Peggy Has Left the Building
Memoir By Michael Usey
January 21, 2015
This past Sunday I listened to Peggy’s four adult children and spouses (along with many of her nine grandchildren) talk about her influence on their lives. As they spoke, it reminded me of the story of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible. In Ruth chapter 1, Naomi’s husband and two sons die and she is left with just her daughters-in-law. She encourages them to return to their home countries. One gladly obliges, but the other–Ruth–refuses to leave her side and says one of the most poetic things in the Bible, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” How’s that for loyalty? The major theme of the book of Ruth is loyal love, what the biblical writers called hesed, love that is loyal despite all. The word hesed is often translated “kindness” or “loving-kindness.” It is one of the key theological concepts in the story of Ruth. Hesed is difficult to translate because it stands for a cluster of ideas—love, mercy, grace, kindness. It wraps up in itself all the positive attributes of God. Peggy’s love for all those around her reminds me of Ruth in our bible. Both lived out hesed. Women like Ruth and Peggy are loyal to those whom they love, which is why we’re here tonight.
Peggy was a woman of many great hobbies, passions, and loves. Born June 24, 1935, in Spruce Pine, NC, she was the baby of 9 children. She had 7 sisters and one brother, and she was the last one living, she might tell you, with a hint of victory in her voice. Her closest relative in spirit was her sister Polly, since they were only ten months apart; they were “Irish twins,” as they say. Peggy and Polly were indeed two peas in a pod: goofy, giggling, ball of fun, like 12-year-olds long into their adult years, until Polly’s death at age 59 in 1993. Peggy was heart broken when Polly died, and screamed her grief. They both shared a deep love for Johnny Cash (whom they did see in concert), and especially Elvis Presley, and had tickets to see him here in Greensboro in September, 1977, when he died suddenly that August.
Peggy loved to send cards through the mail to people she loved. All kinds of cards: seasonal, birthday, anniversary, congratulations, births, condolences, holiday, you name it. She valued sending and getting cards too, and you better always remember to write the date in the corner or she would ask you when you got it and write the date in herself. I can’t tell you how many cards Ann, my children, and I received from her over the years. Each one was hand written with a personal note; she believed in the lost art of note writing, and she did it well. Interestingly, I didn’t know until this past Sunday that she did this with many people; I thought my family and I were special, because this is the way her cards could make you feel. I will miss those greatly.
Peggy could find the good in people, even when it was difficult to see. She was a stay at home mom when her children were young. When they were in the elementary school right across the street from their home, they would run home for lunch, and Peggy would have the table set, ready for each seating of lunch; one child would run in for first lunch, then another for second. In fact, she was the mother that the teachers would call on if a child forgot his or her lunch on a field trip day. Peggy would make a few sandwiches and hustle them over to the school so that no child would be miss lunch and go hungry. She knew how to make little moments special, and, if that’s not a secret to a good life, I don’t know what is. And, when the lunches were over, she had time to watch All My Children, her favorite soap.
Even with that soap opera vice, Peggy was a passionate reader, and developed in some of her children, like Nancy and Brian, a deep love of reading. She favored romance novels by the likes of Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, and Sandra Brown, but she’d read Jimmy Buffet too. What a grand gift to give one’s children, a life-long love of reading. John recalls that she always had 2-3 books going at the same time. She wasn’t above spoilers either: one book she gave to a grandchild she said, it’s a great book but it’s really sad at the end. Okay, then; maybe I’ll wait for the movie.
Her special friend was Lou Harris, who grew up with her in Spruce Pines, both graduated in `53. They moved to Greensboro at about the same time, shared an apartment, and both worked at the Bell Telephone. She and Lou met their future husbands—Jack and Al—together outside of their apartment. The two guys asked out the two girls, and Peggy and Lou accepted. In fact, later that day, the girls couldn’t decide which guy had asked out which girl, so Peggy suggested, When they drive up, you get in the car seat with the one you prefer, and I’ll take the other. And so they did; and so they married.
Peggy was gifted at many things, but driving a car wasn’t one of them. She never really learned how to drive. Each of her adult children have stories about driving with her: how she’d drive Jack to the pool, but then had to have someone back the car out of the parking lot. By the time John came around she gave up and took to the pool walking in a red wagon, which was safer for all involved. Once when there was a big event at the pool, she parked on the street to avoid this very thing, only to have her car hemmed in both front and back. She hit a bridge once, and Brian was with her the last time she probably ever drove and caused a minor accident. But she was a great passenger, never critiquing another’s driving, and BJ remembers she liked it when he put the hammer down in his sports cars.
Peggy, however, could drive a stove; she knew how to cook well. She’d have a house full for Sunday dinner and she loved it. (She did, however, have a tendency to burn the bread.) She always made more than enough food. Jack her husband demanded dinner at 6:00 sharp so he could watch the 6:30 nightly news—what a different time that was when the news was only on at 6:30.
There are a hundred other wonderful and fun things to know about Peggy Leonard. Let me mention just a few:
She was devoted to cardinals, those remarkably bright red birds here in North Carolina. She knew about them, and loved them. Not a bad pick for one’s animas.
When she was ill with someone or if one of the kids were acting up, she’d say, I’d like to pinch his little head off. Then she’d smile and burst into laughter. She had an endless supply of funny sayings like this.
Her Achilles’ heel was that she had a weak stomach. If you were, as we say at my house, breathing in Technicolor, you were on your own. She’d put the trashcan out and newspapers around it, but that was it. But whenever I visited her in the hospital, I never heard her complain, even when I knew she was hurting. How are you doing, Peggy, people here at College Park would ask her, and she’d say, Oh, I’m kicking but not high.
