Shirley Leighton was a petite woman who slept little and worked hard and was devoted to her son, even as he battled mental illness and alcoholism.
Leighton, 68, whose son is now charged with killing her, was remembered by her friends and family Tuesday as a “wonderful” and “super” person, an energetic woman and a creative artist who started her own business sewing and selling organic-catnip pillows for cats, in addition to working for Cuddledown and L.L. Bean.
She and her husband, Thomas, suffered with their son for years as he struggled with bipolar disorder, depression and alcoholism.
Married and divorced three times, Andrew Leighton, 46, has two children out of state and is not allowed to see them, friends said.
Kristen Angis knows the family well. She was married to Andrew Leighton in the early 1990s. She stopped by to visit his mother about five months ago.
“She would talk about him and cry,” Angis said. “She said he had a nervous breakdown. His life wasn’t doing well for him.”
Angis was sympathetic. She remembers the Andrew Leighton who was a charmer. She shared their wedding photo – even though she has remarried in the intervening 20 years – on social media so people could see the fun, happy-go-lucky person he was as a young man.
“It’s just a shame people will portray him as a vicious murderer who killed his own mother,” she said. “He loved his mother very much. They were a very close family.”
Andrew Leighton was charged with murder Friday, accused of shooting his mother in their home in Falmouth as she prepared to call Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook to have him committed. His father found her body and fought with Andrew before getting out of the house and running for help.
Andrew Leighton held off police for five hours before he surrendered late Friday night and police found his mother’s body. He had bought a .40-caliber handgun the day before the shooting.
It was the culmination of years of quiet struggle for the family.
“They were very private people,” Angis said. “They were just very heartbroken that they couldn’t save their own son.”
Shirley Leighton came from Freedom and graduated from the Maine College of Art in Portland, said Sumner Daniels, Thomas Leighton’s cousin.
Thomas Leighton grew up in Damariscotta and graduated from Northeastern University in Boston. He tried teaching school but didn’t care for it.
They had Andrew and his younger sister, Kate.
Andrew Leighton was a nice kid who mowed neighbors’ lawns, said Steve Ryder, who for decades has lived a few doors away from the Leightons on Edgewater Road.
Ryder, who raised two daughters, said, “They all had crushes on Andy. He was a good-looking guy.”
Tom Leighton went into commercial real estate and his son followed him into the business. The Leightons had a summer house in Harpswell.
When Angis married Leighton, she was still a teenager and he was three years older.
“We were dating for the longest time. I knew he was a recovering alcoholic when I married him. I actually called off the wedding the first time,” she said.
After he had a period of sobriety, she eventually said yes. But soon after the wedding, he started drinking again, and taking lithium and Prozac, she said.
She believed he was manic depressive.
“He would be happy-go-lucky one minute, and the next he’d be in a funk and be by himself for days at a time,” she said. “He was very mad at himself, almost like he wanted help.”
They divorced after two years of marriage. Andrew Leighton remarried twice, and worked for some years in Eastport. He moved in with his parents about six years ago.
Thomas Leighton once told Daniels that Andrew Leighton had been hospitalized. Daniels knew little about it but has concluded that the hospital stays must have been voluntary because Andrew Leighton passed a background check when he bought his gun at Cabela’s in Scarborough on Thursday. An involuntary commitment disqualifies a person from buying a gun.
“He had been to rehab several times,” Daniels said. “Tommy told me (Andrew) was hospitalized for bipolar disorder.”
Angis visited Shirley Leighton this winter because she had heard that Andrew had overdosed on pills.
“She said he didn’t want to come out of the house,” Angis said. “She was amazed he had driven his father up to Togus. He was afraid to drive on the highway. He was very shaky and nervous.”
People who knew Shirley Leighton admired her.
“She slept about three or four hours a night,” Daniels said. Her mail order business, which she started late in life, was very successful.
“Tommy was retired and doing all the shipping, but it got too big and he couldn’t handle the shipping,” said Daniels, who described Tom Leighton as being like a brother.
“If you wanted a great neighbor, you’d have Shirley Leighton,” Ryder said. “Shirley was a worker, I’ll tell you that. You’d see her out there with the shovel and rake. She was just a hard worker, a real Mainer.”
A few years ago, at his and his wife’s 45th wedding anniversary, Ryder had a chance to talk to Shirley. She told him she didn’t drink and talked about her son’s challenges.
Jean Riordan, the Leightons’ next-door neighbor, described Shirley Leighton as “a lovely lady.”
“We talked over the fence a lot,” she said.
Riordan said she saw Andrew periodically, but never had a deep conversation with him. “He was just kind of hanging around,” she said.
Angis still has the duvet cover that Shirley Leighton made her as a wedding present.
“She was the sweetest possible woman, one of those people, everybody who she came in touch with probably is crying right now,” Angis said.
“She was probably looking at him saying, ‘Andy, I love you and just want to help you and if you shoot me, I will still love you.’ “
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]