As far back as she can remember, Brenda Grant had always cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her brother Leatrice. If not for her him, she’d probably pass on the big cooking day, she said. Growing up in Austin, Brenda, who goes by her married last name, was close with her brother and their sister. The Collins family included parents Emma and dad Leatrice Sr. They’ve lived on the West Side since the late 1950s.
Brenda was preparing to cook dinner again this year for her brother, whose nickname is, ironically, “Pumpkin.” But now she can’t bring herself to do it, given what happened just three weeks ago in their Austin neighborhood.
Pumpkin suffered from a mental illness and took medication. He paid weekly visits to Loretto Hospital to meet with his specialists. Pumpkin would take the bus by himself, so he was known on their block near Mayfield and Superior. Sometimes he’d head up to the neighborhood store to buy his favorite snacks-cookies, cake or a pop.
Brenda, 56, thought that’s where he went on the morning of Nov. 4. Pumpkin was in the care of Brenda’s son, Bobby Grant. All three lived in the same apartment building – Bobby and Pumpkin in the third-floor apartment and Brenda in a first-floor unit.
Bobby called her at work that Wednesday when Pumpkin didn’t come home. They went to the corner store, and then called Pumpkin’s doctors at Loretto, thinking he may have had an appointment that morning but failed to tell them. He wasn’t at either place. They tried searching the neighborhood. Several hours passed without finding him. It was now around 2 in the afternoon. Bobby went to the 15th District Police Station to report Pumpkin missing. Brenda checked several places, asking if anyone had seen her brother.
She walked into a Laundromat and asked two young ladies about her brother. She described what he was wearing – blue jeans, white shoes, baseball cap.
“It’s like they didn’t want to say anything to get me upset, like they were hesitating,” Brenda recalled.
The girls said that a man fitting that description was “jumped on” and lay in the street outside a store on Chicago Avenue. Brenda rushed to the area and ran into an acquaintance from the neighborhood.
“He said some guys had beat up my brother and that the police and ambulance were out there,” she said.
But there was no one, no police or ambulance at the store. She went home, as did her son – both had returned earlier to see if Pumpkin came back, but he never did. She called several hospitals, including West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park near Austin and Ontario. Brenda was told that a “John Doe” fitting her brother’s description had been transported to the Cook County Morgue.
Brenda called the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. They gave her the news she feared: Her older brother was dead. The Medical Examiner told her Pumpkin had an enlarged heart and died of natural causes. They said he had cardiovascular disease, which showed in a bloating of the legs. She was told he had no bruises or other physical signs of trauma. On Thursday, she talked to a police detective who concurred with the medical examiner’s findings.
Pumpkin’s funeral was held last Friday. But Brenda can’t get out of her mind what the girls from the Laundromat and the acquaintance on the street told her.
“Why would he say that, and the girls in the Laundromat – it’s like they knew something, even though they weren’t there and didn’t see my brother get beat up, but someone knew what happened to him.”
Pumpkin, who was born on Feb. 13, 1951, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1960s, Brenda said. Other than his mental ailment, he never complained of any other health issues. And with his weekly visits to his doctor, Brenda said she thought they were taking care of his physical as well as mental well-being. She said she didn’t know about any heart ailment.
“Maybe someone did jump on him or tried to rob him and he went into shock or something. I just don’t know. I mean, I know what the medical examiner said, but when you just don’t know what really happened, that’s the hard part.”
Brenda recalled something being wrong with her brother mentally when they were kids. Their mother took him to see specialists, and he took special education classes. But Pumpkin was otherwise a normal kid, she said. The family worked at their dad’s little grocery store near California and Washington. It was a little storefront; their most popular item were snow-cones, or “snowballs” as they’re known on the West Side. Pumpkin worked in the back with his dad most of the time, Brenda fondly recalls. Their oldest sister, 60, lives out of state. Pumpkin had lived under the care of their mom until she died in 2001. Brenda’s son was always close to his uncle so he asked to care for Pumpkin, who mostly stayed at home. He liked to watch television.
The family is originally from Vicksburg, Miss., but later moved to Chicago. They’ve been in Austin ever since. Pumpkin also wrote poetry. Brenda has a bunch at her home.
“He would write about different things. He even wrote one about our dad when he died,” Brenda said.
Friends and family asked if she was still going to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year. She said she can’t because Pumpkin isn’t here. She took her brother’s death hard, but said she’s healing. Interestingly enough, she said the new movie about Michael Jackson’s last concern rehearsal, This it It, helped. She and Pumpkin loved Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five in the 1970s and on through his solo career as an adult.
“The last song in the movie was “Man in the Mirror,” and it just did something to me,” Brenda said. “It’s hard to explain. But it just showed me that you have to go on. I just see things a little different after that. I see things more seriously.”