by Verlie Mae Pickens
Hello there! This is Verlie Pickens, Verlie Mae Pickens. My family, friends and I will celebrate my 101st birthday on June 11, 2017! I invite everyone in the community to celebrate with me.
In this article, I want to share with you my answers to questions that Anh Lê, a writer and journalist and a family friend, asked me.
Anh Lê: What are some of your memories from your childhood?
VP: I was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. My parents are Thomas Alfred Nisby and Lillian Lumpkin Nisby. I am the fourth child of eight. I am the second daughter of six girls.
My father and mother were beautiful, wonderful. My parents taught us well. We knew right from wrong. You knew yourselves.
We stayed home. We would go straight home from school. I remember my father sitting on the porch with his head back, his pipe in his mouth.
My father was not crazy about TV. I remember my mother. She got up to fix lunch, and she said to my father, “You watch the story for me, Tom.” And my father said, “Dubs didn’t sing.” And she said, “Dubs can’t sing every day!”
AL: What are some special memories of life in Lake Charles, Louisiana?
VP: My mother loved to work in the garden. She grew flowers and vegetables.
Each morning, she stood by the window, singing that it was time to get up. This was at 6 a.m. To wake us up, she sang mostly hymns, beautiful hymns. She sewed all of our clothes.
My father talked to the boys in the family. My mother took care of the girls.
My father didn’t let the boys go swimming in the lake, as Lake Charles is deep. Whenever my brothers did go swimming at the lake, their eyes would show. One time when they went swimming, when they came back, my father said, “You went swimming today.” How did Pop know? It showed in their eyes.
The boys went swimming naked in the lake. There was no swimming pool in Lake Charles. There were no radios. There was no electricity.
We had a wood heater for the living room and dining room. We had kerosene heaters for the bedrooms. We had kerosene lamps.
We didn’t have a telephone until my father worked at the telephone company. Before that, he worked at the lumber company.
We had no running water. We would pump the water from the well. It was hard water. I carried buckets of water for our family’s use and also to bring to the cows, pigs, chickens. We had a cistern. It caught water when it rained, and we used that water for our wash.
We had electricity when I was a big girl. When I got married, I bought for my parents and family a radio. We had a piano. We did not have a Victrola; that’s a wind-up phonograph.
We didn’t have a car. Our first car, my younger brother bought it. My father never learned how to drive. He got around with his own two feet. He walked one mile to work. He came home for lunch. He walked back to work. He came home for dinner. He slept for two hours. He then went back to work. He worked a split shift.
AL: How did your parents meet?
VP: My father lived down the road a few miles from her house. He would ride his horse by her house. One time, he saw her work in her garden. He said to her, “When you get a little older, I am going to marry you.”
AL: How long were your parents married?
VP: My parents were married for 70 some years. When my mother was little, she and her siblings were sent to different houses to live, because of economic circumstances. Different cousins took the children in, and raised them. Three girls and two boys went to one cousin. The grandfather took the baby in. My maternal grandmother helped to raise the children.
AL: Please share more about your life growing up in Lake Charles.
VP: My older brother and I picked up chips to feed the chickens. We fed corn to the chickens. We called, “chick, chick, chick,” when we were feeding the chickens.
We went uptown to get slop for the hogs. We would go to people’s homes. We knocked on their doors, and we would say, “Madam, do you have garbage for pick-up?” We put the garbage in a bucket, in a wagon that we pulled. We walked one and a half miles each way, three times a week to get the slop. The people were nice.
We staked the cows out by the railroad tracks, three blocks from our house. We staked the cows where there was grass by the railroad tracks. We let them graze there. We brought them to different places each day.
The chickens would roost on the ground. But some of them would go up to the trees at night.
Some men would steal our chickens. They would sell them to the store owned by Italian men, for 25 cents a chicken. My mother would go two or three blocks to the store, and she would say to the Italian store owner, “That chicken belongs to me; I want it back. Do you want me to call a policeman?” The store owner had to give the chicken or chickens back to her. My mother could recognize the chickens that belonged to us and had been stolen.
