I write today about my Aunt Laila because it’s her birthday. This is a personal tribute to a woman who played an important role in my life — and in the lives of literally hundreds — and who is greatly missed.
She was born Laila Louise Wild (named after the operetta Laila, as I told you) on March 9, 1902, in Fonda, Iowa, the first child of my grandparents, Ray and Louise.
As is typical of first-borns, Laila was self-assured, enterprising, and a leader . . . the latter trait sometimes showing itself in high jinks perpetrated against her little sister, Erma, who told me that one time the mischievous Laila lured her into a department store revolving door, a novelty at the time, and kept the door going ’round and ’round so Erma had to keep running and couldn’t get out. But these sisters were exceptionally close all their lives, for many years occupying the two sides of a duplex on North Arcadia Park in Lexington.
Laila had earlier led the Wild family from Iowa to Kentucky. She studied at the National Kindergarten College in Chicago and then, with a classmate, struck out on her first enterprise — starting the private Kindergarten School in Paris, Kentucky. The Bourbon News of December 26, 1922, carried the news that “Miss Laila Wild, of the Kindergarten School, is spending the holiday vacation with her parents, in Chicago, and will return to her school duties the first of the new year.” It may have been on this visit that Laila persuaded her family to join her in the Bluegrass State, because by 1924 they were all living at 1010 Aurora Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky; Laila was 22, Erma was 19, and little brother Jack was 12. All of them, and their parents, lived in Lexington until their deaths.
The first death was that untimely one, in December of 1924, when Mama was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Laila had been crossing Maxwell Street with her, on their way to church, when the accident happened. The next year, my grandfather remarried (he was only 47), and my father, a brooding teenager by then, was definitely not happy about it. The family, including Laila and Erma who were grown and working, all moved to 316 Irvine Road. I have no doubt that Laila was the glue that kept the family together as they dealt with the loss of their mother and other difficult issues and moved on with their lives.
The kindergarten was just the first of Laila’s enterprises. In 1928 she was an assistant in the offices of Drs. McKinlay and Brown, pediatricians. She was still employed there at the time of the 1930 Census, but she was living on Victory Avenue with a roommate, Lucille Caywood. She and Lucy would become business partners, close friends, and usually roommates throughout life. Lucille had been married very briefly in 1925 and had a daughter, Frances. Laila never married, but Frances and my brother, sister and I were treated like her children, and she had enough love to go around.
When they roomed together in 1930, “Aunt” Lucy was the manager of an employment service, and it wasn’t long until Lucy and Laila started such a business of their own. Some notes written by Laila much later, in 1962, are entitled “Glorifying & Enjoying God in My Vocation,” and they tell us that “[the] most wonderful thing in my life has been the guidance of God which has run through my days like a strong golden thread.” She writes that she had an opportunity to buy an employment agency “started by a friend for his nephew, who was a playboy & did not want it.” She was advised not to buy it, because she had no experience or knowledge that would make it a success. And this was in the days when women business-owners were rare. “But [a] stronger voice said, ‘Buy it.'” Thus she began the Wild and Caywood Employment Agency that would enable her to apply her leadership and organizational skills to helping thousands of Kentuckians support their families, and to share God’s love with everyone she met.
I have said she was self-assured, but that was based on a strong faith and daily walk with God. Here are some excerpts from her notes:
We made many mistakes & profited from them and all the time we were growing — mentally & spiritually & as a business . . . . Most of all I learned to work with God. When I was very young and inexperienced and rash, I went to work feeling strong in my own strength. I learned that my strength was weakness & I learned to turn to God. I can never now sit down at my desk in the morning without first talking with God, asking him to stay close to me — to give me wisdom and strength & much love for the day and asking that I may treat each person who comes to me asking for help, with friendliness & understanding & compassion — then thanking Him for his help. . . . We always keep sermons and religious books and magazines and a Bible on the table in our waiting room. It is a strange & wonderful thing to look into that crowded room & see men and women — white and colored — so absorbed in religious reading they do not even hear your voice. Many ask if they can take religious matter with them. Others just walk out with it, still absorbed in reading. . . . We have a tape recorder at the office. One day one of our negro women came to see us. She teaches music & sings beautifully. We had been listening to some recordings & she was fascinated with them. We asked her to sing for us. She sat in a rocker & rocked back & forth, closed her eyes and sang a spiritual, softly & beautifully as only a negro can sing it. When we played it back to her, her face was a study — awe & delight & joy & she said, “I’ve never really heard my voice before, praising God.” That is what we try to help them do — to praise God — to thank Him for strong bodies & good minds and for jobs which enable them to live decently. That is what we shall go on doing as long as it is God’s will for us to continue in this good work.
