I experienced a deep loss on December 9, 2015. Raymond Casanova Penfield, a lifelong friend, passed away on that day at the age of ninety-eight.
Ray was an extraordinary man. He and my dad became friends right after WWII. They were both marketing guys in Chicago. Ray was already married: he had asked Thelma to be his wife the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He went back to Europe right after their wedding and ended up serving on the ground in Europe for five years, all the way through the Allied campaign in Italy.
They lived the high life in post-war Chicago: clubs and dinners and dancing. Ray and Thelma would double date with my dad and whomever he was going out with at the time. They were the first couple to meet my mom when she came into the picture.
When Ray and Thelma started a family, they moved to California to begin a new life. A few years later, my folks followed. (My sister and I were toddlers, about the same age as their two daughters.) Ray was just the kind of guy to invite us to live with them in Berkeley. The four of them and the four of us were inseparable. Afterwards, he offered us the use of their little rustic cabin in Tahoe for as long as we wanted.
Things didn’t work out for my dad in California, so we moved back to Chicago. But the friendship continued. Every summer, we would make the cross-country drive to San Francisco. Ray opened his home to us. I have a flood of memories of summer days with Ray taking time to take us everywhere and summer evenings filled wonderful dinners and loads of laughter.
I moved to the Bay Area to go to college. Ray was the one who had written me the reference that I’m sure caught the Stanford admissions’ eyes. Ray was the one to pick me up at the airport. Ray was the one who made sure their home was my home. And as my relationship with my dad became more and more strained, Ray was the one who listened. Ray was the one who held my hand. Ray was the rock for me.
When my mom died, there was no question that her service would be held in their home. (My parents had since retired to the Bay Area.) We all gathered in the living room and spoke of her and the intertwining of our lives.
Al and I became engaged, and I brought him to meet Ray and Thelma. The two of them opened their hearts to us. We watched how they were together. Ray was a great punster and loved to make Thelma laugh. They hugged each other and went out their way to be kind to each other. Neither of us had experienced this in our own families. We learned about how to love, how to be married. Ray again offered his home to us: we held our California wedding ceremony in the same living room.
We stayed with Ray for a while after Thelma passed away. We went through boxes full of his family photographs, the three of us sitting on the floor of his closet. He told us stories of his life. How he was a boy soprano in a cathedral choir in New York City. How he met Thelma. How he joined the Army. How he created a fake milk product called Klim, i.e. milk spelled backwards. How he was part of the early days of bringing BART to the Bay Area.
Ray had a piece of very good fortune when he was in his eighties. The inheritance that had been denied him for family reasons when he went off to war was finally released when his sister passed away. He now had the financial freedom to do what he had wanted to do since he was a child: sing.
He started taking piano lessons. He traveled to London to visit his daughter, a cabaret singer on the European club circuit. He wrote songs and performed them. He recorded and created a Facebook Page to post his videos. He lived with an infectious enthusiasm, still making puns, still generous, and filled with even more wisdom.
The last time Al and I had dinner with Ray, we told him how he and Thelma had changed our lives. He wouldn’t take any credit, saying that he, too, had made mistakes. On one of his very last days, though, he said that he had heard Thelma talking to him. She was telling him how happy she was that she would see him soon.
Who is your family? It may not be the people you are related to by blood. If you need to, you might find real parents when you when you look beyond your birth certificate. You might find other siblings all around you when your own have betrayed you. It may be someone who gives you a new way to see the world. It may be someone who loves you unconditionally, happy when you are happy, there for you when you are lost.
And you, too, can be family to those who don’t have they ones they should. Be kind, be generous. Open your home. Share your wisdom. Share your laughter. Show what it means to truly love.