AL: What are the most important things you learned in school?
VP: We learned to write, read and do arithmetic. “Reading, writing, and arithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick.” Do you know that saying, that tune?
AL: Could you please share about your growing up in church in Lake Charles?
VP: I walked to church 10 blocks. We had Sunday School. We learned to read the Bible. With each year, it got higher and higher. We kids would go to Sunday School, and the Sunday morning church service.
My mother and father would go to the 11 o’clock church service. While we were in Sunday School, my mother would be cooking dinner. Dinner is the word we used for the main meal when we got home from church. We ate breakfast, dinner and supper.
AL: You were an organist and pianist in your church also.
VP: Yes, I was the organist and the pianist in our church. I learned music from a very young age. I still remember all the words and music to the hymns that I played and that we sang.
AL: How did you decide to move to San Francisco from Lake Charles?
VP: My brothers moved out. My mother went by train to visit my younger brother and his wife in San Francisco. My brother’s wife was going to have a baby, so my mother said to me, “You get yourself together and you can help your sister-in-law.”
AL: What were your first impressions of San Francisco when you arrived here?
VP: I didn’t like it.
AL: How come?
VP: It was dirty. The houses were not painted. I lived at the top of a hill, at Kearney Street and Green Street. I got off the streetcar at Stockton Street. This was 1939.
AL: What were your first impressions of Los Angeles?
VP: There was this synthetic fog. I could see some people holding lamps to help folks stay on the road.
AL: Could you please share about your job in Los Angeles.
VP: My brother was working in the shipyard in San Francisco. I wanted to work in the shipyard. But my brother didn’t want me to, as there were a lot of men there. So I wanted to work as a streetcar conductor in San Francisco. But my brother didn’t want me to work on the streetcar either. He said that people could rob and steal on the streetcar.
So I went to Los Angeles. I had lots of friends begging to get a job in Los Angeles. When I arrived there, I got a job the next day.
After the war started, people really painted up the town. People were looking for work. There were projects to give people work. There was building going on.
When I got to Los Angeles, I worked at Lockheed Aircraft, on the P-38 fast tail end. I have a model of it over there on my kitchen display shelf. I worked on riveting the tail end of the plane.
During the war, the men were drafted into the military. They went to war. The women took the men’s places at home. The men with lots of kids were not drafted.
AL: The job that you had at Lockheed, riveting the tail end of each aircraft, I believe that historians refer to you and the other women who worked there as “Rosie the Riveter.”
AL: Could you please share about Mr. Samuel Pickens, whom you married.
VP: Mr. Pickens was from Lake Charles. When he came out of the service, he went back to Lake Charles. He went to our house and talked to my mother. He said, “Where is everybody?” My mother knew that he was looking for me. I was in California at that time.
My mother said that he was carrying a cardboard suitcase. (Ms. Verlie Mae Pickens is chuckling and laughing, as she shares this anecdote.) His brother and sister were already in San Francisco. He took a train from Lake Charles to San Francisco.
After he moved to San Francisco, Mr. Pickens and I got acquainted for three years before we married.
AL: What makes for a good marriage?
VP: Be good to each other. Mind each other. That’s how you get along.
AL: Could you please share about your jobs in San Francisco.
VP: I first worked for a medical doctor and his family. I cooked breakfast and dinner for this family. I then worked at Blum’s Bakery. They made baked goods, candy and ice cream. They also had a restaurant. I built the cakes.
AL: What about your travels in the United States?
VP: When Mr. Pickens retired, he and I bought a mobile home.
AL: What about the most memorable travels?
VP: We travelled to 49 states in the United States. Both he and I drove our mobile home together. I love driving. Our country is so beautiful, very beautiful. We saw so much beauty together. Our country is vast.
One time, I went back to Lake Charles. I took a special bus, which was quicker because it made fewer stops. I went home to help my mother, as she was ill at that time.
AL: What are your impressions of the United States today?
VP: I think that the U.S. is in better shape than it was years ago. It has many strengths. It also faces some challenges. I have strong faith.
