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A Texas Centenarian Is Full of Life and Stories

By: Elaine Marze

Ethel Ruby West Gilbert, who will be 103 in March, 2021, obviously inherited good genes from her parents who lived to be 99 and 89. Ethel grew up in Kilgore, Texas with her three brothers and two sisters, all deceased. Ethel says she could have added to her longevity by taking lots of vitamins because she isn’t one of these people who watch their carbs or give up bacon.

She went to a one room school house until the seventh grade when she dropped out, and carried her lunch in a syrup bucket similar to Little House on the Prairie.  Ethel has several good stories she shares about her school days including when one of her cousins took a bottle out of the science class and told her to smell it.  She took a good sniff of what was later determined to be some kind of acid. The burn was instant, and it caused her to have to go to a doctor then and several times afterward.

Ethel grew up on a farm, hoed corn and planted potatoes until she married at the age of 17 in 1936. Since she and her husband divorced in 1962 Ethel has taken care of herself until she fractured a hip this past September in a fall and is undergoing therapy.  In the months since her relatives have taken turns helping her out. She’s lived in the same house since 1940. Because her husband hadn’t wanted her to have to go outside to use the toilet, he built an indoor bathroom after they moved in, and that’s still one of her favorite modern conveniences.

After her three daughters left home Ethel worked in various jobs such as waitressing and at a drug store. Some of her best memories are of the fun she and her siblings had with their cousins and friends. She said her mother always cooked peas and cornbread, and Ethel is proud that she always had friends and family who wanted to go home with her after Sunday school and church so they could eat her momma’s cooking. “My momma cooked enough for everybody,” she said. Those are the days she loves to remember and share. Her church life played a big part also, tales of her and Tootsie’s mischievous exploits at church bringing laughter to herself and others she entertains with her stories.

 Having lived through so many amazing changes, Ethel names TV and butane as two inventions she is most appreciative of. Until butane, she’d cooked on a woodburning store so the ease of butane (propane) was especially wondrous. She remembers when the only lights came from coal oil lamps which she still has, and though she can’t remember what year they got electricity, she does remember learning how to drive after she got married. She said they bought a T-model Ford, and while she was learning she drove through a man’s chicken house, and he was so angry that he killed her cats for revenge. She definitely remembers that.

One of Ethel’s granddaughters, 58-year old Susie Byars, says her grandma had her paint her house so many times and colors that she’d tell her she’d never freeze in the winter because of all the coats of paint. Susie recalls that when she and her cousin, Jeanna, would be staying with Ethel they’d have to go hook up Ethel’s water hose at Walter Price’s station on the corner of their property so they could fill up a wash tub to take a bath (outside).  “Mamaw always said we were saving juice. She didn’t want to run her well because it would run up the electric bill. We never ran an air conditioner, just raised the windows and put fans in them. We were saving her juice.”

Her mamaw is not the only one with stories. Susie said when it was time to go to bed, Ethel would tell the girls, “Y’all better get to sleep because the wild man is fixing to rattle the gate,” and sure enough they would hear the wild man rattling the gate which scared them “to death” and they would cover their heads. Susie and cousin Patty finally found out the secret just recently when their mamaw told them she kept a can of rocks under her bed to shake. It kept the girls in bed and encouraged them to get to sleep.

This vivacious lady lost her driver’s license at age 99. It has not prevented her from enjoying life though. Texas is home to many legends, and Ethel is a semi-local legend who loves visitors, and she has a lot of experiences and reminisces to share.