My Aunt Lily was wonderfully friendly and fun. She lived in San Jose, California, so even though we Coloradans didn’t see much of her, I felt like I knew her well. When our daughters attended West Coast colleges, I sent them to meet Aunt Lily, and they agreed that Lily was a “cool aunt.” I will always appreciate Lily’s kindness to me and my girls, as well as her help with the book No Market for ‘Em which is excerpted below. Lily’s wholehearted enthusiasm over my first book also encouraged me to follow through on the next. I wish she’d been up to reading the newest release. That effort (Mile High Lab Rat) shows considerable growth, thanks in part to her encouragement.
Lily Marie Payton Womack was born December 30, 1923, in Norton, Kansas and outlived all of her seven siblings. She passed away on February 28th, 2022, at the age of 98 in Livermore, California. Her family returned her ashes to the Rose Hill Cemetery plot she purchased beside her sister and brother in Rifle, Colorado. The memories of Lily that I collected in No Market for ‘Em feel meagre given her vibrant 98-year lifespan. I hope her friends and family will add more in the comments.
LILY’S MEMORIES FROM NO MARKET FOR ‘EM:
In December of 1928, while the Depression tightened its chokehold on Europe, Mom and Dad put a thousand dollars down on eighty-eight acres near Mont Ida, Kansas. I’m not sure if Dad’s crop failed or just what, but money was scarce when Christmas came the next year. Fred remembered Mom and Madge trying to convince Lily that Santa Claus wouldn’t know where we’d moved, so she shouldn’t expect the pretty doll he was supposed to bring. Lily was six, a bright little blonde, and she wasn’t about to give up on her doll.
She said, “Santa knows everything.” Her only worry was that her stocking might not be big enough, but she decided that if the doll was too big to fit in the stocking, Santa could leave Dolly on the floor.
No mother ever loved her brood more than Mom did us, so you know that if there’d been a way to come up with a doll, she’d have done it. The next morning Fred saw tears in her eyes when Lily didn’t find a doll in the stocking or on the floor.
Later, Dad lost the farm and when the sheriff’s sale was done, we had nothing but a 1927 Model T Ford and fifty dollars in the pocket of my dad’s overalls. We left my pal Tony, the greyhound, at the neighbor’s place and headed for western Colorado. Lily remembers staying in a dingy upstairs boarding room where they locked us in at night. Then again, maybe they didn’t lock us in. Maybe it was the folks locking the door that scared Lily. She’d never seen anyone lock a door in her life, so a place where you needed to lock the door had to be dangerous.
Our clothes, mostly overalls, were well-worn hand-me-downs. I went barefoot as much as I could because my shoes didn’t fit. I have long feet and had to cram my toes in as best I could. They’re still scrunched out of shape seventy years later. I guess I should be glad I didn’t have to wear the old-fashioned high-topped girl’s shoes that someone gave Mom. She felt bad that Lily had to wear them, but Lily loved them.
Taking care of Grandma had to be about the last straw for Mom, but Dale remembered her holding Grandma’s hand and crying when Clarissa was very sick. Lily remembers the doctor coming to declare Grandma deceased. It was the one time Lily saw Dad cry. All I remember was him telling us, “Take a good look. It’s the last time you’ll see her.”
When she was gone, Dad’s younger brother, Roy, a successful lawyer from Pueblo, came and brought a box of oranges. Lily thought they tasted so good that she even ate the peels.
Aunt Katie came to visit, too. She’d started teaching school at sixteen and then gone on to normal school which was a short course for teachers but then switched to business college. She told us, “You kiddies must get an education,” so many times that it’s been stuck in Lily’s head for almost eighty years.
I don’t know if the school ever sent me to the Salvation Army for lunch, but Lily says she went. Lily hasn’t been hungry—unless she was dieting—for over half a century. She’s looked like a million bucks every day for close to that long, and her house in San Jose is worth over that, but she still gets ecstatic over the taste of that Salvation Army soup. Someone apparently sponsored a milk program too. Every day around eleven, a milkman would bring milk to the back of Lily’s classroom for the kids who couldn’t afford it. In other parts of the country, people were pouring surplus milk out on the ground to keep prices up.