AL: I notice that you have several photos and mementos of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on your refrigerator door. Could you please share about President Obama and First Lady Michelle.
VP: I am blessed to live long enough to see a Black man be in the White House. President Obama was a great president. First Lady Michelle Obama is great, too.
Last November, I was hoping to see a lady President, but she didn’t make it. I don’t know how the new president got in. But they wanted a change. They got a change all right.
AL: What about the state of the world?
VP: The world is in a mess. We hear about the problem with ISIS. There is killing and war and more war. I wish it would straighten out. The killing just recently in Manchester, England. It’s in terrible shape. Men making all these bombs. Sad, sad, really sad.
AL: What changes have you seen in the Bayview district of San Francisco?
VP: They are still trying to build more and more with every little piece of land that’s available or left in the Bayview and the nearby areas.
AL: What changes have you seen in San Francisco?
VP: The homeless. Why so many? In San Francisco and in Oakland, we see the homeless living under the freeways and on the streets. The homeless have to run from place to place. Some streets are worse than others. So sad.
Why can’t we do something about it? I am not the mayor of San Francisco, I am not the governor of California. But can’t we do something about the homeless?
Some of the homeless are veterans. Some of the homeless veterans were exposed to Agent Orange in Viet Nam during the war there. The Viet Nam veterans who were affected by Agent Orange, could the government take care of them? Can they go to a hospital for help? So sad.
AL: What are your words of wisdom for young people?
VP: Go to school. Get an education. But for some, even when the young people go to college and graduate from college, some can’t find a job.
AL: You recently went to Atlanta to attend your great grandson’s graduation from college.
VP: I travelled with my sister Vera to Atlanta to attend my great grandson Jason’s graduation from Morehouse College. I was able to go to the program on Saturday to celebrate the 150th year of Morehouse College. But on Sunday, it was raining, so I didn’t go to the Commencement program which was held outdoors. But my family and I celebrated my great grandson’s graduation.
AL: Last year, you and your family had a family reunion and visited Washington, D.C. Could you please share about that trip?
VP: Over 60 members of my family and I visited Washington, D.C., for the July 4th weekend last year. We visited the White House. President Obama was working in his Oval Office. We didn’t get to meet him. I wish we could have. Some of my family members did see President Obama’s family dog, Sunny, near an elevator.
We went on all the tours that emphasized African American history: The Museum of African American History at the Smithsonian, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument; the FDR Memorial; the African American Civil War Museum. We had lunch at the Lincoln Temple Church. We took a boat ride to Alexandria. We visited Georgetown. We passed by the Kennedy Center. We took a tour of Mt. Vernon.
My nieces, Paula and Ina, went to college at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and became medical doctors. I am very blessed to have a large extended family of nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews. We have always been close, loving, and caring to one another. My sister Mercedes passed last year. My sister Vera and I visit each other. I am very blessed.
AL: I know that you are very active and involved in the community. You are regarded as a leader in the community. You are deeply respected and are a role model.
VP: I am involved in the Network for Elders. Ms. Beverly Taylor, a long time dear friend, leads the Network.
I also attend meetings of Senior Action Network. I volunteered at Senior Action Network with Juanita Negreta and Hui Truong in your classes for Seniors in San Francisco when you served as the director of Senior University.
I love to volunteer at the Dr. George Davis Senior Center in the Bayview every week. Cathy Davis, the director, does a wonderful job of heading it. We had a great party there to celebrate my 100th birthday right after the new center opened. I also love to prepare a delicious peach cobbler dessert for the annual Black Cuisine feast.
I like to attend church services. I am very thankful to God.
Ms. Verlie Mae Pickens, we wish you a very happy birthday! We wish you much good health, and abundant joy and happiness, Ms. Pickens!
© Copyright May 2017 Verlie Mae Pickens and Anh Lê
Ms. Verlie Mae Pickens can be reached via Anh Lê, a San Francisco writer, journalist, and activist born in Viet Nam who has worked in the African American community for decades, especially with seniors and young people. He can be reached at AnhLe213@yahoo.com.