My name is Maye Wiggins, and I was born in July 8, 1945. My Mom had me at a place called Faith Cottage in Asheville, North Carolina. I found out later it was a home for unwed mothers. I didn’t know then what “unwed” meant, and I didn’t know what “illegitimate” meant. I found that out later. But my mother went there and she had me, and then she gave me away.
She sent me four miles straight up the road to Eliada Orphanage. She sent me straight up there when I was two months old. Miss Rath, my matron at Eliada, was the one who told me later on who I was, and what I was. She was the one who took care of us babies. I think Miss Rath was the one who gave me my name “Lillie Peaches,” or when she was angry, “Lillie Maye Peaches” (laughs). She said it was the only fruit she could get me to eat. I guess she really loved us–she sure had her hands full with a bunch of us to worry about and take care of.
My mother had sent my older brother Roy to Eliada when he was three. Later on I remember asking him, “How did you know when I arrived? How did you know I was your sister?” And he told me that when he was five they took him to the baby dormitory in the Main Administration building and showed me to him. And then they let him hold me, which I thought was pretty cool.
And then I asked him, “Did you love me, what did you think of me?” And he said he thought I was the cutest thing he ever saw. He said he knew he really had something, because he had me. And when he got older, it gave him a reason to keep going, because he knew he had to take care of me. So now I’m 56 years old and he’s still taking care of me (laughs). He’s still trying to take care of me!
The Early Years
I remember the Main Building well. There was this huge living room with big, old fashioned, over stuffed couches. It had worn wooden floors, with stairs running up and down the front and back of the house.
I remember getting dressed up every Sunday and going to church. Wearing those flouncy dresses with the great big bows. I remember Dad Compton there, wanting to tie our bows. He loved to have his little girls around him. He had this huge overstuffed chair that he loved to sit in. And he would call all of us his “little gypsies.”
Even though we called him “Dad Compton” you knew that there was something very stern about him. Now that I’m a grown woman and have children of my own, I know he wasn’t that “Daddy” figure that you could just go run and jump on his lap and be coddled and loved. But he loved us in his own way, and we were his little princesses. He was tough—he was very tough with us. I remember him being strict if you misbehaved. He wouldn’t let us run around a lot. He wanted us to be these prissy little things.
And that was very hard for me to do as I grew up. I remember that because I wanted to be just like my brother (laughs)! It was like I didn’t know why I was born a girl. I should have been born a boy so I could be more like Roy. Now don’t get me wrong, I love being a woman. But back then I wanted to be what I thought my brother wanted me to be. I thought I needed to be this ballplayer or something because he loved sports so much. You know, maybe if I was more “boyish” he would want to be with me. But I found out later he really liked having a frilly sister.
I would see him every day. We all went to the Main dining room for our meals. This big bell out back would ring, and we would all go by our department to eat. And I would always look for him. You weren’t supposed to get out of line, but once in a while I would run to go hug him. And I’d get in trouble, but I’d do it anyway. Or he would get out of line and run to hug me. Two or three times a day we would see each other. But we weren’t allowed to go to each other’s dormitory. The girls and boys weren’t allowed to mix, only during meals.
The only time we were allowed to be together was when they wanted to show us off for the photographers. Then we would cling, we would literally cling to those moments. “The photographer is coming today,” he would say. He would come running to me and say, “Get all pretty, we’re gonna get our picture taken. We get to be together!” And we would cling.
All that we did together as we grew older, he was all I wanted…he was all I wanted to be with. I wanted to be just like him. I idolized him. I worshipped the ground he walked on. I mean he was this huge God to me. And I know now that’s wrong, but he was. I had something a lot of those kids there didn’t have. I had a brother. And he was right here. And the other girls were envious. They all wanted to be his sister. They all wanted to be my friend. Nancy Gentry, who was my best friend, thought Roy was her brother too.
I remember Mama Edith lived in the cottage on the mountain. We weren’t allowed to go there unless we were invited. Now this was after Dad died in 1948. Mama Edith was really cool, but she didn’t come down from that cottage very much. But sometimes we would take off and go see her. I remember one day two or three of us took off, we were supposed to be out in the field, but we took off and knocked on her back door and asked her to cook us some waffles. And she’d see us kids coming and she’s start getting that old-fashioned waffle iron out. And she’d sneak us in through the back door and let us sit there and eat waffles. Oh, God! Never in my life have I eaten waffles like that.
