R.L.(Robert Lee) and Lelia Batte of Cameron, Texas
My memories of R.L. and Lelia Batte by Lois Jenison
As I remember…
R.L. (Robert Lee) and Lelia Batte
of Cameron, Texas
It seemed like a very long drive down that shaded road, bordered by rows of tall trees, for which their home was named. We were finally approaching the big old house called “The Sycamores”. My mother, daddy, and I were driving from our farm at Mart, Texas to my aunt and uncle’s home in Cameron, Texas. I was only eight years old, a quiet, very shy little girl, who was destined to soon meet lots of maternal relatives, and to attend the second funeral I remember from my early childhood. This trip was for the funeral services of R.L. Batte, my grandfather’s sister’s husband. The family relationships were explained to me en route, and I found them interesting, although confusing. I remember it as a very long, hot day in July of 1951, surrounded by so many people I did not know, and few children to relate to.
There were hugs by people who claimed to be relatives, and even bigger hugs by my Aunt Lelia. This was my first opportunity to see her vast, renowned collection of china dolls. It was frustrating to admire so many beautiful dolls behind glass doors in multiple shelves of several barrister bookcases….. and not be allowed to play with them! At that time, I did not yet understand collectibles or the hobby of collecting. I even thought Aunt Lelia looked like a large, life-sized china doll with her smooth round face and long hair pulled up neatly to the back of her head.
There were numerous people inside the stately white house and many more outside. A couple of talkative, jolly black women, including one named “Sally”, were cooking lots of dishes for the gathering crowd. I was sincerely hoping there would be something I’d like to eat among the many foods being prepared….. definitely beyond some aromatically strange green vegetables that little girls like me did not like. We took turns sitting around the kitchen table for lunch, like seating order within a busy restaurant, waiting for space. The house was much larger than any with which I was accustomed to. I almost felt lost wandering through connecting rooms and running around on open, wrap around porches on different levels.
When the afternoon funeral began, I was surprised we were not going to a church. I later learned that at that time in our history, black people were not allowed in white folks’ churches. Mr. Batte had many loyal, devoted friends and workers on his land who were descendents of freed slaves, still occupying the former slave houses erected on his large land holdings. In order for all the people mourning the death of their (or their ancestors’) great master, employer, and friend, to attend the funeral, it was actually held in the front yard of “The Sycamores” estate.
The casket, in which rested the body of my uncle, was supported by some type of wooden legs or framework. It sat open, beneath the shade of the surrounding trees. The scene was focused on the left, front side of the yard, as I observed from the front porch of the L-shaped old home. A preacher, speaking loudly, while holding a Bible, stood in front of the casket. Family members and friends either stood or sat on the porch and the lawn adjacent to the old mansion. Many other folks stood behind the casket and grouped around the edges of the corner of the lawn, both inside and outside of the wooden fence.
The words, “Amen, amen” sounded numerous times as the preacher spoke. Eventually, singing began, mixed with quiet sobbing and flowing tears as…. arm in arm, hand in hand, swaying left and right, the many black people sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot….coming for to carry me home…”, and also, “Old Folks at Home”. A hand typed copy of that song’s lyrics was given to me, which I still have. The first verse and chorus printed on the currently crisp and yellowed paper reads….
Way down upon de Swanee River
Far, far away,
Dere’s wha my heart is turning ever
Dere’s wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam
Still longing fer de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.
All de world am sad and dreary
Ev’ry where I roam
Oh! darkies, how my heart grows weary
Far from de old folks at home.
My next memory was sitting at the gravesite within the town’s cemetery with lots of family members and friends. Some of the devoted black people followed to be nearby. After the preacher talked again and read the Bible more, I thought we were finally ready to leave to drive back home. Instead, I was quite surprised when the casket was lowered into the grave. We sat and watched as multiple people shared a hand in shoveling dirt. It took a while to finally cover the casket and fill that hole. This final scene in the sequence of the funeral activities became a disturbing memory for me….. lingering in my 8 year old mind for days, months, and years to follow.
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More enjoyable memories were created in the next several years when we visited my Aunt Lelia a few more times before her own death. Although I never had the pleasure of playing with her china dolls, she did give me a signed copy of each of three books she authored. A beautiful palomino stallion, “Prince” that I acquired from the Batte family provided me approximately 10 years of enjoyable riding, plus rewarding opportunities for competitive activities in horse shows and rodeos. And, Aunt Lelia gave me an adorable registered Siamese cat, “Sindi”, which she shipped to me via train. That special cat was much loved for at least the next 8 years of my youth. My Aunt Lelia was a very bright, talented, loving woman whose gifts enriched my life and touched my heart in numerous ways…….so many ways beyond the unforgettable day of the funeral of R.L. Batte!
(Great Niece of R.L. and Lelia Batte)
October 10, 2008
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