Growing up in a family of nine children, Ella Mae Cox Avery is the oldest of the brood, and on Friday, Jan. 31 she turned 105. Called “mother” by pretty much everyone she knows, Avery spent most of her life near Faison in Sampson County where her family mostly farmed.
“She loved going to church,” said her daughter, Lillie Mae Avery Bell of her mother, who still lives at home. “She sang in the choir at church and she was a hard worker on the farm.” Ella Mae’s daughter, Lillie Bell, who stays with her mom up on a road off NC 403 towards Faison, has been taking care of her mom for years.
Lillie Bell remembers being one of two children, being raised on the farm, which was located off of interstate 40. Avery and her late husband, William Avery, raised their two children on that farm.
“They were share croppers back then,” Bell explained. “They worked under somebody.”
Bell pointed out of the back of their current house to the home where, nestled in the woods, her mother was born. Their family has lots of roots in the area with Bell’s mother still having two living siblings — a brother in New York and a sister who lives across the road.
“I remember my mom telling stories, mostly stories about working,” said Bell. “They worked in the fields growing cotton and tobacco.” Bell said she talked about working in the fields and how she had to work extra hard to get done with the day’s labor to get to their church revival meetings at night.
“We walked to the revival meetings,” added Bell. She also remembers her mom reminiscing about picking huckleberries out in the woods.
“I’ve even done some of that and enjoyed it, too,” said Bell.
“We all walked to church together, and there was a lot of fun in it,” Bell noted. “We went to all the programs (at church).” Church was very important to her mother, and she didn’t miss a Sunday at Piney Green Disciple Church where she sang in the choir. Bell fondly remembers her mom singing in that choir and at home.
“Mom would always carry a box of food to church,” said Bell. “They would set up tables outside made from wire fence.” Bell said her mom made “good old chocolate cakes” and she cooked a lot. Bell described her mother as a good cook and housekeeper.
“She walked pretty much everywhere,” said Bell. Their nearest town was Faison and it was about six miles from their house.
“It didn’t seem like nothing,” Bell added. “She walked to school, and when we came along we had to walk to school.” Bell said it was just what you had to do back then.
“Back in those day,s when I came along ,we walked and worked in the fields, picked those huckleberries,” said Bell. “It was everyday stuff, and now people don’t know anything about that.”
Bell’s mother loved helping people, and when people were sick she would carry them food, and her daughter said she loved visiting those that were sick or in need.
“She would get something from the smokehouse and carry it to them, and just give it to them,” stated Bell. “Back then most people had gardens and smoke houses. My dad, William Avery, always kept a smoke house and they would kill their own pigs.”
That sharing in the community went beyond just sick visits, and Bell said her mom would go with other ladies in the winter from house to house and work on quilts.
“They would go in groups to make these handmade quilts,” added Bell. “It was about helping one another and they wouldn’t have to be on one (quilt) so long. They made these quilts in the winter when the crop was housed. That was their joy — women together; it was a lot of their enjoyment.”
“Those were the prettiest quilts,” Bell said. She still has one of those quilts and she said it is one of the most treasured items she has.
“The most valuable lesson that my mother taught me was to be good to everybody,” she quietly added. “I was to treat everybody right. To do what was right was one of main things (she taught us).”
Her granddaughter, Teretha Bell, one of Avery’s grandchildren, remembers her making breakfast every morning, and it was one of her favorite memories.
“We didn’t eat grits, bacon, and eggs,” said Teretha in a phone interview Wednesday. “We had friend chicken, pork chops, stew beef, rice, macaroni, peas — dinner and supper food.”
Avery encouraged everyone to work hard and was known to slip the kids “a little piece of money” for special occasions, her granddaughter added.
Ella Mae Cox Avery has always, her family said, led by example, being a beacon of light to those in hard times, as well as showing what Christian love was to those in her family and community.
And even though today she’s bed-ridden and seldom talks, that inspiration continues to fill the room.
“She did what was right and taught us to do right, while going to church,” her daughter said. “She believed in helping people. My mother was always strong, and when someone got hurt she would pray for them.”
Emily M. Hobbs can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 122 or via email at email@example.com.