Fran Edstrom Headshot

Last week I drove to Omaha to attend my uncle’s funeral. My favorite uncle, who was unable to fight off the lingering effects of breakthrough COVID, which somehow got into the assisted living home where he and my aunt had recently moved.

He’s probably my favorite uncle because I got to know him when I was on the cusp of adulthood, and could appreciate him as a person, not just the father of my cousins.

Paul Bashus was my Aunt Kay’s husband. Aunt Kay is my mother’s only sister, my favorite auntie, only 13 years older than I am.

When I was sent 1,200 miles from home to come to Winona, Minnesota, to attend the College of Saint Teresa, because that was where my mother went to college, it didn’t occur to me that I would only return home twice a year, once at Christmas and once at the end of the school year. Or, if it had occurred to me, I probably thought it would be fine. I didn’t realize how homesickness can suddenly make you forget your annoying little siblings and your over-vigilant parents and actually yearn for them.

I spent the minor holidays, Halloween, Thanksgiving (I didn’t know that some people eat prime rib on Thanksgiving, not turkey) with roommates or friends. But then came the long Easter break. That, I was to spend with my aunt and uncle in Omaha, a mere eight-hour drive away. A classmate was from Omaha, so her father drove me and a couple Iowans at the spring vacation. It was an especially hairy trip the year that the rivers all breached their banks. We had to get out of Winona early, kids from Mankato couldn’t contact their families (no cell phones, of course), and our drive to Omaha had to be constantly re-routed as bridges were out and roads under water.

Uncle Paul was the kind of dad who always had time to sit and talk. He always had stories to tell, but it wasn’t until after his funeral that I found out the story of his boyhood.

His birth father apparently abandoned the family, which consisted of baby Paul and his mother. His mother got a job, and proceeded to support herself and her only child. After a few years she re-married, and Paul’s last name was changed to his step-father’s. However, the step-father did something, unnamed, that prompted young Paul’s mother to grab him and a few belongings and flee to Colorado, where they lived, and Paul started school.

After a while, they returned to the Omaha area, Paul’s mother got a better job, and the two of them remained a family unit. Paul did move out and lived with a nice Italian family during the week, so that he could attend a better high school in the city, from which he graduated. Paul was a self-proclaimed “Bohunk,” and very proud of the fact.

In high school, he was a gymnast, being a shortish, compact kind of guy. When he went on to college, he got talked into being a wrestler, and was best described as “wily,” wrestling at a light weight.

Paul joined the Marines during the Korean War, and then got a job at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, before returning to Omaha to meet his life’s love and partner, and to work until retirement in IT for Mutual of Omaha.

He took up tennis and golf, golf being a favorite up until very shortly before he died, when my cousin, also named Paul, took him to the course. By that time, Paul Sr. was mostly blind from macular degeneration, but Paul Jr. just pointed his dad in the right direction, and he played a pretty good game.

What I found most remarkable about my uncle, though, was his family life. How, I wonder, did a man who had had such bad luck with fathers become such a wonderful father himself. He was patient, devoted to his wife, involved with his kids’ lives, Boy Scout leader, volunteered in church, and all that. He always had time for the kids. He could sit and listen. He thought they were the most fascinating and wonderful beings in the universe. If he was ever disappointed in their choices, it certainly was not evident to others. If they needed help, he was there, but I don’t think he made their choices for them or became too overbearing or distant.

Now that I’m a parent and grandparent, I find that I have patterned myself after my parents. (“Oh, no! I sound just like my mother!”) I think Uncle Paul’s mother must have been a remarkable woman, my Aunt Kay very loving and supportive.

But most of all, my uncle, a devout man, a fun guy, outgoing, smart, giving, fatherless, an only child, lived his life driven by love for his family: his mother, his wife, of course, and his five children, their spouses and children. I am just glad that I was included in that circle of love. It was remarkable, and he was a remarkable man.