Love Letter to my Prettyman Family

Forgive me, family, for writing such a personal letter in such a public way, but I knew of no better way of reaching all of you at the same time. And what harm is there in the whole world knowing how awesome you are and how much I love you all? Our family is facing challenges, so I thought it would be a good time to convey to you how important you are to me (and I think I can safely speak for all of us in our generation).

We’ve been through some tough times, since the very beginning, but the house that Harry and LaVon built is still strong. From his very humble beginnings and meager education, Harry went off to war, but hard work, stubbornness, and an abundance of common sense saw him survive to come home to his sweetheart, a woman he loved more than anything on earth. Together they built a family out of love and hard work. Harry worked every day of his life to make sure his kids would have opportunities that he never did, and still found time to stand up for the rights of others. Quit was not a word either of them recognized in their vocabulary.

How lucky was I, to grow up with three uncles and an aunt? In Swahili, aunts and uncles are recognized for a more important role. The aunt is “mama mkubwa” (big mother) or “mama mdogo” (small mother), depending on her age relative to the parent, and uncles are either “baba mkubwa” or “baba mdogo” (big father or small father). This captures your role so much more appropriately than “aunt” or “uncle,” because of course it takes a village to raise a child, and each of you has played such an important part in our upbringing.

At various points, all of you were our babysitters. But “babysitter” is so lacking in describing such an important role. Teacher, mentor, role model, friend, and yes, parent, at various times. I vividly remember a summer spent with Uncle Leo sometime in the late 1970’s, taking long walks along the railroad tracks to fishing holes while he told me all sorts of tall tales with that mischievous little twinkle in his eye. He was home from a war, in between Air Force enlistments, trying to chart the course of his life, and I had not yet entered school, a wide-eyed youngster with endless questions. He patiently answered all those questions and waited for more.

I don’t think I can ever express how much each of you has meant to me. Leo, the elder brother, whose letters from far-flung places infected me with wanderlust from an early age. He showed me how big this world is, and how much there is out there to see, taught me to embrace curiosity. Gayle, the selfless and compassionate teacher, always first to help someone in need, and never afraid to stand up for what was right. Eldon, the superhero without a cape, organizing union miners against Big Coal. I was convinced that my uncle the UMW organizer was the toughest and most fearless SOB to ever walk the earth. And Lori, the caregiver. Nurses sacrifice everything to ease the suffering of others. The very definition of selfless sacrifice. You have inherited LaVon’s enormous caring heart.

Wouldn’t Harry and LaVon be proud? That stubborn sense of justice that Harry held onto with so much pride lives on in each of you, and each of us. A man with more steel in his spine than anyone I’ve ever known. Look at what it instilled in all of you. Never backing down from a fight, especially if it’s a fight for what’s right. Combined with LaVon’s enormous empathy, always looking out for someone in need. What a wonderful combination. You have no idea how much that has inspired me.

And look at the legacy you have all created in your own families. Sons and daughters and grandchildren that you can be enormously proud of. Every one of them carrying on that legacy of hard-working decent people doing the right thing and fighting for what’s right. I’m so proud to have all of them as my cousins.

We’ve faced tough times. We lost Leo last year, but he lives on in our memories. A life cut too short, but a life very well-lived. Jeff’s fight (and triumph!) against cancer has been one of the bravest and most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. We still face tough challenges ahead. But imagine the virtual ass-whooping Harry would have inflicted if any one of us would have said, “I quit, it’s too hard.”

We fight, with that stubbornness that defines a Prettyman. We won’t win every battle, but if we face them together, as a family, we will endure. We don’t face any challenge alone. I may be half a world away, but I’m always with you in mind and spirit, as all of us are.

Time marches on, there’s never enough of it. So, let me tell you how much I love each of you and how much I respect, admire and appreciate each and every one you. You are all my heroes and role models. As the challenges emerge, just know that the house Harry and LaVon built will endure for generations to come, and those core values of compassion, respect, integrity and an ironclad stubborn dedication to fight for justice will never die. I love you all, and I’ve always got your back. We’ve got this.

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