Mitchell. “She’s been a delight in my life – a blessing!”
After taking a fall in her home last year, Earthman had to move in with her son and his family. But she insists she’s in good health. “I exercise every day. I’ve never had a headache in my life!” she said.
In addition to exercise, she attributes her longevity to eating well and not smoking cigarettes or drinking coffee. “You don’t have to get old – stay busy,” Earthman said. “If something happens and you can mend it, mend it.”
She has no patience for those who fret about the future. “What the devil is there to worry about?” she said. “I’ve seen a lot, and I never worry about nothing.”
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