I remember her kitchen more then anything else. It was very small, but there was always room for us. I felt safe in the kitchen. We would climb and sit on those steep stairs in the back and knock politely on the door until she would come and let us in. We were like little mice. “Mama Compton, we want some waffles (laughs).” You weren’t supposed to be away from your dormitory, but she never told on us.
I asked Roy about that the other day, I said, “Do you remember Mama Edith’s waffles?” Oh, God yeah! Nobody made waffles like her. I remember when they opened Waffle House we thought we could get waffles like that. I even tried buying a waffle iron like hers. Nobody could make it like she could. God, they were big, thick, fluffy. It was awesome!
I remember Grace Green used to say, and I don’t know why she said this, but she said she didn’t think Roy and I should be there. Why did she say that? She was always trying to…she cared about the kids. She was so loving. If I can say I learned to love, I learned it from Miss Green.
I remember she used to let us joke with her because of her accent. You know she was from Canada, and she had the Canadian “eh?”, and we would all go “bee!” and all do it in unison sometimes. She would just laugh. She got to know what really made you tick. She would just sit down at your level and talk to you. We had a big dollhouse on the playground, it was our favorite spot, and she would come down there and sit in the chairs with us and talk and play. She had tea parties with us.
And when we had help do the laundry, I remember we used one of those old ringer washers that you had to put clothes through. Holy moly, this is telling my age! And she’d come down and help us carry the clothes outside to the clothesline, because we were just little ‘bitty kids.
One time she went with us on a hike. There were mountains all around the orphanage and so there were hiking trails. And we picked these crabapples, these little tiny green crabapples. She told us if we ate them it would give us a bellyache. But we ate them anyway. We would run and hide from her and we’d eat ‘em.
Listen to this. This is so cool. She said if you eat the crabapples, you’re going to have to take caster oil. We all hated caster oil. It made you…yuck! It made you…ohh! It was the cure all for everything. You got sick, you drank a dose of caster oil (laughs). I would never give that to a kid today, never ever, ever, ever! And I remember us taking off and we hoarded those crabapples, and when we got back we were dying. And I remember her making us drink the caster oil, and she said we couldn’t go on hikes anymore. “But Miss Green, we promise we won’t eat anymore crabapples, we really promise! (laughs)”
But she wouldn’t whip us. A lot of the matrons would punish us, they would yell at us. Miss Green didn’t do that. She was in charge of everybody, but it seemed like she was always with us little girls. I believe she would have adopted all of us, and called us her own, if she could have. I guess if I really leaned to care about people, I learned it from her.
My Other Family
When we would get to go on vacation, I always took Nancy with me. Nancy’s mom and my mom were best friends. We would go visit my mom’s brother or her aunt. Aunt Margaret had a car, so she would come and take us to the park. Uncle Jay, who lived in Biltmore section of Asheville, he would come and take us to the city.
So we would split our time between Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jay. She was a school teacher for over 40 years, and she taught me my multiplication tables. She didn’t let me have fun with my cousins. We did school stuff. I was like, “Gollee, get me back to my Uncle Jay. At least I can play with my cousins.” And I would run away up the street to my uncle’s house, because my cousins lived close by. Roy’s oldest son lives there now. They just refurbished the whole house. My grandfather built that house.
You were allowed one week of vacation from the orphanage if you had somebody who would come and get you—if you had relatives. Our mother would come once a year, and that’s the only time she would come and see us. She was the one that had to come and take us. So she would get us, and then we would go to either Uncle Jay’s or Aunt Margaret’s house. Most of the time she would just drop us off, maybe spend a little time with us. We really didn’t know who she was. I didn’t. Roy knew her better then I did. She was a stranger to me.
Lots of times I would take Nancy with me on summer vacation. I guess we thought we were sisters, because we came to the orphanage at the same time. I always took Nancy with me, if her mother would let her.
Think about that. He we are in an orphanage, and we have to get permission from our moms. They didn’t want us, they gave us away, but we always had to get their permission. It was really strange.
