Ethel Rivers will turn 100 next week, and her Gullah wit and wisdom is still a lot like her red rice — a little salt, a little sugar and a little black pepper.
“The way you love your mother is the way the Lord will keep you here a long time,” she says.
Spry and healthy, she sits outside her home on Hilton Head Island, next to the historic Cherry Hill School where Gullah children went long before there was a brick public school. She lives near the foot of an expanded airport runway, which screams out how different the island is since she was born Oct. 16, 1918, to native islanders Viola and Jacob Benjamin Green.
She sings, a cappella, a song of thanks to God.
Ethel Rivers is believed to be the oldest living person born on Hilton Head, following the recent passing of Gertrude Brown Grant, who turned 100 last year.
Ethel Rivers had 17 children — the last one when she was 46. She’s buried six of them, as well as her husband, Nathan “Apple” Rivers.
But there will be plenty there to “love their mother” this Saturday at her birthday celebration at The Northridge Event Venue in Northridge Plaza. She has 46 grandchildren and 50 to 60 great-grands.
Her message to them:
“I’m praying the Lord will lead them in the path of righteousness,” she said. “Lead them and guide them. I pray that night and day. When I get up and when I go in the bed at night. I’m not able to get down on my knees no more, now. When I go down I can’t get back up, I catch a cramp, but I ask the Lord to bless them from the youngest to the oldest and the oldest to the youngest. I ask the Lord to let them come up and be real loving children, and people will love them and they will grow up to be men and women and God will bless them.”
She fears that newer generations will have a harder time than her own upbringing on an island full of sandy roads, no bridge and no electricity.
“From what I see, some of them have too much of their own ways,” she said. “They want to do what they want to do, when they want to do it and how they want to do it.”
Her baby, retired U.S. Army officer Clarence Rivers of Jacksonville, Fla., said his parents gave their children the old Gullah ways that he, too, fears are disappearing.
“It was all about respect,” he said. “You respected your elders, and they didn’t have to be family to act as your elders.
“They showed us a way of living — being able to be self-sufficient, with self-discipline.
“And they taught us to be responsible. We understood that when we were 18, we were gone.”
“Mr. Apple” Rivers did a lot of different things to make a dollar. He drove vehicles for the Hudson family of commercial fishermen, he did landscaping work for the Hilton Head Co. and island development pioneer Fred Hack. He did landscaping for private homes. He was a mechanic. He raised vegetables. And he and his sons cut and delivered firewood.
“Today, they want easy money,” Clarence Rivers said. “They want fast money.”
Ethel Rivers followed her mother’s footsteps in cooking for the Cherry Hill School.
“You name ‘em, I can cook ‘em,” she said.
She’s Mother of the Church at St. James Baptist across the street from her home, and her husband was a deacon there for more than 50 years.
She goes to the Bluffton Senior Center four days a week, and still gets around with relative ease, sometimes with the help of a cane.
“When you say ‘let’s’ she says ‘go,’ “ Clarence Rivers said.
His mother recently rode a train to Virginia to see family.
And in 2016, they took her to the White House. There, dressed to the nines, she stood in wonder that the house was occupied by an African-American president. It was one giant leap for a small woman reared by the site of a Civil War-era village for island freedmen called Mitchelville.
“Everything was so lovely,” she said.
In her own white house, she looks out the window to see a steady stream of cars at the four-way stop on Beach City Road. She remembers when you wouldn’t see five cars in a full day.
She says some of the change is good and some is bad.
“The bad is, you just can’t do what you used to do,” she said. “We’re coming on the fall of the year, and you’ve got all the leaves falling down. We used to could rake up the leaves and burn them. Now you can’t do that. And if you do it, you have do a little bit at a time. Who has time for that?”
Other change, she said, is wonderful.
“OK. Where we had to pump water and someone had to go down to the well and tote water and now you got water right in your house, and when you want to wash, you’ve got your washing machine, you’ve got the dryer,” she said. “It’s a whole lot of good.”
She laughs when she says she’s good for five more years.
“If God would just let me have good health and let me get around and do like I’m doing now for another five years, that would be fairly right. I’d be satisfied.”
She said she talks to God about it.
“I tell Him all the time, I say, Lord, I say, You’ve been good to me. You brought me a long way. I say, now when it’s Your time to call, just let me either sit down or lay down and go to sleep and don’t wake up. I don’t want to be sick, when people have to turn me over, have to wash me, all those things. I say just let me live as long as you want. It’s His will. It’s His will for how long I live, but I don’t want to be a burden on the children or neighbors. That’s all. That’s all. I don’t want to be a burden.”