At 102, 'Miss Ethel' Remembers Life Of Gentle Civility

Recollectionsof Others Fill Her Book

November 07, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Flora Ethel Andrews is old. Very old.

But you wouldn't know she'scelebrating her 103rd birthday next week, not to look at her sprightly face peeping from beneath a genteel straw hat. And certainly not to hear her talk.

One minute she's showing off the prisms that hang in her window, making rainbows all over the room. Another moment she's telling you The Sun has been read in her home for 100 years. Or she's joking impishly about neighborhood reactions to the book she's just completed: "Miss Ethel Remembers."

"Some of them are gonna say, 'Old Miss Ethel, what does she want to write that stuff for?' Or another, 'I'm glad I'm in there.' Or, 'Too much about her family!' Or 'I did the same things she did!' "

In a brick home in Shady Side, way down in South County on a thin slip of land by the water, Miss Ethel recalls the graciousness of another time, almost another place.

This is a woman who never once heard her mother say a critical thing about another human being; only once heard her father use bad language.

"One little word; and it's vulgar; I won't repeat it," she says earnestly. But despite a background filled with gentle civility, she never lacked courage.

At age 22, she headed for California to teach on an Indian reservation. The train ticket one way cost $107, and the journey tooksix days and six nights.

After several years, as letters from home increasingly insisted that her mother cried all the time and would die if she didn't come home, she returned to Maryland.

The county school superintendent agreed to give her the local elementary school,but warned her the students were troublesome. One school official shook his head and said, "God be with you, girl."

Teachers had been unable to control the students because of one young fellow who ran amok, hitting the boys and tormenting the girls.

"I couldn't reason with him. There was nothing to do but whip that boy," says Miss Ethel. She broke a switch spanking him, then took a poker from the stove and brandished it.

The approach worked. "I never had another moment's trouble with him," she says. "And his deaf father walked a mile that night to thank me. It was an awful experience for me. He was as dear a child as he could be, but a perfect devil."

She carried the same spunk into her personal life, running off a few years later to Baltimore to marry her beau without telling anyone. She'd met him at her parent's dinner table, young Mr. Andrews from New England. ("His first name was Alexander, and I never did like it!" she interjects.)

"This man with light hair and blue eyes sat across from me. We went into the parlor, and we fell in love, and there it was." Three monthslater they had a big reception and a honeymoon. ("Married three months and we go off for a honeymoon night; wasn't that silly?" she says,chuckling.)

Her husband died in 1978.

Miss Ethel leans againsta crocheted shawl and recounts growing up in Shady Side before the place had either a name or a post office.

She remembers a neighbor arriving in a carriage to announce that President William McKinley had been shot. She recalls merry Saturday nights, when her father, Robert Franklin Nowell, hung 50 Japanese lanterns in the garden and friends danced to the sounds of "Shine on, Harvest Moon".

After a sojourn with the Indians in California, she taught and served as principalof Shady Side Elementary School for 40 years, witnessing the advent of such miracles as electricity and indoor plumbing.

"When I couldstand inside the class and touch a bell and not take the bell to thedoor to ring, it was wonderful for me," she says.

At the same time she supervised the school, Miss Ethel also served as the community postmistress. The post office came into being about the same time shewas born in 1888. Her father and later her sister handed out the mail, which then averaged 15 letters a day.

But as a child, putting letters in the correct post office box was traumatic for Ethel and hersister. Letter-writers often addressed the mail to recipients only by initials, and it was easy for the little girls to mix up letters labeled simply "JC or "CP."

When it came time to name her own children, she determined to choose names "nobody else ever had."

She did. Her daughter was named Glorious Legna (angel backward) and her son,Derwill, after Alexander Willard, her husband.

Asked the secret of her long and healthy life, Miss Ethel talks about her family life.

"We were a busy family. Everybody had a task. We always had strangers at the table, so we did not discuss anything but outside affairs.Our conversation was never little. And my father was a great Christian."

As devout Methodists, the family attended three separate services at two different churches every Sunday. "My church has meant a lot to me. It's life-directing."

Until this very week, Miss Ethel continued to cook dinner for her family -- her daughter and her daughter's husband, Howard Shenton -- as well as any visitors. "I never went to sleep until I had it planned for the next day in my mind," she says.

Her family brags about Miss Ethel's crab imperial, but she ismore proud of what she calls her "recipe for a long life."

"Therewas no time to think of yourself. I really practiced that my whole life long, and it works."

Miss Ethel will be signing copies of her book 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Captain Salem Avery House Museum, 1418 E.W. Shady Side Side Road.

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