I was twenty before I knew my father had a less than ideal childhood. He didn’t live a life open to discussing a past he’d pushed behind him long before. I didn’t fully know it until my grandfather passed away and I stood in the kitchen and watched my dad’s face, unchanged, from the news. I’m sure he felt something. I’m just not sure what it was.
Moved to Alaska when I was eight, I didn’t grow up around relatives. I made my own family of grandparents and cousins from the neighborhood, choosing who I would call my own rather than linked unwillingly by blood. And in the summers, or sometimes when my parents grew tired of the cold, we ventured back to Oregon for vacation, descending on relatives for weeks, carrying on with the cousins as if we had never left and then disappearing for years again.
My dad came from a large family. His grandparents had 15 children in the tiny town of Cottage Grove, Oregon and they fanned out, being Catholics, as if the bible was speaking solely to them when commanding ‘Go forth and multiply’. So as my dad grew up there were always many aunts and uncles there. Giving him advice, a summer job, a pat on the back, showing him what a family was supposed to look like.
This morning one of those aunts passed away. I didn’t know her very well, honestly. A handful of visits, memories, warm feelings cross my mind as I see her face in flashes of my childhood. She always shared stories of my dad as a boy, something I never truly believed he’d been until she painted his picture in words. From what I knew of her, she was solid. A worker. A woman who’s threshold was never crossed without a hug and a warm welcome whether you were a beggar on the street or Jesus himself.
And all across my Facebook page today is post after post spreading the expected news of the passing of Bonnie Raisor Pynch ,who faced a short bout of cancer with all the faith of a woman who knew without doubt where her soul would be, upon breathing her last breath. Post, after post of relatives, strangers, friends, people I didn’t even know were connected, memorializing a woman, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a listener to all and a judge of no one.
And it dawns on me as I silently mourn this woman I wish I’d known better, that the impact she had on my dad, on everyone she met, doesn’t just affect that person. Her heart flows through each person she’s touched and into their children. And their children after that. From relatives to neighbors to strangers on the street her existence radiates outward in a ripple effect from Oregon, to Alaska, across the world, from older to younger and for generations and eras to come.
She didn’t build an empire, but she built a family from whoever walked through her door, teaching us all about forgiveness, compassion, and that the word ‘family’ is not to be defined.
This is the legacy of a humble, small town sheep farmer who lived and died in a hundred square miles, whose smile, wave of the hand, and a ‘come on in’ will never be forgotten.