Once Upon A Time – The Life Of Betty (Potter) Willson #5


The following is a transcription of over a hundred handwritten pages of my mother’s remembrances journaled in a notebook over a span of years after reaching the age of 88. The words and sentence structure for the most part remain as originally written vividly projecting her personality, the flavor of the landscape and her view of the times.

It was February when Bob managed to get a cheap car and we went to Alice’s in San Francisco.    They had a nice house, we only stayed a week, Alice made me miserable.  She complained about the children and what it cost to feed so many and Charley was drunk most of the time.  I drink and I didn’t mind if others do, but I can’t stand it when one cannot hold their liquor, so we left with no place to go.


 We camped out sleeping in our car with our three little ones in front of Richmond Housing Authority office,  (a publichousing project built before and during World War II as a housing for defense workers from the shipyards), I refused to move till they found us housing, one with furniture.  They found us an apartment, we were there for the better part of a year.  At that time I was ill most of the time, passing out now and then and very weak.  I put Mike and Kay in day care, Bob was working long haul and not home many nights.  When the guy he hauled for failed to pay him one time he found another job at Lincoln Lumber.


We moved to the Hall Street Projects just off High Street.  While living there we made friends with Betty and Ike Nelson, they had children about the same age as ours.  Bob began drinking on weekends and I began to be bitchy, we fought a lot.  Mike started school at Melrose.  I would walk him taking both girls to school because he had to cross two railroad tracks and San Leandro Blvd, it was dangerous.  We also would go and him after school.  The housing projects was a terrible place to live as people would let older children bully the young ones.  One day Mike fell off the top of a slide that was in the playground.  One of the Nelson children came and said he wouldn’t wake up.  I picked him up and brought him home.  He had a large cut on his head, but had gained some consciousness.  Bob came home and we took him to Highland Hospital.  Dr. Parson said he had a 9 inch fracture on the side of his head from the forehead to below his ear.  Thank God the fluid drained on the outside instead of on his brain.  He was kept in bed for three weeks.  The first day he went outside some big kid hit him on the head with a ball.  Bob said we were moving, we went the next Saturday to see houses.  One in San Leandro and in the hills of San Leandro.  Bob said the payments would be to high so we applied for a VA load plus I still had my $500.


The next Saturday Bob went house hunting, he came home and said he bought a house and asked me to sign the papers.  I did and asked if I could go see our house, but he said the people wouldn’t be out till next week.  We put the $500 down and the next week moved to the house.  What a letdown, very small, two bedrooms on a corner.  When I told him it was not my dream house, he replied it’s only $45 a month and has an apartment basement we can rent to single person.  The house with an unattached rickety leaning garage at 7964 Greenly Drive was on a steep hillside 5200 sq. ft. lot on the corner of Shone Ave.   The 100 foot long lot was approximately 40 ft. wide on Greenly Dr. and 60 ft. across the back.   The upstairs having something less than 700 square feet, the front room 9 x 16, dining room 9 x 8, kitchen 9 x 10.  The two bedrooms pretty much corresponding in size having a bathroom with tub between them.  The back bedroom having the larger closet 2 x 6, the front bedroom having a small 2 x 3 closet.  The basement stairs were more like a ladder from the dining room downstairs to an unfinished laundry area with a cast iron double sink leading to a downstairs bathroom with just a toilet and shower that opened to a 9 x 5 kitchen with a sink, a gas stove, folding wall table and a water heater.  The downstairs kitchen opened to a 9 x 14 bedroom/living room with an outside entrance door.   We had to buy furniture, a bed for up and downstairs, 3 chest of drawers, army bunk beds for the kids, we already had a crib for Nancy.  Bought a table, six chairs, a sofa and 2 chairs. We had to make do with what we acquired.


The day we moved in we lost Nancy in the tall grass.  It would be our home from 1947 to 1980.  Next door Diamond and Bob Pepitone lived in a brand new house, 2 bedroom with a nice front yard and a large back yard.  They had two children Kay and Nancy’s age, Milton and Esther and a new baby Faye and later they had two more Christine and Diane.  Bob continued to work for Lincoln Lumber, sometimes delivering enough lumber for a whole house.  Later when taking Kay to Kindergarten on the first day of school Diamond and I meant Wilma Triplet and the following year we meant Natalie Calhoun who had two boys Stevie and John.  John who was the same age as Wilma’s boy Chucky and refused to go into the school until Nancy took his hand and lead him in.   Everyone came to my house for coffee, it start a long friendship that lasted for the rest of our lives.


We didn’t have a Sunday school near so the Episcopal ministers wife and I started one at her house.  I taught every Sunday and helped raise money for a church.  We raised enough to buy and old building and the parish bought some ground at Keller and Mountain Blvd. There was no freeway then.  We moved the building to the lot and opened a Sunday School and church services.  Oak Knoll naval hospital was next door and San Leandro Mental hospital was up the hill above the end of Keller.  We were told to bring our children in the house when the siren sounded.  Both are gone now.  I gave whist parties and teas to raise money for a proper church with the help of other Episcopal Churches.  We finally did it,  Reverend Father Hill held high church services and we used the old building for Sunday school. Later when I received Great Aunt Annie’s inheritance I bought a organ and donated it in my grandchildren’s name.


