Monkton 102-year-old shares some of life’s lessons
MONKTON — On Sunday, Monkton resident Lillian Williams will be 102 years old.
“I just got old the last couple of years,” said Williams, who holds her petite frame upright, laughs readily and speaks with a sparkle in her eyes.
As a child of four, she survived the deadly flu pandemic of 1918 that claimed 20 million to 50 million worldwide. She was 14 when the stock market crashed on “Black Thursday” in 1929, 27 when the United States entered World War II, 55 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and 94 when Barack Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States.
Family memory ties her back to the Civil War as well.
“Grandma always said she was born three years after Lee surrendered,” said Williams, who is African American.
Williams was born Nov. 27, 2014, in Philadelphia, the third child of Mary and Clyde Berkeley, a homemaker and a cook. The growing family moved to Pittsfield, Mass. Things changed when Lillian was around five, and her father returned to Philadelphia in search of work.
“The father abandoned them,” said Williams’ daughter-in-law Mary Williams.
But when Lillian Williams talks about her childhood she is characteristically upbeat.
“We had so much fun! I remember my childhood with a lot of pleasure,” said Williams, who laughs when describing games of hide and seek or jacks, the fun of exploring nearby woods, and the thrill of watching the pianist accompanying Saturday morning silent movies banging out a thrilling chase scene or playing softly when things got sad.
Williams was raised by a close-knit extended family. After her father left, her mother went to work fulltime. Her grandmother pitched in to earn money and take care of the children. But five youngsters proved too many to handle under just one roof, so Williams was raised by close family friends “Aunty” Alice and “Uncle” Joe Cope.
“We were all five in the same town, and we went to the same church and for a period of time we all went to the same school,” said Williams, who described running back and forth between the two homes as an easy part of growing up.
“As soon as I was any size at all, I could walk over there. My younger brother and I were especially tight, and he used to be at Aunty’s house as much as his own.”
Williams describes the neighborhood she grew up in as one in which neighbors of different backgrounds and ethnicities mixed easily.
“It was a European neighborhood. We had Lithuanians, Polish, French, Italians and Jews all in our neighborhood,” she said. “There wasn’t this business of segregation where it’s demeaning. I didn’t experience that. Everybody black had Caucasian close friends because there was no real black neighborhood, there weren’t that many black people in Pittsfield to start off with, and so we lived all over the city.
“My closest friends were Lithuanian and French and those families welcomed me into their homes.”
Growing up, the societal challenge that made the greatest impression on Williams was the Great Depression.
“When that happened, when the Depression hit, it was not a matter of race at all. Everyone was suffering. It was more your circumstances, whether your husband had a job,” she said.
As a high school student in the 1930s, Williams excelled at academics, learned to play piano and organ, and as part of the kind of homework typical in that era memorized long passages from famous poems and speeches — many of which she can recite to this day.
When asked, Williams recites part of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “In the Morning,” a poem that traces how America has changed. The Poetry Foundation sites Dunbar, who wrote from the 1880s through his early death in 190, as the nation’s “first great black poet.” But for decades his work had been rejected because much of it had been written in dialect.
In ninth grade, Williams was elected class president. And as a teenager she wanted to go to college and become a teacher.
But change came again. “Aunty” Alice died, and Williams moved back in with her mother, grandmother and siblings. The Depression made hard times harder, and there wasn’t money for more schooling.
Williams graduated from high school in 1935 and the next year she married Clarence Williams. The couple lived for a time in Pittsfield and then moved to Springfield, Mass., where Clarence worked as a mechanic.
Williams described her late husband as an innately skilled mechanic but with no formal training.
“If somebody didn’t know how to do something, they’d say, ‘Call Clarence and he’ll figure out what’s wrong,’” said Williams, who also remembered that unusual for husbands of his day, hers was willing to help hang up diapers. Diapers at that time were washed by hand on a washboard.
“I didn’t think of that as being so awful because that’s how everybody did it,” said Williams.
Williams also noted that back then everybody made music for themselves “because you couldn’t get it somewhere else.” Everybody had a piano. “As a matter of fact you were more apt to have a piano than a telephone.” And she wonders why that’s disappeared so much from family life nowadays.
Music continued to be important to Williams her whole life. In Springfield, she played the organ for her church and gave beginning piano lessons.
Lillian and Clarence raised five children, all but one still surviving. Clarence died in 1999 at age 88. At 99, Williams decided to leave Massachusetts and move to Monkton, to live with son Ed and daughter-in-law Mary Williams. The extended family got together for a big birthday bash the year Williams turned 100.
WORDS TO LIVE BY
Williams says she’s outlived all of her siblings by decades and isn’t sure why. But over and over again, she stressed taking a positive attitude toward life, being realistic in your expectations and taking responsibility for your own actions, and surrounding yourself with good friends and loving family members.
To sit with her even for five minutes is to feel her sound common sense and her lively sense of humor.
With the exception of a few years as an x-ray technician at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Williams focused her life on being a mother and homemaker. And when asked what wisdom she has to share after more than a century of living, she responded as both a mother and a citizen and spoke eloquently to how learning to live rightly begins at home.
“Teaching your children to accept others as equals is about the most important thing I can think of because if you learn to treat everyone the way you want to be treated what can be better? … Don’t hold any false feelings about yourself like you’re superior or you’re inferior like some people will try to make you feel.
“To dislike somebody because maybe you have more education than they do or because you have a nicer house than they do — are you a better person than they are? Vainglory I guess they call that. Glory that gets you nowhere.
“But to love your neighbor as yourself. Sometimes that’s the reason why people get to be friends because they treat each other with equal respect.
“Just think about how it would be if everyone treated everybody the way they wanted to be treated. I can’t think of a better world.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at email@example.com.