Why Everyone loved the Quiet and Powerful Paula Sommers . . . and why we so Desperately miss her

On Monday, August 31, 2020, Paula Ann Sommers passed on to the place where only the kindest and most loving people on the planet go after death. We don’t know the exact location, but she’ll be there, sharing her angelic love and kindness. Paula was 91 years old, living in a small family group home in Woodinville, WA. She was suffering from dementia and had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Paula was born to Angelo and Lucille Costanzo in Portland, Oregon. She had two older brothers, Robert (Bob) and Lawrence (Larry) Costanzo. Paula loved her parents and her older brothers, often telling stories of their years together growing up on the Oregon coast. Paula’s stories of Seaside and Arch Cape made these locations mystical and magical to the 13 cousins (children of Bob, Larry, and Paula).

After graduating from Seaside High School in 1948, Paula worked at Patty’s Fountain. In the summer of 1948, Max Sommers walked into the restaurant with a mutual friend. The friend, knowing Paula already had a boyfriend (or two), bet Max that Paula wouldn’t accept a ride home with him. Max took the bet. Not long after Paula saw Max—and his new yellow convertible—Max won the bet. In Max’s words, the bigger prize was to be with the love of his life. Last November, 2019, was Paula and Max’s 70th wedding anniversary. 

In 1949, with the help of a VA loan, Paula and Max purchased City Shade Company in Vancouver, Washington. She worked at City Shade with Max for over 44 years. Paula regularly confessed to stealing cash from the company’s cash-box. Having absolutely no ability for stealth or deceit, she confessed to her so-called crimes, just as openly as she shared her heart and love with everyone who entered the doors at City Shade. Among her many remarkable gifts, Paula exuded warmth, genuine caring for others, and unmitigated kindness; she created moments in time and space that made people feel loved, accepted, and prized. In the days following her death, we (her children) have heard dozens of stories of how she unselfishly provided comfort to others. Around Christmas, virtually anyone who entered her home received a gift. For several years she gave out gym bags; other years there were shirts, sweaters, and blouses; still other years, games, toys, and fudge. Her kindness and generosity had no bounds.

As the daughter of an Italian American immigrant, Paula experienced discrimination. Then, as a Catholic, she met, fell in love with, and married a Jewish man. These experiences fueled her determination to reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination with an intensity that might have been labeled as hate (but Paula was philosophically opposed to using the word hate for anything). Instead of railing in negativity against racism, sexism, and homophobia, Paula simply lived her values, welcoming everyone into her bubble of love and kindness. The Christian family next door, the Jewish relatives, the Black family up the street, the lesbian daughter of friends, people on the street living in poverty, Muslims she had never met, children at restaurants . . . to be in proximity of Paula put everyone in danger of a hug, a gift, a smile, an empathic ear, and her unwavering love and acceptance. 

Children from the neighborhood came to the Sommers home just as much to be with Paula as to see her children. There was only one Black family in the neighborhood. Paula loved that family with all her heart, soul, and spirit. When they were hungry, she fed them. If the boy who was struggling to understand his sexuality needed to talk, he wandered down the street and sought out Paula. Like moths to a flame, children were instantly attracted to “Mrs. Sommers,” because they saw her for what she was, an oasis of love and acceptance in a world of judgment. Despite this, Paula was nearly oblivious of her popularity. As is true with other Catholic saints, Saint Paula walked humbly in the world, never overestimating herself, while quietly living out her deep values of love, acceptance, kindness, and generosity.

Along with her talents for customer service, listening, and parenting, Paula was also an excellent cook. Every meal was an event that didn’t start until everyone was seated. Special guests got the coveted lace tablecloth, but everyone got food and comfort that would linger in their memories. Paula especially loved desserts. Everyone who knew anything knew that if fresh cookies weren’t on the counter, they could find a cache of snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, pumpkin bread, or lemon poppyseed bread in the third drawer on the south end of kitchen. If you came for dinner, it was advisable to “save room in your stomach” for Paula’s pies of the lemon meringue, pumpkin, pecan, apple, and other varieties. Her cheesecakes were to die for. Paula had a mathematical formula for calculating precisely how many pies (or cheesecakes or cakes) were required for a particular meal. She took the number of guests, and divided by two. If eight people were expected, she made four pies. Despite being teased by her children for constantly overestimating dessert needs, in the end, rarely did any of Paula’s desserts exist after noon the following day. Either Paula sent generous servings away with happy recipients, or her naysayers ate all the leftover desserts for breakfast.

In the Sommers family, there were very few rules, because when everyone feels loved and prized for their unique personalities, very few family rules are needed. She never yelled at her children. She never hit her children (although she did chase one child around with an eggbeater until they both dissolved in laughter). One of Paula’s most famous rules was, “We never use the word hate in our family.” She offered an alternative, “You can say you dislike something very intensely.” The word hate was simply the opposite of everything Paula believed in and stood for. In rare cases, when one sibling insulted another, Paula would counter, “If John’s dumb, you’re dumb too, because you’re both in the same family.” To this day, the Sommers children have no memory of sibling rivalry. The Sommers family was a team; Paula gently guided us away from conflict and toward love. When angry, she vacuumed and cleaned the house until everything was spotless and her anger had diminished. Freudian sublimation was never so complete. No one went to bed angry. Everyone was valued. No one doubted Paula’s love.

For many years, Paula mailed out so many greeting, sympathy, and birthday cards that we believe she single-handedly drove up the stock price of Hallmark Cards. Consistent with her character and values, she signed every card the same way: “Love always, Paula.”