I was very active in PTA, membership chairman for about 7 years. District Chairman for two years.  I received a life membership when the girls were in Frick Jr. High.  All those yeas I was teaching square dancing at school.  I gave up PTA when Gary went into high school and started to work at Frick in the snack bar.  I was a campfire girl leader for several years’ having two groups and received a life membership in Campfire.  I was a very busy for a stay at home housewife.  In fact what little house work I did was between 4 p.m. and when Bob got home.  Bob was very jealous, he was always accusing me of affairs that I never had, the principle of Burckhalter, the milk man, the ice man, later my employers, any man I happen to talk to.


During our first year in the house we had Charlie O’Tool enclose the porch off the kitchen adding a small room.  He used a broken measuring tape and the six foot room ended up being five feet six inches wide. I had to cut a bed to fit into for Mike to have a room. Later we finally rented our lousy downstairs apartment to a lady.  She had too many gentlemen callers and when I caught Kay and Mike sitting on the basement stairs listening to the action I told her I needed the room for Mike.  While Kay, Nancy and I were at a campfire luncheon Bob rented out the apartment.  We had agreed it would only be for one person, but when we came home I found out he had rented to a couple with 2 children.  Lieutenant LeRoy Spears and his wife Polly, a son Robert and a 8 months old daughter Judy.  One look at those beautiful children, it was love at first sight.  Lt. Spears was to go to Okinawa and then in about 2 month his wife would join him.  The Korean War started and he was not allowed to send for his family.  Polly Spears was more like a sister to me than my own.  Polly and the children lived with us from April until December.  We shared meals, washing, entertainment and friends.  She joined our coffee group  just before Christmas.  I missed them very much, later every time they were on the west coast they would spend time with us.



I should mentioned the we paid $50 for the piano when Gary was little.  He could play anything he heard and would watch Liberace and copy him.  When he graduated from high Castlemont he played his own Bolero.  We bought the first TV in the neighborhood at a Wisemans Store.  Mr. Wiseman said he would take $20 off our payments for every customer Bob sent him that bought one.  I guess you know all the fellows Bob worked with needed a TV.  The two stations never came clear with our 1o inch screen, the box was 24; inches wide and 18 inches tall.  Alice and Charlie left Santa Rosa and stayed in the apartment for a while.  They were there for about 6 months.  No rent, no help with the house work or cooking.  They along with bob drank constantly.  They finally went to Pats in LA.  Charlie died of alcoholism there.  Mike Julian hadn’t been separated from Irene, he had TB. And no place to stay.  Bob brought him home.  I took care of him for a couple months, scared the children would get it.  I went to the T.B. association, ( I had for years filled envelopes with stamps for them).  They told me they couldn’t do anything for him, to call the health department. (I never stuffed another envelope).

Mother borrowed $1500 from Pete and she and Marvin bought a five acre farm with a small house just north of Sebastopol.   We visited them often taking Alice and Charlie and the boys with us.  Alice and Charlie sold their San Francisco house and moved to Santa Rosa.  We would take the Richmond Ferry to San Rafael.  Two beers, then at Cotati 2 more, then Sebastopol where the railroad tracks ran down the middle of the street, then 2 more beers.  One foggy night we didn’t even see Sebastopol and ended up on the railroad tracks going out of town.  She and Marvin sold the place and paid Pete off.  They went to Wisconsin to see Marvin’s son then came back to Yreka to the Apartment house.  She died shortly afterward in 1952 with a heart attack.  She loved Marvin, they liked the same things.  I doubt if she loved my Dad, but she respected him.  After mother passed he did all my canning for me.  We were surprised once in a while to find a cricket in the jam.  By the way he got kicked out of the rest home for having sex with the female attendants at the age of 88.



Loretta –

I guess I should tell about Loretta Bob’s sister…When Bob and I were first married Grace told us Loretta had married an Italian, Dino Tognozzzi and that they had a bar at 3rd and Howard St. in San Francisco.  It was a wino skid row place and where we stayed when we visited them was a fire trap.  We visited them and went to the Treasure Island World’s Fair.  We didn’t go back until after the war and by then Dino owned three bars in good locations, a Victorian house on Steiner St  (is now a S.F. showcase) and the American Poultry building.  Lots of money, but Loretta spent most of her time drinking and sleeping in the back room of the bars.  In 1946 Dino took a lot of Black Market goods to Italy.  He bought two square blocks in the city of Montecatini, a resort town, he was put in jail for seven years.  While in jail his son ran the bars and didn’t pay any taxes on the income.  When Dino came home the government took two of the bars and the poultry business.  It left him with the house and a bar on Van Ness Avenue.  We would go there once in a while.  Dino would bring Loretta and all the customer in the bar to our house.  It embossed me as they were loud and the women were ladies of the night.  He would leave Loretta telling me to sober her up.  She hated me but loved her brother.  She use very foul language and when Bob wasn’t around would cuss me up one side and down the other.  Sometimes I would make Bob take her back to San Francisco.  Dino finally died, he drank himself to death.  Loretta solid the bar and let the Victorian house go for taxes.  She married George McCurdy when she got 1/3 of the money from the sale of the property in Italy.  A quarter of a million, she gave us five thousand.  Don’t ask me where it went I don’t know.  She and George drank up the rest.  She fell out of a window drunk and the fall killed her.  We and Grace buried her ashes on William’s (her father) grave in Gilroy.