The eight of us gave Mom so many worries, you’d have thought she’d never have enough time to fit them all in, but she got an amazing amount done. She worried that with all of us kids coming so close together, we didn’t get enough attention. None of us got anywhere near the kind of attention she’d gotten as a child, but she especially worried about Norman because Lily, a year and a half older, was a “fragile baby”. Lily has always been afraid of almost anything that casts a shadow, so it’s hard to say whether she really was sickly or just scared half to death. Mom didn’t know what was wrong, but she kept Lily calmed by cuddling the little girl in her apron top and working with the other hand. She was still fussing over Lily when Norman came, and while he was waiting his turn, I barged in and kicked him out of the crib.
Dad planted watermelon and cantaloupe on the Kister land. His cantaloupes were fine, but his watermelons grew great big and beautiful. When they started to ripen, he built a fruit stand that Lily remembers having to sit in all day waiting for customers. Sometimes Dad would find the chewed rinds and seeds in his fields. The kids from town got a kick out of stealing melons, but it was only a few, and he didn’t mind their having some fun.
We boys got some rabbits somewhere and cobbled together some hutches for them. We cut grass to feed them and made sure they had water. They did the rest. The bumper crop they produced made us proud, and we were looking forward to fried rabbit and profitable pelts when dogs broke in and killed them all.
The family raised chickens too. Mom and Dad would dress (gut) and pluck the plump ones in the evenings to sell to a hotel. If there were extras, Dad would drive down an alley, and Lily and Dorothy would each take a side, knocking on backdoors of houses and asking, “would you like to buy a dressed chicken?” The humiliation about killed Lily.
Up near the Highline Canal northeast of Fruitvale we found an abandoned field of gooseberries and currants. The whole family rode up in Dad’s wagon, and we stuffed ourselves on the sweet purple gooseberries. Then we filled our buckets and took them home for pies.
We got a cow and laying hens too, so we had eggs and milk. Mom made deviled eggs and wrapped them in newspaper for us to take for lunch. Lily was mortified when she opened her locker, and the eggy smell that gusted up and down the hall. Still, it was better than another bean sandwich.
After our older sisters left home, Mom shouldered the heavy housekeeping chores like hauling water in to do laundry on the scrub board, so Lily didn’t have it as bad as she might have. She did have to come home every day after school and build a fire and peel potatoes. After supper she washed the dishes, and she admits that when we lived at Fruitvale, she’d sneak the dishes out and wash them in the irrigation ditch. By the time we got to Loma, she was back to hauling the water into our already hot-as-blazes kitchen, stoking up the fire to get the water hot, and then sweating over the dishpan.
Hard work and uncomfortable conditions were probably the least of it for all of us. Lily was out in the yard one summer in a dress so worn it had holes in it. She didn’t hear the car coming down the lane behind her, or she’d have gotten out of sight. As it was, she got caught in that rag of a dress, and the driver turned out to be Dad’s cousin, a county agent from Salina. Lily was horrified to have a Kansas relation see us in such sorry straights, and when the cousin tracked Dad down, she felt even worse for Dad.
That was probably one of the few situations when Lily didn’t enjoy being social. It really hurt her that she couldn’t go to ballgames or join clubs after school because she had to catch the bus. Once in a while Dad would let Dale drive her and Norman to the football games Norman played in. Sometimes too, she’d get to spend the night with a girlfriend in town, and they would go out with a couple boys on the sly. At home Dad had a knack for heading the guys off before they even got to the house. He told them she was too young. She was seventeen, but, pretty and friendly as she was, you couldn’t blame him for worrying about his fragile baby girl. I don’t know when—or if—he planned to let her date. The situation hadn’t come up with any of the rest of us.
When she graduated, the folks were too self-conscious about their clothes to go to anything like that, so Lily went alone. The ceremony ended late, and rather than walk home in the dark, Lily spent the night with a friend. She didn’t have a way to let us know what had become of her, and Dad was so furious by the time she got home, he raked her over the coals.
She knew that Madge had sent a graduation gift and hoped for a watch. All the girls were getting watches. But the gift was a suitcase, and when Dad saw it, he said, “You’d just as well put your clothes in it and leave.” I don’t suppose he really meant it, but that’s what Lily did. She and Mom went to the employment office the next day.
Lily says, “I thought ‘Hey I can get a job because I graduated high school.’ How dumb can you be?” In 1999, Tom Brokaw would call us the “Greatest Generation” but in the prewar, no-market-for-us years, we felt more like the junk heap generation.