For Valentine’s Day, 2010, Regence BlueShield of Oregon made a video recording of Paula and Max talking about their relationship and marriage. During the recording, Max said “Paula is the most unselfish person you ever saw, and you can’t help but take on some of those traits for fear of looking bad if you don’t.” This was the essence of Paula Ann (Costanzo) Sommers. Whenever she was, through kindness, love, and generosity, she inspired everyone to be better, lest they not keep up.

Paula is survived by her husband, Max (Vancouver, WA), her children Gayle (Vancouver, WA and Surprise, AZ), Peggy (Kirkland, WA), and John (Absarokee/Missoula, MT), and her grandchildren Chelsea Bodnar (Missoula, MT), Jason Lotz (Chino Hills, California), Patrick Klein (Vancouver, WA), Aaron Lotz (Seattle, WA), Rylee Sommers-Flanagan (Helena, MT), and Stephen Klein (Los Angeles, CA). Paula is also survived by eight great grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and friends of the family, many of whom who refer to her as their “Favorite Aunt,” or “Quite possibly the kindest person I have ever met.”

Memorial plans for Paula are to be arranged. The family is considering online and face-to-face alternatives. Paula was a staunch supporter of people with limited incomes and resources. Memorial donations can be made in honor of Paula Sommers to whatever charity you believe would fulfill her desire to help those in need. More importantly, she would want all who read this to live in ways to spread happiness, unity, and love. In the spirit of Paula’s life and values, we hope—in her honor—you will take a day, a week, a month, a year, or the rest of your life to intentionally share kindness, acceptance, and generosity with others. And, as Paula would say, “Love always.”


34 thoughts on “Why Everyone loved the Quiet and Powerful Paula Sommers . . . and why we so Desperately miss her”

  1. John, I’m sorry for your and your family’s great loss. Thanks for this beautiful tribute. 70 years of marriage! It made my day.

  2. A real loss and a true inspiration….you were a lucky son❤️

    Daniel Gallacher
    Retired Historical Consultant
    Historical Research Associates
    Missoula, Montana

    Sent from my IPhone

  3. I didn’t know your mother, John, but wish I had. She was truly someone who made the world – all of it – a better place. Of course, I can see her reflected in you and without doubt, your family will carry on her legacy of love.

    1. Thanks Jean. She was consistently kind and generous. I should have been nicer when I was a teenager. . . but I was a teenage boy, which I suppose accounts for something. I hope you and your family are doing as well as possible in these challenging times!

  4. What a lovely lovely essay. You are so fortunate to have grown up with her.

    We can all work at emulating or absorbing her spirit.

    1. Thanks Nancy! I was pretty darn lucky. I suppose that’s a form of privilege. I just got plopped into a pretty darn amazing family. I didn’t even know how good it was. But I do now. Speaking of families, I hope you and yours and your grandkids are healthy and well.

  5. Dear John, Thank you for this loving portrait of your mom. I used to think all your virtues came from your dad, having met Max once long ago. Now I have a fuller picture to help me understand your unfailingly positive and affirming ways, and why whenever I came to visit you offered brownies or ice cream. You have absorbed the best of what you were given, my fortunate friend. Blessings on you and Rita as you integrate this great love, this great loss. Love to you both, Gary

    On Sat, Sep 12, 2020 at 2:54 PM John Sommers-Flanagan wrote:

    > johnsommersflanagan posted: ” On Monday, August 31, 2020, Paula Ann > Sommers passed on to the place where only the kindest and most loving > people on the planet go after death. We don’t know the exact location, but > she’ll be there, sharing her angelic love and kindness. Paula was 9″ >

    1. Thanks Gary! Haha on the brownies and ice cream. Maybe I’m more like my mom than I thought. However, I think it was because you’re one of the few people who I felt, like me, really appreciated those items in quantity. Love always right back to you and Joyce!

  6. John, this is such a beautiful tribute. It makes me sad to have not known her. And of course, I am sending you a big hug for your loss.

    1. Thanks Sarah! My mom would have loved you a lot. . . and so I’m sad you didn’t meet her too. Once, at a party at my married student housing apartment, Bernie fell into a closet while talking with her. I think she remembered that partway through her dementia.

  7. Hi Mr. John- I’m so very sorry for your loss. I can feel she was such a beautiful soul with quiet strength, filled with agape love. What a blessing to have been called son having her as a mother. Praying for you all’s comfort and I know she is facing merrily and rejoicing. I love reading everything you post. She will continue to live through all she left behind- she was a powerful heart.
    Thank you for sharing her with us.

  8. Dear John and family, Thank you for writing a beautiful and rich description of your Mom. She sounds like a delightful, wise person. She had the psychology of relationships, especially parenting, down pat. I see her wonderful influence in you. And I send you love and hugs of support through this time. It is an indescribable mixture of sorrow and appreciation, isn’t it? Diane

    1. Thanks Diane! I got lucky with parents and in life. Thanks for the love and hugs. I hope you and Elizabeth and your family and friends are all as well as possible given these challenging times. All my best, John

  9. Dear Sommers Family, Paula sounds like an amazing individual. How wonderful to have had such an inspiring individual with those amazing qualities. “Love always,” I would like to borrow that from her.

  10. So sorry for the loss of your mum John, it’s a hard, hard day when one of our parents go on ahead, no matter how much we prepare for it. Sending love across the ocean to you and your family

  11. Best to you and family, what fine gifts your mom left for you! And all that is left to do, is to continue sharing those gifts, of love, compassion, and empathy, shear elegance! And no wonder you shared all those very tasty confectionaries!

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