I share my middle name, Leona, with one of my great-grandmothers. Our lives never overlapped, but she’s been on my mind lately, especially following the recent death of my dear grandfather, her only child.

Leona was killed in December 1991, three weeks before I was born. Days later, an answering machine message from the county coroner’s office broke the news to my grandpa: his mother had been brutally beaten by someone who broke into her Ohio home, presumably to burglarize it, and was surprised to find her there. My grandparents had just celebrated Thanksgiving by her side, unaware that would be the last time they would see her.

For my grandparents, dad and uncles, mourning the loss of their beloved mother, mother-in-law and grandmother was also marked by terrible pain, given the violent nature of her death, and anxious uncertainty, as her killer remained at large for months after. Eventually, after the city offered a reward for information, he was identified, found and arrested.

The man who killed Leona initially faced the death penalty, but my grandpa vehemently opposed such a sentence. Driven by their religious convictions and commitment to non-violence, he and my grandma petitioned the district attorney—who was elected on a promise to enact capital punishment more frequently—to seek an alternative sentence, and the district attorney eventually conceded to their principled insistence.

The man instead received life in prison without parole; he would not kill again but neither would he be killed by the state. The experience led my grandparents, meanwhile, to join the anti-death penalty movement and later to meet Leona’s murderer face-to-face, offering forgiveness and reconciliation.

I was a baby when these events unfolded, but I think of them often and am driven to tears of awe when I do. In the face of far less egregious offenses, I have held onto my own bitter resentment much more tightly. I do not know if I could push aside hurt and grief in this same way.

I cried again last week when my dad recounted this same story during the eulogy at my grandpa’s funeral. He closed by reading part of the testimony that my grandpa delivered during the sentencing back in 1992: “We do not have hate in our hearts,” he told the judge. “We rest in this way of justice.”

My grandpa was among the most tender, generous and sincere people I have ever known, and it is certainly true to say that there was no hate in his heart. But like my dad noted at his funeral, it would be a disservice to characterize his heart solely by what it lacked, as it was full of so many other, more wonderful things—kindness, compassion, joy, a dedication to justice, and a deep curiosity about the world and others—which all rendered hatred incompatible. The light and love he exuded throughout his life left no room for darkness, and in the midst of a tragedy that he knew he would spend the rest of his life grieving, these things led him away from easy anger and blind retribution and toward mercy.

Soon, the side table in my living room will bear an antique lamp that I inherited from my grandparents. It is blue and gold, with flowers painted along the base and small crystal prisms dangling from the lampshade. It clashes terribly with the other décor in my apartment, but I love it all the same, especially because before it belonged to my grandparents, it belonged to Leona. Each time I look at it, I will think of her, the remarkable son she raised, and the light he brought to a world that so desperately needs it. I am overjoyed to think of them reunited at last.

 

Elizabeth Callen is a staff writer for the Lowdown. She can be reached at 651-407-1229 or lowdownnews@presspubs.com.

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