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Abdu’l-Baha urged us to train children who “embodieth all the perfections” in order to “shine out like a lighted taper.” – Compilation on Baha’i Education, p. 27.
As we step into each new century, we can look back and see more clearly the ways in which each parent’s own striving lighted the candles for the generations that followed.
My father, Ray Winn, passed away a year ago, two days after Father’s Day. I have pondered his life in an effort to understand what it means to bring light into the world.
Almost a century ago, my dad’s parents set out from Utah to find opportunities in California. Salt miners stopped them and asked them to build a road, because they had a horse. The couple ended up staying and setting up grocery stores in the small Nevada mining towns along Muddy Springs. They raised cattle, struggled with a belligerent mule and once attempted to raise wild turkeys, who all drowned in a flash flood. After five children reached adulthood, their sixth came as a surprise in 1925, and they called him their little ray of sunshine. The name Ray stuck, a foreshadowing of his future role.
Ray Winn served all those who sought his companionship without discrimination, both the top achiever and the schoolmate who struggled with disabilities. Sometimes, as a teenager, he spent hot Nevada nights camping on a breezy hill, keeping company with the donkey and the town’s one homeless man, ever attendant to the needs of the lonely, the neglected and the underdog.
Dad’s humility was more legendary than his legends. He did not tell his family until he was 70 years old that he had earned a Bronze star during WWII for delivering food to a distant camp across a dangerous road at night. He talked instead about his buddy, a Japanese-American soldier who lost his life on the battlefield, as other Japanese-Americans were scuttled away into internment camps in an era of intense anti-Japanese sentiment. The boy’s family asked Dad to sing at the funeral, and we were privileged to hear him tenderly sing the song, My Buddy, each time my mother nudged him to tell the story.
Dad showed the same unconditional compassion when we moved to a town where he bought his own music store in 1960. He hired an ex-convict for whom he felt empathy—and then trusted the man to teach all of us to play whatever musical instruments we could find in the store.
I remember more than once coming home from school to find a bag of chicken feed on the porch or an old broken rowboat in the yard. I asked my mother for an explanation. She would sigh and say that Dad had bartered whatever a customer offered in exchange for their piano, organ or TV, to save their dignity when they could not make the payments. It meant that his children sometimes went without, and that even at six years old we served as full-time summer field workers, harvesting beans and berries to pay for our own clothes. His example shaped our consciousness.
Whatever job he had, Dad left in the early morning and fell asleep in his chair at night, leaving little time for play. As the middle child of five, I was the youngest to experience life before child labor laws in the US, however, and the next sibling in line became an avid fisherman. Only Brad could lure Dad away from his duties to drive to various rivers, after exhausting all the fishing holes within walking distance. That brother passed away in a tragic auto accident a week after his high school graduation.
Dad profoundly felt the passing of this young son who had tried to bring out his playfulness. Brad’s absence invoked deep soul searching, and after that, Dad reached out to his other children, becoming our close friend throughout our adult lives.
A few months before his 90th birthday—and seven months before his passing—Dad confided that he always feared he had sacrificed too many of our childhood comforts in order to “do the right thing.” He never had the money to fulfill his dream of law school, and had settled for a two-year advertising program. He confessed to my sister and I that as a young man of creative promise, he had turned down a good job at a big advertising firm in Manhattan because, at the time, he worked at the March of Dimes and felt committed to applying his skills to help children with polio. After Salk’s cure for polio, the March of Dimes eliminated his position anyway. Forever after, he had lamented how our childhoods would have differed had he accepted the offer in Manhattan.
That made me think about the promise Baha’u’llah gave us:
An act, however infinitesimal, is, when viewed in the mirror of the knowledge of God, mightier than a mountain. Every drop proffered in His path is as the sea in that mirror. – The Advent of Divine Justice, pp. 65-66.
After expressing surprise about my father’s 65 years of self-doubt, my sister and I looked him squarely in the eye and reminded him that because of his example, his children and grandchildren had always felt drawn to hard work, service to others, and the pursuit of a higher purpose. We assured him that his eternal resume would stand the test of time much better because he listened to his conscience on that fateful day. He seemed, at last, to forgive himself.
Even on those early mornings of my childhood, my father’s example spoke to me in ways he did not realize. Before sunrise, I would creep down the stairs to warm up by the grate of the sawdust heater. Hiding under a table, I would watch him where he sat in the living room, the scriptures open in his lap, his face streaming with tears, his gaze fixed on the window to capture the first light as he prayed for inspiration on how to best use the gift of a new day to serve others. Although I have broadened my religious beliefs since then, the universal truths embodied in his quiet act still served as the best example of faith a parent could give.
Last June, I could not attend my father’s funeral, as I too lay recovering from a life-threatening illness. My sisters sat at his bedside for several pain-filled days. When they could no longer hear his inaudible deathbed pleas, they put the phone receiver to his ear and let him speak with me one last time. He whispered to ask me a special favor—to help him cross that threshold into the next world.
The irony did not escape me. My love and gratitude peaked for the earthly father who had first shown me the threshold to the source of all being–the father who had taught me just what kind of prayer buffs the lens of our inner vision, and helps us see our way beyond a mere temporal existence, to one filled with constancy, compassion, service, sacrifice, faith and effulgent light.