|On the bitter cold night of Jan. 20, 1914, a man placed his pregnant wife on a sled and pulled her
across a frozen Lake Coeur d'Alene to the city of Harrison, Idaho. He was 50 years old, and this was his first
child. He was determined to make it to the hospital. On Jan. 23, Bonita Thompson came into the world.
Within weeks, a flu epidemic hit the community and, of the 18 infants in the area, only two survived. For
the rest of her life, until she passed away on Sept. 13, 2003 at the age of 89, Bonita Ahern believed she
had been selected to survive, marked for a special purpose. She believed that purpose was to care for
children. "She carried the why of this and examined it," son Max Ahern said. "It molded her spirituality
because she thought 'God put me here and let me live for some reason."'
Ahern grew up in the town of Harrison. In 1933, she married Kenneth Ahern. He worked in the office of the
road-building contractor who was putting a new road through town. Four childrentwo boys,
Roger and Max, and two girls, Susan and Janetwere
born as the family followed Kenneth's job around the Northwest. In 1944, they settled in Spokane.
To supplement their income, the family started making tamales using a recipe Kenneth's father had picked
up in his travels at the start of the 20th century. Bonita prepared the tamales in big pots in the basement of
their home. "She made the meat, and the cornmeal," Max Ahern said. "Then she wrapped them in paper
and tied them with string." When Kenneth got home in the evening, he would help with the tamales and,
three nights a week, they were delivered to restaurants and grocery stores in Spokane. They continued
until the 1950s. "The recipe never got out of the family," Max Ahern said. "Mom made me a few tamales
a couple of years ago, and she still made them by hand."
Lake Coeur d'Alene remained a special place to Bonita. She loved to swim and often took the children to the
lake. "Mom had the unique ability to float on her back, and as children we could ride on her stomach without
sinking," son Max said. "In the winter time, she loved to skate over the lake." She belonged to a bridge group
and liked to play cards with her children and grandchildren. "I used to drive over, and we would play cards all
night for a quarter," daughter-in-law Shirley Ahern said. Bonita loved to work crossword puzzles, and she
sewed blankets and gowns for each grandchild. She was a good cook and, because her husband liked her
spaghetti, it became the tradition to have turkey and the trimmings, plus a big pot of spaghetti, for Thanksgiving Dinner.
When Kenneth died in 1976 at the age of 67, Bonita became a widow at the age of 62. She moved to
Bainbridge Island to work as a nanny in the late '70s, and returned to Spokane's South Hill in 1987. In
1995, Bonita survived the loss of Roger, her first-born child. "She said it was the one thing a parent should
never have to do," Max Ahern said. She had had cataract surgery just prior to Roger's death, so Bonita did
the unthinkable. She didn't cry. "She said she couldn't undo the surgery by crying," Max said. "So she
wouldn't allow herself to cry. She held her tears."
In 1988, she met Dean Ferraby. He had survived the loss of three wives and vowed to never marry again.
They became friends, and then companions, sharing the last 15 years of her life. She continued to care for
children, what she considered her life's calling, and she always chose the children she thought needed her
the most. But for the last seven years of her life, Bonita Ahern kept a secret. In 1995, around the time she
lost her son Roger, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She didn't tell anyone, and only referred to her
treatments in vague terms. When the frequency of her treatments increased, Max asked her pointedly,
"Mom, do you have leukemia?" She admitted that she did. "But she told me that she would never give into
the negative power of those words," Max said. "She said it would be a secret between the two of us." Three
weeks later she was gone. On the day she died, Bonita was responsive in the morning but then she began
to slip away. But hours after she had last spoken to anyone, she suddenly sat up and said, "Surely the
presence of God's love is in this place." She said those words twice more, family members say, and then
The family took her ashes and spread them around the base of a small pine tree overlooking the lake near
the homestead where she was born. "She was deeply committed to God," Max Ahern said. "And she lived
her life through that." To view a short multimedia feature Bonita Ahern, go to
and follow the link packaged with the story.