Bob would cash his check on Friday at a bar on east 14th St. then go to Ryan’s a family bar and forget to come home til late.  Forgetting we needed groceries for we were always short on groceries come Friday.  It would most often lead to a fight.  What really hurt was Bob took one bar fly home, name was Mary.  She gave gonorrhea, he gave it to me.  I went to the doctor Wolfson, he treated me but told me Bob would have to be treated.  I was angry hurt and felt unclean.  Bob excuse was he wanted to see what another women was like.  We quarreled and he shoved me out the door.  I was so angry he locked me out, that I broke the glass window on the dining room door.  Cut my hand and fainted.  I truly believe it was the only time he cheated on me, (not counting Henrietta.


Cabin –

In 1954 we bought an acre of land at Buckhorn ridge.  We built a lean-to and an outhouse.  Guess what we camped out.  We helped form a water company so we could have running water.  We would go up one or two times a month.  Sometimes Grace and Julian, (her husband after Kelly died) would join us.  We built a sleeping shack.  I think it was more of a drinking shack as Bob and Pepitone or Bob and George would go up there and drink themselves stupid.  Eventually they build a cabin with the wood from where Bob worked and my inheritance from Aunt Annie.


I admit I was a constant nagger about his drinking.  Our neighbor Bob Pepitone was no help, he was a wino.  One day Bob and Pep set in the front room, running down women.  I was cleaning the stove and  I got tired of hearing them so I dump the dirty water from the cleaning on Pepitone.  Even threw more as he ran for home. No hard feelings though, he brought me my Orchid the next day.  After Lincoln folded Bob worked out of the Union Hall for a while then went to work for Eastbay Lumber.  When it went under he went to work for Inter Bay. Contractors were buying direct from the mills.  In one year he worked for several different companies, enough to drive anyone to drink. We continued building the cabin, getting lumber at cost from East Bay and Interbay Lumber yards.  It was three rooms and bath with a shower.  One big room 20 x 16 living room kitchen area and two bedrooms with a close t between.  One larger than the other and a deck along one side.  We had water and electricity.


After Gary graduated from high school I quit all my activities and went to work in the school cafeteria, Frick, Castlemont and Hamilton.  At Hamilton I had a heart angina attack and was off for three months.  When I went back to work I was at Kings Junior High 2 years.  I found a summer job at Collins Floor and Window shade store.  I learned a lot.  I had to quit as Bob was jealous.  I was working for me.  I took a test to see what I would be good at, rated higher than any man taking the test in Plumbing, electric and carpentry.  I found a job managing a maternity shop on Telegraph Ave.


My Great Great Aunt Annie and Olive passed away and I received one fifth of my mother’s inheritance.  First from Annie I bought the Plymouth and paid off the house.  Put Kay through computer school, she finished her computer school and was working in San Francisco.  March of 1961 Kay married John Ove.  She gave us our first granddaughter Cynthia.  Bob thought the sun rose and shone in that baby.  Gary brought his band home, Nancy was going to college.  My angina was getting worst and Bob wad drinking heavy so I went to my Aunt Lily’s leaving the mess in Nancy and Bob’s hands.  Poor Nan she ended up being a scapegoat.


Gary had married Kay Rice and when Scott was to be born I went back east.  First to Oklahoma City for Kay’s baby shower then Atlantic City Georgia to see Polly and Roy.  I spent a week with them on Sand Mountain, then back to Oklahoma City for Scott’s birth.  I learned to croquet while there.  Bob and Nancy came to pick me up and on the way home we saw the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon.  I got very sic again with angina brought on by the high altitude.


In 1963 I got the rest of my money from Aunt Olive.  I gave Nancy a Wedding gift, bought her new furniture, paid for the cabin and a new T.V., gave Gary and Kay some money and bought Kay a new washer and dryer.  Nancy married Don Crowder in November the day after Kennedy was assassinated.  Kay was maid of honor, she was seven month pregnant with Mary.  I was working at the maternity shop.  Brenda was born and Kay was having trouble with John.  He was on drugs and would push her around.  Nancy put Don through school, then had Sarah and Bryan.  Don demanded a divorce and Nancy was on her own.


Bob was drinking very heavy and smoking a lot.  Life was miserable.  I left Bob and moved to a small apartment not far from where I worked.  Kay took Bob to a couple of AA meetings.  He sobered up and came to see me, promised to quit smoking and drinking.  He did and I came home.



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