Then there was the monthly visit. My aunt and uncle would take turns coming to see us. It was only for a couple of hours. They would always bring me something, and they really acted like they loved me. Like they really loved me A LOT.
Most of the kids didn’t have anybody. On visiting day there weren’t that many people showed up. We would all run to the windows and wait to see who was coming. And I always knew Aunt Margaret’s grey Chevrolet…I can see it. But I would wait for it to drive up. Or it might be Uncle Jay, but I don’t remember what type of car he had. Aunt Margaret came almost all the time.
The visits were only for a couple of hours, but she would stay the whole time. Sometimes she would bring clothes, sometimes she would bring a dress, sometimes she would bring candy or cookies. But she would always bring enough for me to share with the girls in my room.
You have to realize, in the Junior Department I had to share my room with ten or twelve other girls. We were all in these big bunk beds. You would hear every noise, every creak, every turn. To this day when we go on Christian retreats I won’t stay in a dormitory.
“Strike it Rich”
I went to New York in 1952 to appear on a game show called “Strike it Rich.” There was David Carter, Ann Arrowood, myself, and Miss Green. Bill Miller, who played for the New York Yankees, sponsored the trip. I remembered him even before you showed me his picture: tall, good looking guy, dark hair, long trench coat—and he had the greatest smile. He always had a smile on his face. He had this hat, this cool hat, like Humphrey Bogart, you know? And he really liked us kids.
There were people who came to the orphanage and pretended to like us, “oh what little darlings, blah, blah, blah…” But we knew. Bill was just a real guy, he talked to you like a real person. He would toss a baseball around with the kids. And it wasn’t just the boys. The girls too.
I remember getting a new green coat for the trip. And Miss Green telling me I had to remember my manners. Always say, “Yes, Ma’am, No Ma’am, and Yes Sir, No Sir.” And I said, “Yeah, okay.”
I got sick on the airplane, and she kept putting these brown paper bags in front of me. I was barfing the whole trip. I couldn’t wait for the plane to land so I could get off.
When we got into New York, everything was so huge. It was around the holidays, because I remember seeing a Santa Claus on every corner. All these people ringing bells. We took the subway, and that was the coolest thing! I mean I was this dumb little hillbilly in this huge city.
I had to room with Ann. She was like the big sister, but David was like…he kinda took the place of my brother. He carried our suitcases—he did everything he could. He was a scrawny little thing then back then. But he took care of us. Maybe I was the sister he never had. I don’t know if he had any sisters or not. I remember that if my brother wasn’t there, David was. It always seemed to be that way. It’s funny what stays in a person’s mind.
And then we went on the show. I was telling my kids this, I said “I can see it like it was yesterday.” Here we were, standing on a stage, looking out, and you can see all these people staring back at you, and you’re going, “Yeah, uh-huh.”
You have to understand, we weren’t even allowed to watch television at the orphanage. And I was going, “Yeah,” and Miss Green kept telling me, “Yes, Ma’am!” and I went, “Yes, Ma’am, YEAH,” and I’m looking and going, “Wooow.” All of these people out there looking at me, and I thought, “What are they staring at?” They were staring at us three little country bumpkins trying to answer questions (laughs)!
Warren Hull was the emcee of “Strike it Rich.” Nowadays nobody knows who I’m talking about when I say Warren Hull. And he says, “Lilly?” And I say, “Yeah?” And right away I know I’m going to be in big trouble (laughs). And he hands me this little box with shampoo in it. And I’m squeezing this shampoo bottle trying to listen to this guy ask me a question. I’m just squeezing it everywhere, and everyone is staring at me.
And he asks, “Do you know the nursery rhyme to Little Boy Blue?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he says, “Little Boy Blue, come…?” And I say, “…come blow your horn, the sheeps in the meadow, and the cows in the corn. This little boy, looks after the sheep, he’s under the haystack, and he’s fast asleep.”
Now I have to tell you, I had memorized all of my Bible verses. If he had asked for Bible verses, man, I was ready! You name it, I knew ‘em. And then he says “YES!” And people started clapping, and I wondered why are they all clapping? All I said was, “Little Boy Blue come Blow Your Horn.”