Someone at the employment office overheard Lily’s problems with finding a job and told her to sign up with the National Youth Administration. The NYA was similar to the WPA except that they accepted men and women sixteen to twenty-five. Richard Nixon worked for thirty-five cents an hour for the NYA in North Carolina. Lyndon Johnson in Texas got on too. The NYA accepted Lily that same day and placed her in a house on Grand with other young women in the program. They bussed her to a canning factory in the Redlands near the Colorado Monument for a time then placed her in the laundry at the Colorado General Hospital in Denver for three months through the winter. She folded sheets she took from a big mangle that dried and ironed the linens by running them through heavy, heated rollers. To round out her training she worked as a waitress at the Grand Junction railroad depot. Those skills landed her a real job at Carol’s restaurant in Delta.
Lily kept her distance after she moved out because she knew Dad was mad, and the truth was that putting Loma behind her was such a relief, she didn’t miss anything about it—not even us. It took six weeks, but Dad showed up in the driveway on Grand one day and said, “We haven’t heard from you. We wondered how you were doing.”
And that patched it up.
After World War II started, Lily’s school friend Mae called and said they ought to go to San Francisco to work in the shipyards. Anyone could work there and make real money. Better yet, Mae had a sister and brother-in-law there that Lily and Mae could live with.
The girls got on with Prefab in Shipyard #2 in 1943, building pieces of ships to be stuck in when the main builders were ready for them. Lily and Mae became tinners (sheet metal workers) assembling ship galleys with screws—not rivets. Rosie the Riveter assembled airplanes, so the shipbuilders tried to draw their own crowd with Wendy the Welder. She never caught on like Rosie.
Lily and Mae the Tinners went to school and became journeymen, but Lily would be the first to tell you not to put any stock in her title. The shipbuilding companies didn’t take time to fully train emergency war workers. Following the all-new assembly line model, trainers only showed each worker what she needed to know to do a small part of the job, like “put this screw in this hole.” The next girl down the line did the next step and so on. The line was so efficient that Lily’s crew had nothing to do but sit and play cards for three months at a time. There were no layoffs because Uncle Sam’s ships were built on a cost-plus basis, and the more people Prefab hired, the more the contractor made. Lily was disgusted to see the shipyards padding their profits, but she pulled down sixty-three dollars for a forty-eight-hour workweek, and she didn’t see that telling Prefab to keep their paycheck would help anything.
On her second night in Richmond, she met an Okie named Lloyd Womack. That’s another thing she thinks is terrible—calling people Okies. Oklahomans took a lot of ribbing about being poor, ignorant, barefoot yokels, and she didn’t like to see people put down that way, especially Lloyd. Lloyd was up and coming. He worked sheet metal too. It didn’t take long for him to be promoted to Lead Man, which put his salary up to sixty-nine a week. He was so friendly and down to earth; she went with him for a year and tied the knot. Lily was determined not to ever go back to living the way we did as kids, so right off the bat, she set their sights, “I want a house, and I want it paid for.” They got a little studio government apartment in Richmond and started socking those paychecks away.
Lloyd got his induction papers on March 11, 1944, the day they got married. He went in for his physical, and six doctors looked at their part and passed him down the line. The seventh one asked if there was anything that would keep Lloyd from serving. Lloyd said he’d hurt his ankle playing ball, and it still wasn’t right. The doctor sent him for an x-ray, and it must have shown a problem. Lloyd never got called back, but for some reason, he never got a 4-F rating (not fit to serve) either.
Getting to spend time with Lily and meet her new husband was a great treat for the folks, but the way Lloyd treated Lily, spoiled it. He was friendly to us, and he was always good to me, but he’d get awfully gruff with her and anyone else he decided needed straightening out. Mom expected that he’d be a poor husband but a good provider, and Lily says that’s just how it was. She never wanted for anything but respect and affection.
After the war Lily stayed home with her one baby—soon to be two. When she and Lloyd got laid off from their shipyard jobs, he got on making cars in a Ford plant in Richmond. Later he went to work as a pipe fitter for Standard Oil, and they had a good start on the “paid for” house Lily had ordered.
Around 1958, Lloyd took time out from running his filling station in Half Moon Bay to bring Lily and their two boys, Ronald and Richard, to see the folks. We had a big reunion picnic under the apple trees up Parachute Creek.
After Norman’s wife left him, he lived with Lily and Lloyd for four months and worked in their gas station while he got established in California. They took Fred in too for a few months before he died of cancer.