More than 7,000 people have died in Massachusetts from COVID-19. These lives lost are much more than a number — they're individuals with fascinating lives and people who loved them. We're remembering and sharing the stories of some of the people we have lost in a series titled "Lives Remembered."
In her absence, weeds have made their way to the surface where Roxbury resident Jean Leslie Morgan’s vegetables used to sprout.
Morgan, an avid horticulturalist and optimist, died on April 25 at age 77 from COVID-19. She's one of nearly 8,000 Massachusetts residents felled by the pandemic.
Usually at this time of year, Morgan could be found working a tiny plot of land at the Audubon Society's Boston Garden Center in Mattapan. Her daughter, Sherri Paul, recently visited the garden, where she ran her hands gently through the loose dirt. She is one of Morgan’s four adult children.
“She would grow potatoes, beets," Sherri said. "She would grow squash, kale, butter lettuce, string beans. I mean, anything."
Sherri is comforted by her twin sister, Sheila Paul. Their mother was a member of the Audubon Society and spent many days tending to this patch of green. Morgan also had two sons, Derek Paul and Vance Morgan.
“She was so proud of the fruits of her labor," Sheila said. "She was so, just so excited every harvest season. She would just like encourage everyone to come down. She loved spinach because it was one of the things that gave her strength. So, she always had that in her garden.”
Morgan was originally from New York City, but moved to Boston with her parents as a young child and grew up in Roxbury. For years, she served as president of Warren Gardens Cooperative Apartments. When she was 74, she moved into Forest Hills Villa-Cooperative, where she served as the association’s president.
Though surrounded by concrete most of her life, Morgan was animated by nature: things that grew, that rose to the surface, that bloomed. Walking through the Garden Center, her daughter Sheila said it was here among the vegetables and flowers where her mom was most comfortable.
“Every time we went out, she would be pointing out trees," Sheila said. "She would tell me the names of trees and plants. She just loved nature, I guess growing up in the city as she got older, it was a refuge for her. She found her serenity here, her peace.”
Morgan was born on June 6, 1942, the daughter of Daisy M. Morgan and William J. Morgan. For years, she worked as an administrative assistant at Northeastern University and studied broadcasting at Boston University.
Morgan was known as an activist heavily involved in her community, protesting police violence in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Roxbury in 2014. She also worked full-time to support her large extended family, including four children, nine grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two surviving siblings. She also had a slew of cousins and friends. Sherri said her mom was there for all of them.
“My mom was like the matriarch of our family," she said. "Everybody went to her for everything, for advice. There was numerous family members that used to live with us through their transition. She said, you could stay with me as long as you're going to school or you're working. She was always encouraging everybody.”
On their birthdays, they could always expect a call from the matriarch — especially the grandchildren.
Another regular ritual was Jean Leslie Morgan’s Saturday night dinners.
“She made these wonderful ribs and macaroni and cheese. Southern stuff. Every Saturday, people be coming over,” Sherri said.
And then there were the annual family reunions, with everyone singing The O’Jays song, "Family Reunion," or Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker,” in tribute to Morgan’s roots.
In February, Morgan traveled to Atlanta to be with her younger sister, who had slipped into a coma after suffering a stroke. It was before hospital visitors were required to wear masks and temperatures were checked at the door. Morgan spent every waking hour at the hospital. After her sister passed away, Morgan returned to Boston, where Sherri soon grew concerned after she spoke with her mother by telephone.
“My mother, when she ran around a lot, she would rest for a couple of days. ‘I just need to rest,’” she said. “‘Yes, Sherri, I just have to get some rest.’ Then the next day, I called her and she's out of breath. And my sister lives close. I says, ‘You need to go over there and see how she's doing’. And then my sister went and she said, ’Sherri, yeah, we gotta take her to the hospital.’”
Morgan’s health deteriorated quickly, Sheila said.
“So, when they determined that there was nothing else that they could do for her, they allowed one family member to go to the hospital just to say goodbye. So that was me," Sheila said. "They allowed me to come up, and I was able to video-in the family. And everyone got to say goodbye.”
On a recent warm Sunday afternoon, Sheila and Sherri stood by their mom’s garden and reflected on her impact.
“I would come down here with her five to six times a year just to help her plant and then harvest,” Sheila said. “She always encouraged us — 'Come to the garden!' — coming down with the kids, her grandkids, and allowing them to pick the vegetables and harvest them. And then they would actually eat the cherry tomatoes, which were so sweet and juicy.”
Sheila and Sherry said they plan to bring the entire family to the garden. It will be the jumping off point for the next family reunion, Sherri said.
“This place is so beautiful," Sherri said. "All the kids, everybody in the family, wants to participate in getting her garden back up and keeping it.”