In this crazy world of ours, what lasts anymore? In a temporal world of quick fixes and instant gratification, of indulgence at our fingertips, where can we find the eternal?
Perhaps the life of Etta Stephenson can provide a clue.
Etta has been working at Kilgore-Green Funeral Home in Jasper, Alabama, for forty-five years—half her life. She began working there when owner Dell Green was but four years old. He’s now fifty.
“I think working is the best thing that can happen to people,” Etta says.
Etta was born on May 9, 1927, a time when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were clouting titanic shots out of Yankee Stadium, a coliseum still in its infancy. This year, on May 13, friends and family gathered at Memorial Park to celebrate a life well-lived, and well-living, as she celebrated her ninetieth birthday.
“Wow! There are no words that you can even put down,” said her daughter, MaLea Scales. “To be ninety years of age. To see your mother go through so many hardships, so many wonderful parts of her life, and then to be able to give this to her and her understand it, realize it, and know what’s going on. To be ninety and be that healthy. What a wonderful mentor she has been to me as well as to Devin and my boys, Braxton and Nicholas. What a legacy she is leaving for us each and every day.”
Etta’s son, Dr. Devin Stephenson, who is the current college president at Northwest Florida State College, believes that her consistent attitude toward life, faith, family, and work, has been the key to Etta’s durability. “When you are consistent in life and you are like my mother, who has embraced the same values for so long, life has been good,” Dr. Stephenson said. “She’s created lots of friends. Life has been a very positive thing for her, certainly not without ups and downs, but for the most part, because she has been consistent, this positive attitude has contributed greatly to her health, her outlook, and really propelled her in the future in a very positive way. This [event] is important, I think, because it shows that longevity breeds a lot of respect.”
Stephenson believes that people ought to be celebrated, not just when they are exiting, but throughout the journey. “Unfortunately—and I’ve seen this at different places with people who work with me—people would leave and get the accolades and the affirmations as they are walking out the door, when they needed them every day,” he said. “That is a major part of the therapy of life. Helping folks realize they’re important, they’re valuable, and meaningful to an organization.”
Both of Etta’s children will tell you that the lessons from her life have arrived in droves. “My mother is a really special lady,” Dr. Stephenson said, “and she raised us to work hard and never accept mediocrity in anything that we did. It’s been a value that I’ve cherished. Never get complacent about the day. Try to find a good place in the day, and make good things happen. Make a difference.”
Although Etta says that the party “means a whole lot,” she admits she’s about partied out.
“They had pulled one on me when I was seventy,” she said. “I said ‘that’s going to be it, now enough’s enough.’ Children don’t always listen to their parents.” 78
Follow Al Blanton on Twitter @alblanton78.