She hated bugs of all types and shapes, and since she loved children, that meant kids (her own and others) loved to scare her with real and fake ones. She wasn’t unique in this phobia.
Peggy had a neat and tidy house, and had set ways she liked to clean and do things. Consequently, she didn’t always welcome help with the chores—which was largely fine with Nancy, Jay, Brian & John, and the 9 grandkids. Once, when Peggy was at the beach, teen-aged Brian washed a couple of his brand new La Costa shirts, which was fine, then put them in a hot dryer, which was not. They shrunk up several sizes, and John got some new shirts since they were now his size only.
Peggy could clean any stain out of any clothes. It was almost mystical the way she could purge them from even work clothes. However, if for some reason she didn’t approve of a t-shirt or article of clothing, she might not say anything about it. But that shirt would likely disappear the first time it hit the laundry basket. Brian remembers a Zigzag man shirt that he only wore once, same with a Cheek and Chong shirt of Jays and when they asked Peggy about the missing shirts, she’d said, Oh, it had a bad stain that I couldn’t get out.
She loved working at the Coliseum, and I saw her there often, especially when my boys and daughter were younger. She had a subtle sense of humor too: she’d say to the policeman near her as I entered a hockey or basketball game with my kids, You should frisk him good; he’s a Baptist preacher. You can’t trust those types—then she’d add: In fact, he’s my preacher. I loved her quick mischievous smile.
She loved to smoke, but quit cold turkey on her own—an incredibly difficult thing to do. But she did it because she Hilary as a young child was scared of her grandmother’s voice, and Peggy was not going to allow that to continue, so she quit decisively and without fanfare.
I also deeply appreciate Peggy’s love for our LGBT members. This is true of many of the older members at this church, and I can’t tell you how much I valued that she understood God’s love for all people and what we were trying to do here. There was a lovely part of Peggy that was radically accepting of people, and we all loved that about her (how could you not?). She had a youthful spirit, despite her age. Of the many gay men who loved her and hugged her here on Sunday mornings, she’d say, They’re my boys; I love `em. She loved College Park, and was a faithful attender and giver, and she always made her Adult 3 bible study if she was able.
Peggy liked to hum, which I heard her do. She did not like to sing, or she could not, whichever, which I never heard her try.
But she loved to iron clothes: press them neatly and tightly. All of her kids remember that their clothes were always, always sharply pressed, even the jeans with straight creases. Their clothes might not have been the newest, but they were always pressed and clean. I wish I knew this about her earlier; she could have taught my boys to iron. About how many people can you honestly say, “She loves to iron?” Another lost craft. And she continued to iron up until the week before her death.
She adored her Oldie Goldies, what she called her friends from way back and the neighborhood. There are too many names to call, but if you were a part of Peggy’s friends who called themselves Oldies Goldies, would you please raise your hand? This is one of the many things I admired about her: she had close friends because she knew how to be a great friend: loyal love, hesed. Peggy knew how to keep friends too, and she did, some of them for her whole long life. This is rare and impressive.
As much as she loved her children, she was treasured and delighted in her nine grandchildren: Erica, Michael, BJ, Joshua, Jacob, Shane, Daniel, Hilary, and Abby—all of whom called her Nana. With them, she was a mama bear with her cubs. In fact, Peggy helped deliver Erica, the first grandchild, when she and Nancy couldn’t get to the hospital quick enough. Brian’s daughter Hilary sent me this text about her grandmother:
I remember how Nana always made everyone feel so special. She may have been short but she was full of love and happiness. Her laugh was contagious especially when she really got a kick out of something.
She was always so welcoming, the more the merrier and you better bring an appetite because she was going to feed you. She always cooked more than enough food, but if you mentioned a dish she hadn’t already made within 15 minutes she would have that dish made and ready for you, which is probably why the bread was often forgotten about and burned.
Nana was always full of energy and made sure everyone was taken care of. Her heart was as big as she was, and she had so much love to share with everyone. A nurturer is just what she was and anyone that knew her would surely agree.
True words, and well said.
This nurturing side of Peggy not only came out in her parenting but especially in her in home daycare. She loved the chaos of caring for children, and the kids she took care of were crazy about her too. She wanted them to be well educated, and so she set up her space like a schoolroom, with different learning centers. Successful childcare leaders combine a profound love for children, with an intuitive understanding of them, and an inner toughness; Peggy had all three aspects. Most of her kids could read and write BEFORE they went to school, an impressive achievement. She earned the parents’ high esteem as well. Many of the kids she cared for are now adults: one went to Harvard; another is an Air Force officer, and many still send her cards or otherwise keep in touch. She shaped children, and this may be her most profound and lasting legacy. As Garrison Keller said, Nothing we do for children is ever wasted. Her hesed in action again.
In the Hebrew Bible, biblical writers sometimes use the phrase am ha’aretz, people of the earth. When it’s used in the plural, it refers to non-Jews living in the land. At first, it probably wasn’t a compliment, but it came to mean something more positive. Am ha’aretz often is used to mean something like, the salt of the earth, the common people, good regular folk. Peggy Leonard is a part of the am ha’aretz, the salt of the earth, and it has been an honor and a pleasure to be both Peggy’s friend and her pastor. Her life wasn’t easy—most of those of her generation didn’t have an easy life—but her was rich and meaningful. Mostly this is because she embodied God’s hesed, divine loyal love to all those she around her. Like Elvis whom she delighted in, Peggy has left the building, left this life, and left us too, and we are left with the rich legacy of a short woman who embraced those around her with a huge love.