Both Aunt Laila and Aunt Lucy played an important role in our family as I was growing up. Surely my brother and sister have their own treasured memories, but these are some of the things I remember:
- When we had family holiday dinners, Aunt Laila always brought “heavenly hash,” a decadent concoction of real whipped cream (Cool Whip hadn’t even been invented!), dates, pineapple, oranges, marshmallows and nuts.
- Aunt Laila gave me a cedar “hope chest” for my high school graduation, and I use it as a blanket chest in my bedroom today.
- Aunt Laila is the one who gave me a book to read about “the birds & the bees” — that’s right . . . the job fell to the spinster aunt.
- Aunt Laila loved birds and always had a parakeet or canary; they usually also had a dog.
- Aunt Laila had the smoothest hands and encouraged me to always push my cuticles back so the “moons” would show.
- Aunt Lucy gave me my first lesson in applying makeup.
- Aunt Lucy helped me learn to drive.
- Aunt Lucy could fix anything.
- When my parents separated, it was Aunt Lucy who sat down to talk to me about how difficult it must be for me.
- After my parents’ divorce, Aunt Laila remained a dear sister to my mother, supporting her in every way and being a close and constant presence.
- Aunt Laila faithfully wrote to me when I was away at college, even though she had vision problems caused by a detached retina.
In April 1974 she wrote:
I adored your Dad when he was growing up and we had the sweetest kind of relationship. When your Mother entered the picture, I loved her almost at sight and still do. As David, then Rae and then you came along, I was thrilled & happy and full of joy. I love each of you dearly and I am very proud of all of you & there is nothing I would not do for you if you need my help. Love is a wonderful and precious thing to me because its full beauty and power comes from God. He is love and He gives us His wonderful love and forgiveness. He accepts us as we are and works with us until we become new creatures and learn how to pass His love and kindness and compassion on to others who need it. I am so grateful to God for loving me that I find it easy to love others.
Laila also did advanced work in Richmond, Virginia, to be a Director of Christian Education. She used this training at Maxwell Presbyterian Church in Lexington and also at the Florence Crittenton Home, where she taught Sunday School classes for expectant unwed mothers. It is true that she had never wed, and she had never given birth; but she knew she was a child of God and that every Florence Crittenton girl and her baby were also children of God. And she was determined that they would know and believe this, in spite of the scorn they suffered from society in the 1950s and 1960s.
Her notes tell some of the story:
The first Sunday I went to teach at Florence Crittenton Home (March 1, 1960), I was frightened. I drove very slowly. I hesitated when I reached the entrance gate, then drove on with a prayer in my heart for guidance. When Mrs. Kavanaugh [the executive director] asked me to teach and I accepted, she said, “I do hope you will not get discouraged. So many times the girls are unhappy & defiant & antagonistic & just will not cooperate.” That statement did little to give me confidence but that first morning Mrs. Kavanaugh met me at the door & took me down the hall to the sun parlor where we were to have our class — a bright, pleasant room full of girls ranging in age from 14 to 25, all staring at me with great curiosity. Suddenly, my fear departed & a great rush of love & happiness took possession of me. It seemed to me that Christ was standing close beside me saying softly, “As you do it unto one of the least of these you have done it unto me.” . . . So many, many different girls have been here, all with anguish in their hearts, all suffering, most all facing the unhappiness of giving up their babies. . . . One Sunday I was asked to meet with them for a question & answer period. So many questions, all of them needing to know again & again of God’s love & forgiveness, the feeling of guilt very strong. I told them the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. It comforted them. . . . This is God’s work. I can understand the dedication & love of a missionary for her people. These girls are my people & every day I thank my God for the privilege of working with them, of teaching them the way of the Christ.
My Aunt Laila died on January 31, 1991, of pancreatic cancer. When she was in the hospital, she told me of seeing a beautiful, glowing green shrub at the foot of her bed. She knew it was the Comforter. She left this world, where she had been so generous with her love, to be with Love itself.