And then they asked David some questions, and Ann too, but mostly they asked Bill. I was standing next to this great big tall man, and I don’t think I left his side. I just stood next to him like a little twerp. And I thought, “Poor guy, he has to answer all these questions.”
Afterwards, I remember us going to see a radio station. I found out later it was Radio City Music Hall. And I had to get up on stage. They put this big microphone in front of me, and I was like, “Okay, what it this?” And I’m talking into this thing, telling my story. And I remember saying I couldn’t get over how many Santa Clauses there were on every street corner in the city.
Well, I don’t know how much money we won, but I know that we won a television set. And after that, we were allowed to go in and sit on the floor on Friday nights and watch TV. We used to watch “I Remember Mama.” Don’t ask me why I remember that (laughs).
We also won a case of Almond Joys. And everybody ate them except for one girl, Emily. She wouldn’t eat ‘em because it had coconut in it, and she hated coconut. And everybody got sick. Emily is the only one that didn’t get sick. I was telling Roy this. He said, “How do you remember that?” I said, “I remember.”
We all got sick. There was something wrong with the candy. And I haven’t had an Almond Joy since then. I love Mounds. But I don’t eat Almond Joys.
I just told my kids about the trip to New York. And my youngest daughter said, “Mom, I knew about it.” I think she found the newspaper article at my mothers a while back. But she didn’t ask me about until after I talked to you. There are lots of things I didn’t talk about to my kids…I mean a lot of things. So….
After Roy cold-cocked the farm boss in 1955, they kicked him out of the orphanage. He was just fifteen years old. He managed to find me just before he left. We were standing right under the dinner bell and he told me he was leaving. It’s funny because I remember something else. He ran out of the dormitory so fast that he forgot to zip up his pants. And I said “Bro–you better get your pants zipped up or you’re really going to get into trouble.” He said, “What difference does it make? I’ve just been kicked out.” He said he was being kept him down at the older boys’ dormitory, and that I probably wouldn’t get to see him again before he left. And I didn’t.
When they sent him away, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Thats when I decided to get out and find my big brother. I figured he was at Aunt Margaret’s house, or if not, she could tell me where he was. I was ten years old and had no idea what I was doing.
So I started talking to some of the girls. All of a sudden I had a lot of girls willing to leave, and we all got hyped up planning this thing. There were seven of us, and we snuck our clothes…we wrapped up our clothes in a pillowcase, and we hid them in the big Dollhouse. You know that picture you have of Roy and I behind Dad Compton’s grave? There is a great big field behind there. That’s where we were headed. And I remember it was summertime, and there was saw-grass there, and it was sharp. It had just been cut.
We waited for the sun to go down. We heard the supper dinner bell ring and we all went down to the doll house to get our clothes, and then we took across the field. All seven of us little girls. Oh my gosh! We were going to be like little vagabonds. But we made it into town. I don’t know how we did it, but we made it.
And when we finally got into downtown Asheville, we started looking for a church. We were going to tell everybody we were sisters, and that our mother and daddy didn’t want us anymore, not thinking we were all the same age (laughs). And we ended up in a department store where we saw this ball filled with brightly colored candy, this great big bubble gum machine, in the window.
We were all standing there looking at it, and the clerk walks over to us and says, “Where are all of you little girls from?” And we said, “Oh, we’re sisters and our mama doesn’t want us anymore.” And he said, “You’re from that orphanage.” And we all played stupid and dumb. And so they sat us down on some chairs, and we’re saying, “No, we’re looking for a church.” What were we going to do in a church? Pray to get us out of this mess, I guess (laughs). And so they came to get us. They put us in a station wagon and drove us back to Eliada where we were all punished for what we had done.
Up on the Old Main Roof
Now I had been punished before many times, but never like that, and my kids don’t need to know the details. I told the matrons, “If my brother was here you guys wouldn’t do this!” And that’s when I decided that if I couldn’t get to Roy, I was going to climb to the top of the roof of the Main building. And I said to Nancy, “I’m going to go the roof and I’m going to jump because I’m not staying here without my brother!”
