The beginning of June always reminds me of the birthdays of three of my mother’s siblings: my Uncle Robert, my Aunt Anne, and my Aunt Dolly. As a child, I was fascinated that a brother and two sisters could have birthdays so close to each other, June 2, 4, and 5. As an adult, I didn’t want to know what happened nine months before each of their births!
This posting is about my Aunt Doll, or Hattie Roberta Leigh, which was her legal name. She was the fourth child born to Enos and Emily Leigh [the third, Enos Wilkes Leigh, died in infancy.] I was told that, right from birth, Doll had some physical abnormalities. On the back of a picture of her as a precious little baby, my grandmother had written, “Look at her fingers.” Doll’s ten fingers were all bent slightly at the knuckles. As she grew to adulthood, her fingers were long and slender and the angle of the fingers took on a more pronounced look. My mother also told me that as a child, Doll was “diagnosed” by doctors as being “pigeon-breasted” or as having pectus carinatum, but she never seemed to develop the problems connected to this abnormality.
Doll didn’t finish regular high school. At first, she was put in classes that were much too hard and advanced for her IQ level. She struggled to keep up, but was unable to do the work. Later, she transferred to a vocational type high school where she did much better. But she didn’t need a vocation, as she never had a job and always lived with her mother and father, and later her sisters. After my grandfather died, and as the others got older, they all lived together – my grandmother and three aunts. I can remember my bed-ridden grandmother reading or writing a post card in bed or even taking a nap and Doll calling out, “Mama? Mama? Are you alright, Mama?” I’ll bet Doll asked my grandmother that same question twenty-five times a day, a.m. and p.m. for more than forty years.
Perhaps in another family, Doll’s short-comings in intelligence would not have been so evident, but she was a member of a family of children who were all very intelligent and who all became university/college educated. In fact, with the exception of Doll, all attended Tulane University and all graduated from what is now the University of Southern Mississippi. [There were five out of six children who obtained six degrees from USM. My mother and father met at Southern. My two brothers and I also earned undergraduate degrees from USM.] Growing up, I didn’t realize that not everybody’s parents and relatives did not go to college. Often, I was in groups of friends who were the first in their families to attend college. It was part of our heritage that we would leave the 12th grade and go straight to college. And we did.
Yet, as kids, our best friend and playmate was our Aunt Doll. Even with her finger abnormality, she was the best jacks player I had ever seen. She could swoop up ten jacks before that ball hit. She was also very good at pick-up-sticks. She loved the game of “Old Maid,” and got a kick out of getting the “Old Maid” card. She was very good at embroidery, and did a great deal of it. She was also very good at coloring in color books.
Doll called me her “prayer baby.” She said that when my mother “was expecting me,” everyone thought I was going to be a boy. Doll said she prayed for a girl with brown eyes and red hair. [Doll was the only member of my mother’s family with brown eyes. All had blue or green eyes.] Well, I was born: a girl with brown eyes and red hair. Her prayers were answered. She also loved the fact that she and I were the only members of the family who were born in Louisiana. I was born in New Orleans, and she was born in Varnado, Louisiana.
As an adult, Doll became an adolescent diabetic. She was unable to give herself her insulin shots, so my Aunt Mary did that. She must have been in her 30’s when she became diabetic, and she lived to be in her seventies. However, she “hollered” every morning when she received her shot. Obviously, she never got used to that part of her malady in over forty years. But whenever the family went on a car trip, across town or across state, Doll was ready. She always carried several bananas, something to embroider, her hoop, needles, and thread. She had her white handkerchief and always a hat. She was prepared for a long journey even if it was just a short trip to the cemetery.
The Leigh Family loved music and passed that love on to their children, nieces/nephews, and grandchildren. One of Doll's favorite songs was "Hello, Dolly." I even had that song played at her funeral as her casket was rolled into the small chapel. Everyone present smiled and lost some of their grief. Additionally, all of my grandmother and grandfather's children could play the piano, and Doll was no exception. Her specialty was “The Lord’s Prayer.” I was always so amazed that she, and all of her siblings, could play with two hands. I am pretty much a one-finger player, and that’s with two+ years of lessons.
It was hard to grow up and leave Doll as our playmate. However, I am sure it was harder on her. She was a very faithful correspondent when I was in college. She would write a post card or letter almost every day. Her cards and notes almost always covered the same information every time, as her life didn’t change much. She would write about what she had eaten for lunch. She would tell me about seeing her “stories.” [SEARCH FOR TOMORROW was her favorite.] If my Aunt Mary took her for a ride, she would tell me about that. But the rides were usually to the cemetery or some other place where she would not have to get out and be around crowds. Lots of people made her nervous. She played “The Lord’s Prayer” on the piano every day, and she would tell me about it. And she always signed her cards and letters “Miss Hattie R. ‘Dolly’ Leigh.”
Doll tried to work around the house a little. There were some things she was not allowed to do like cooking, washing knives, and handling strong cleansers. But she could make beds and fold clothes. There was a “gentle” story about Doll that was often told when you went to spend night at my grandmother's house. The story was that if you got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, by the time you got back to bed, Doll would have made up your bed!
Doll was so sweet and much loved by her nieces and nephews. As kids, we were never bored when we were with her. As adults, we tried to make her life happy and full. I gave her many beautiful stuffed animals. She loved them as she had loved us. She would talk to them and have them watch her stories with her. After she died, my Aunt Mary and I packed up her stuffed animals to give away to organizations that share items like that with children in need. However, there were some animals we could not give away because there was dried food on some of the mouths. Doll had tried to feed them. I still weep when I think about my Aunt Doll trying to feed her stuffed animals.
I miss Doll. I can’t wait to see and be with her in Heaven, but I hope she’ll have time for me now that she is perfect and whole. Often I’ll hear or see something that reminds me of Doll, and it takes me back immediately to my youth. I am fortunate to have some of her embroidery work, and I feel very special and very loved when I sleep on the white pillow case she embroidered in red with H.R.L. for Hattie Roberta Leigh. When I sleep on that case, it’s as if Doll is asking me, Are you alright, Ann? Are you alright, My Prayer Baby?
Happy Birthday, June 2nd, Annie.
Happy Birthday, June 4th, Robert.
Happy Birthday, June 5th, Dolly.