Story by Grace Gaddy
What constitutes a meaningful life? It is the question humanity has pondered through the ages, one that touches the core of every human heart. So significantly weighs the subject — the quest for meaning and happiness — that it has birthed numerous experiments, years of research and a plethora of diverse philosophies.
But is the answer really so indiscernible?
Nestled inside a white two-story Victorian house in the heart of East Texas was one woman who observably grasped the answer. She held a special secret while cherishing what she knew to be a meaningful life — all 115 years of it.
Her name was Eunice Sanborn.
For three months, she was verified to be the oldest person in the world. The California-based Gerontology Research Group recorded her birth date as July 20, 1896, although her family claimed she was actually born a year earlier.
Even so, her life had turned the pages of time to cross three centuries of history—from 20 presidents to world wars to groundbreaking discoveries that transformed modern civilization and society. Coloring those years was her one simple, yet extraordinary life, a tapestry woven with many memories, heartaches and joys of living. Surviving three husbands and her only daughter, she remained in the same house for the past seven decades in Jacksonville, Texas — just half an hour’s drive from my house.
With mounting interest, I sought the opportunity to meet her. After contacting David and Rena French, close friends, caretakers and “adopted children” of Sanborn, the couple graciously bestowed an opportunity for me to tag along on Rena’s next visit. In doing so, I discovered a person with a truth so incredible that it has forever left a mark on my life.
Sanborn nurtured a secret that she relished to reveal. While it pleased her to hear on Nov. 4, 2010, that she had achieved the landmark status of “world’s oldest person,” to which she responded, “Oh, think of that!” her deepest zeal rested not in her length of days or witnessing of momentous historical occasions. Rather, she hummed of a great love within her soul, one that she said made life worth living.
As the press picked up her story, reporters poured in to ask her advice and insight concerning her longevity. In reply, she could only speak of one thing that defined her days and captivated her heart.
“My secret is my savior,” she said in 2007. “A lot of people don’t know Him, but I do. I love Him. He’s going to keep on being my secret.”
Actively mobile until age 107, her latter days were spent resting peacefully with round-the-clock care. On my own visit, I watched as Rena approached the bed where her “Aunt Eunice” was relaxing to shout a greeting into her ear. The aged countenance lit up with a glowing smile adorning radiant humor. Though her speech appeared limited to one-word answers of questions — mainly due to her waning hearing — Sanborn displayed a personality that swelled beyond conventional verbal communication and punctuated her presence.
Gushing with love that would often erupt in distinct hearty laughs, her dynamism billowed through the room, reverberating with each listener. When she did speak, it was loud and clear — usually an enthusiastic “Yeah!” or an affectionate “Honey!” — her name for everyone. As Rena caught her up on the latest news of friends and loved ones, Sanborn listened thoughtfully and remained silent for several moments upon hearing about a friend’s cancer.
“She’s probably praying,” Rena said, adding that she always prayed for others, calling her a true “prayer warrior.”
“If she told you she was going to pray for you, she would pray for you.”
Prayer and dependence on the Lord characterized Sanborn’s outlook on life.
“She always would say, ‘The Lord brings me through it,’” Rena said. “She had such a sweet testimony about how the Lord can get you through anything. I mean, living through three husbands and your only child—she just really had a great loss to lose everybody.”
David French, whose memories with Sanborn weave further into the past, corroborated his wife’s sentiment and affirmed their friend’s faith and trust in the Lord.
“[Her witness] is for the Lord in whatever she does,” he said, describing the legacy of one he called a “living history book.”
David remembered earlier days growing up down the street from Sanborn’s house. He often would see her on the porch or in the yard working with flowers while on his way to school or to the Palace Theater. He especially remembered going to the large swimming pool that she and her husband operated at the time, a part of a popular recreation area known as “Love’s Lookout.” Nested atop a scenic forested ridge, the park was originally opened in 1937 and featured the county’s first concrete-bottom swimming pool, a dance pavilion, snack bar and other attractions.
“That’s where I remember most of my childhood—visiting, talking, getting to know her. I can’t remember much not knowing her,” he said.
Years later after grade school and college, the same 5-year-old boy down the street grew up to become an attorney who would manage Sanborn’s financial and personal affairs. It was during this season that their friendship significantly blossomed, in which David came to know Sanborn as his “Aunt Eunice,” who fondly called him “my boy.”
“We’ve prayed together and talked about the Lord many, many times,” David said, adding that she genuinely cared for each person she met.
“She’s going to ask, ‘Do you know the Lord?’ and she’s going to tell you that her greatest amazement is that the Lord died for her sins.”
As I walked through the house, connecting the dots to a life filled with both heartaches and triumphs, I imagined the volumes that could be written of all the experiences she had known, witnessed or taken part in. I gazed at heirlooms including handmade sets of furniture her father-in-law had intricately carved and a piano dating back to the Civil War that was brought down the Mississippi River on a steamboat from St. Louis. I listened to a record of her family history, in which she spoke of Indians and wagon trains, her voice choking with emotion as she praised the Lord for His protection and faithfulness to her family. Everywhere I turned, I was reminded of her devotion to God.
Christine Bunn, her neighbor and best friend of more than 50 years, affirmed her friend’s strong faith while recalling special moments of their friendship.
“We used to go to the same church,” Bunn said. At one point, the two even shared the same roof. “She could say the most beautiful prayers. You’d go in sometimes — she could just talk to the Lord, like [it would] break your heart to listen to it. You’d just want to cry because it was so sweet.”
Bunn went on to speak of the many memories the two had harvested. Like a true rare gem, their friendship was one of sisterly love and selfless consideration. When one would experience hardship, the other was there to comfort and console, even to the point of opening each other’s homes.
There were also lighter times comprising a multitude of funny incidents — quirky remarks, social traditions, and traveling excursions across the country. Bunn chuckled as she recalled Sanborn’s fervent joys in traveling and eating good food like fried chicken.
The memories are something she will not forget. “I enjoyed every minute of it, being with her,” she said. “[I am] glad we could live together, then live beside each other.”
As I asked more questions and researched Sanborn’s life, it became apparent that everyone had garnered the same conclusion: She loved the Lord with all of her heart, and she testified as only wanting to bring Him glory.
He was her life. He sustained her, gave her breath and energy and filled her innermost being. Her heart beat for Him.
Everyone I spoke with relayed examples of the visible fruit in their friend’s life. As a faithful member of The First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Sanborn served as a choir participant and worker for the Women’s Missionary Auxiliary. She also gave money to help young men — her “preacher boys” — attend theological school in training for the ministry. Aiding both old and young, she supported the children’s home in Waxahachie and “practically lived” at the local nursing home visiting others.
In April 2010 at 114, Sanborn said, “I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I’ve enjoyed it. I’m thankful. Life is a wonderful thing if you make it that way. If you don’t make it right, it isn’t wonderful. If you do things right and love the Lord, you’ll be all right.”
Seven months later on my own personal visit, Rena leaned over the bed to again ask the question that I had my pen and paper ready for: the advice she would give to a young person.
Sanborn’s response was simple but complete — carved from 115 years of laughing, crying and living.
“Think of the Lord,” she said.
Two months after my interview, Rena contacted me to inform that our dear friend had gone home to join her savior on Jan. 31, 2011. Hours before her death, her caretakers described a stirring shift in her mood. With wide eyes and hands reaching in the air, Sanborn was praising the Lord as the angels came to take her home.
Without a doubt, I imagine she’s praising God right now as her testimony is proclaimed as an eternal anthem to the king.