And the next day I ran away from the group and I found a ladder and I climbed up on the roof. Then someone saw me and ran and told Miss Green and everybody else that I was going to jump. When they all got there, I moved right to the edge of the roof—right on the side where the little girls’ dormitory was. I told them if they didn’t get Roy right away I was going to jump. And they said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “If you don’t kill me, than I’ll kill myself!” And they said, “Are you going to come down?” I said “Not unless you get my brother!” And that’s when they went and got David Carter.
Now, I don’t remember asking for David. But for some reason he was back home on leave from the Army. David was very close to Roy, so he was like a part of my family too. And David came, and he said, “You’re not going to do it.” And I said, “David, I’m going to jump if they don’t get my brother.” And he said, “You won’t.” And I said, “Yes, I will!” And he said, “Don’t jump, Roy will kill me if you jump! I’ll make sure you get to your brother.” So I came down, but only for David. He literally saved my life. And that was when they finally stopped the punishment.
I found out later that Miss Green had called my mother afterwards and told her she better come and get me because I wasn’t going to make it. She said I was going to end up killing myself. And when I found out I was leaving I told Nancy, and she was devastated. And I couldn’t take her with me. I didn’t care about the rest of the kids. All I knew is that I was leaving, and I was going to have a Daddy, I was going to have a Mama, and I was going to find my brother.
I remember when Gibb, the man my mom was married to at the time, drove up, I ran out to the car and I said, “Are you going to be my Daddy?” And he said, “Yes, I am.”
I didn’t pack anything. I just ran out with armloads of clothes and threw them in the back of my dad’s car. I can still see Nancy’s face when I left. I begged him to take Nancy, but he said he couldn’t. And my mother just sat there in the front seat.
So here’s a woman who didn’t even raise me, who didn’t even like me—but she was forced to get me. Miss Green made her come and get me. The only person that wanted me was this man, my stepfather. I didn’t even know what a stepfather was. He was a “daddy,” he was going to be my daddy. And he was going to give me everything I wanted.
He took me shopping, he bought me clothes, bought me ice cream, bought me spaghetti. I had never had spaghetti before. He introduced me to all kinds of new foods. Oysters, Oh God! Those were nasty. I couldn’t even say spaghetti. I said “smagetti” for ages. And he would laugh…
Gibb spoiled me rotten. He gave me everything I wanted. And I remember mama yelling at him, “Stop it!” And he said, “Why? This child has never had anything.”
And he would let me take a shower anytime I wanted. At the orphanage you could only bathe twice a week, and you hoped you were the first one in line because all the girls had to share the same tub. But now I could take four, five, six showers a day! Not baths, but showers!
And my mother would go insane. She would get so mad! And mama drank, and she drank, and she drank. And she would beat me, tell me to get out of the shower…but I was so clean! I still to this day have to take my showers. You won’t see me in a bath (laughs).
And finally I asked Gibb, “Why does she do that? Why does she hate me?” And he said, “She doesn’t hate you, she’s just drunk.” And I said, “So I’m not bad?” And he said, “No.” He protected me, and she hated him for that.
You remember all of those pictures you saw of us girls dressed up? Well, we looked forward to it because we got to put on new, pretty clothes and get our hair washed. And that was what they wanted the world to see, but that’s not how it really was. And that’s why I wanted to tell you this story. It wasn’t all pretty new dresses and sweet little smiles on our faces.
There was a lot of sadness at that orphanage. But when I got married at 15, I wanted to get away from that. And I really shut it out. I did open up to my husband about my fears. I told him my biggest fear was of my mother, and that he needed to keep her away from me. And he made sure of that, he really did. He would never let her come into the house when she was drinking.
I found out later she also had it rough growing up. There were four children in her family. Her baby brother’s plane went down in the war. And then Aunt Margaret was the fine upstanding Christian woman who taught school and married a Harris from Old Fort, North Carolina. She was well-to-do, so she kinda shunned Mama. And then Uncle Jay, he did okay. He owned his own Dr. Pepper bottling plant. And he didn’t have a whole lot to do with Mama either.
So Mama was the black sheep of the family, but I still couldn’t figure out why she wanted to give us away. What was so wrong with us that she didn’t want us? I have learned to forgive her, but I have never able to answer that question.
–Mae Wiggins (December 2000)
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)