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A 95th social distancing birthday celebration

Retired schoolteacher Ethel Mae Britt turned 95 Friday, and her family, friends and former students turned out for a drive-by parade to celebrate the occasion.

Born in Lincoln County in her parents’ home off Old Red Star Road, Britt described the event as a big surprise. “They told me to get ready to go outside about five minutes before it started. It was really a thrill.”

For nearly an hour, Britt sat in a white rocking chair under her covered front porch and waved to some 30 cars travelling through the circular drive. They brought balloons, flower bouquets and well wishes. A backseat alto sang the birthday song, and a proud dad stopped to hold up a recently born baby up for her to see.

Britt’s children organized the front-lawn party at her home in the New Sight community when they realized their plans to recognize their mother’s significant birthday would have to include social distancing.

“It was my brother Denny’s idea,” explains Ginny Bates, the second of three children born to Ethel Mae and her late husband, Denver. “We were just going to cook for Mama because of the virus, but he came up with the drive-by. We wanted this one to be special.”

Bates says her mother keeps up with family members on her iPhone, sending texts with frequent emojis, including smiley faces, hearts, thumbs up and praying hands. Britt also downloads e-books from the library to read on her iPad, and when worship opportunities at her church, Mt. Zion Baptist, changed during the pandemic, she learned to livestream services instead.

Britt may be tech savvy, but her daughter describes her as possessing timeless virtues. “She knows what it’s like to be without, and she wants to help others in that situation. As a young woman, she worked at Stahl Urban sewing men’s pants to pay tuition at Co-Lin. A lady there knew she was going to be short one semester, and she helped her. Mama never forgot it. She made a difference in people’s lives by doing similar things.”

For nearly a year, Peggy Britt (no relation) has been Ethel Mae Britt’s caretaker and companion. She cooks for her and tidies her house. She also serves as Britt’s “fitness trainer.”

“I keep her straight by counting and letting her know what’s next,” Peggy laughs, adding that Britt is a faithful, “don’t-miss-a-day” kind of exerciser. They do leg lifts, arm raises and something they call “windshield wipers.”

“It’s keeping her at a level where she can still get up and move around the house,” Peggy says. “And it helps that she has a bubbly personality. I’ve never heard her say an ill word toward anybody. She has a positive attitude. We always pray before we eat, and she has devotions before she comes out of her room every morning.”

Widowed since 1995, Britt has seven grandchildren and a seventh great-grand on the way. During her birthday meal, she watched a video montage of them in their homes wishing her happy birthday. After the viewing, Britt and her children enjoyed a cake made by Britt’s niece, Debbie Gates, and homemade ice cream churned by Denny and his wife, Pam. They used a family recipe for the ice cream, the kind made with eggs cooked on the stove. The kind that takes time and special effort.   

The ice cream is long gone now, but Britt says the mix of digital and distanced ways of celebrating her birthday left her with one to remember. “I’m still trying to calm down,” she smiles. “It was really something.”

You can contact Kim Henderson at kimhenderson319@gmail or follow her on Twitter at @kimhenderson319.