The soft sounds of piano and saxophone waft through each room of Mabel Leon’s home.
In the hallway to her kitchen, Dean Martin croons while Leon touches the frames of family photos. As he sings each verse of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” Leon wanders from room to room pointing out each of the things that feed her.
The community activist has had roots in Schenectady since the 1960s, and she owes it to her family, friends, activism, jazz, dance, art, people, diversity — the list goes on.
“I don’t see myself as a materialistic person,” said Leon, 71, from the couch in her home in the Stockade. “For not being a materialistic person, I certainly have a lot of stuff. And I could tell you a story about each one.”
Her upbringing, of course, feeds her. She points to a poster of an African proverb hanging to her right, among a trove of diverse paintings, photographs and knickknacks.
“He who does not cultivate his field will die of hunger,” it reads. That’s what her father used to say to her in her days on the family farm in Connecticut.
Above it is the famous black, white and gray Pablo Picasso piece of the first civilian bombing that occurred in 1930s Guernica.
“There’s a mother holding a dead baby in total agony in one corner,” says Leon of the artwork. She’s used replicas of that image in antiwar posters in any number of community efforts.
Leon is a member of local organizations Grannies for Peace, Schenectady Neighbors for Peace and Women Against War. She’s spent her entire adulthood fighting for justice, starting with civil rights in the 1950s as a college student. Then there was the Vietnam War, in which she was involved in mass demonstrations that took place across the country. There was women’s liberation, the struggles in Central America with Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba, the struggles in South Africa with apartheid.
Her support for each cause is borne out of an underlying inspiration that feeds her.
“There’s liberation that goes along with being a granny,” says Leon, fingering a front-page photo of an old Gazette in which she and other Grannies for Peace members were holding an art vigil. “I always say you’re very powerful because you’re motivated by love and by family. I’m an activist, but I always say I’m an activist with really core feelings about my grandchildren. I want a good world for my grandchildren to grow up in.”
Each cause is connected for Leon, from justice, to people struggling for self-determination and respect. Even now, she worries about environmental issues that could cause her grandchildren to grow up in an unsafe world. In each cause, she’s found an activist community that feeds her.
Many of the members are not unlike her. Leon mentions the 82-year-old granny who has been involved in activism since she was 20. “She’s this beautiful, loving person,” she says with a soft smile.
The septuagenarian keeps to a busy schedule that rivals that of a working college student.
In the last week, Leon spackled and repainted her family photo hallway, attended meetings with Schenectady Neighbors for Peace and Grannies for Peace where she saw a documentary on nuclear issues that made her too frightened to sleep, constructed props for an upcoming Valentine’s Day vigil at the Veterans Hospital, and stood in two peace vigils — one in front of the Capitol building in Albany and the other in front of the Schenectady post office.
She caught a lecture at the Schenectady Historical Society on the first sit-in strike of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, and went out for food and drinks with friends before catching jazz musician Branford Marsalis at Proctors.
In her down time, Leon went to the gym three times and spent an afternoon on an arts and crafts project for Valentine’s Day with her grandchildren.
It’s never been just one thing that feeds her, she will say.
“I just think creativity is one of those things you need,” she says. “You need things to feed you. You need things that feed your spirit. For me, music is something that feeds me. My activism is something that feeds me. Obviously, my love of family is the strongest of all.”
Not sitting home
She can’t imagine sitting around and letting life just happen to her. As a jazz lover, Leon won’t just listen to records. She’ll go out and see shows. As a grandmother, she has spent at least one day of the week for as long as she can remember with her grandkids.
As an activist, she has photographed, painted signs, worn red berets and pins, sang songs and stood silent for an hour straight. She has marched and organized trips to Cuba, where she boasts that at her age she can at least do three hours straight of hard labor.
As a lifelong learner, she stocks her bookshelf with books on sexual politics, the Spanish Civil War, Sigmund Freud and fiction to the likes of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
As a little kid, Leon was concerned about justice. In recalling Sunday School, she says, she “took what they were teaching me seriously.” Despite growing up in a largely white Anglo-Saxon community, she recalls being excited by diversity.
“My view of the world is that there are gifts everywhere and you can pick and choose from cultures and it’s exciting to know all different kinds of people.”
Her walls are a testament to the former, bearing African masks, photos of family, friends, trips to Havana, and a bevy of Christmas cards she still has yet to take down.
Humming along to the soft jazz from some other room, Leon emanates a natural grace and poise that seems at odds with the excitement in her voice as she talks about the things that feed her.
“I have a vision of a different world,” she starts. “A world in which we try to find alternatives to violence, a world in which we create clean air, a world in which people can have health care. When you work on those issues, it’s like you’re almost claiming a different world. It can feel selfish. So people will say what kind of an effect have you had? Sometimes, you just have to stand and hope that that will give courage for other people to find their voice.”