Yesterday while mowing my lawn (which I love doing, btw), my thoughts suddenly turned to Leon. Leon was our “yard man” when I was growing up. Like many wonderful people, he was flawed, somewhat tragically, but he was indeed a wonderful person and I feel blessed to have known him. He was a tall, strong black man, originally from Detroit. He worked hard, perhaps all the more so because my father worked alongside him. Together they built stone walls, bridges over our little creek, and took care of all the other things to keep up the 7 acres where we miraculously lived inside the Atlanta city limits. He sang when he mowed the lawn, and whistled when he was tasked with things like raking the pebble driveway.

Leon was quick with a joke (as was my father), and had a booming laugh. We would hear them laughing out back sometimes, two deep voices carrying over the different levels of the land running down to the creek. He teased and argued with our maid Ethel at lunchtime, getting her all riled up and then cackling with joy. He put ketchup on everything – everything, even soup – which drove Ethel crazy after she had worked to make him lunch. I looked forward to Saturdays to hang out around him, and he was kind as well as funny. He adored all our animals, which at that time amounted to 2 dogs and 8 to 10 cats. I loved Leon. He was a part of our family.

Which is why, countless times, my father would answer a late night call and go bail Leon out of jail for another drinking binge. He would get “the DTs” and act crazy, or get into fights (often over women, as he was a womanizer par excellence). One time my father drove down to Macon from Atlanta, because somehow Leon had gotten himself into trouble down there. Would anyone do that these days? I wonder if it were today if he could have gotten help. In the 60s most people didn’t really talk about alcoholism, they just called someone a drunk. And Leon was a spectacular, irreverent, harmless, tragic drunk. And he knew it.

Which is why, when I left for college and my parents moved to Savannah in 1976, Leon begged to go with them. I don’t know all the details, but I know my parents discussed it a long time. He didn’t know anyone in Savannah, and I suspect they didn’t want to take him out of the community of church and neighbors here that did in some ways support him. I know, because I know how my parents were, that the decision was not taken lightly.

So although they said they would give him a job if he chose to move to Savannah, they would not take him with them. So we all said goodbyes, and Leon declared that he would move back to Detroit and reconnect with family there. I remember that everyone cried when the moving vans arrived.

Leon was dead within a month after moving to Detroit, shot in a bar. No “what ifs” could bring him back.

And so now I finally pay tribute to that joyful, kind, marvelous, flawed man. Leon, I hope you are singing in a place with green fields and running dogs. And ketchup. I love you.


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