With candles lit — and a mix of tears and mournful smiles — they gathered outside the Albertsons on Steilacoom Boulevard in Lakewood to pay tribute. In total, more than a hundred people showed up earlier this month, according to an unsuspecting family still coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.
People called her Sunshine. It was fitting, because sunshine is exactly what Elvira Mangaoang Root brought to peoples’ lives.
Sunshine was a mother and grandmother. She was a friend and coworker. For many, she was a reason to stop by the grocery store — whether they needed groceries or not.
It’s not every day that I write a column about a checker at Albertsons.
Then again, it’s not every day that a community loses someone like Sunshine.
“Occasionally, you find those people who I say are angels walking among us, and she was one of those people,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
Dammeier met Sunshine on the campaign trail many years ago, he recalled, quickly forging a friendship. Over time, she became a fervent supporter, though Dammeier was quick to point out that Sunshine was different.
“I would never call her a political activist,” Dammeier said. “She was someone who passionately believed in our system, believed in us electing leaders … If she believed you were good, she was all in. There was no holding back.”
“She made everyone feel special,” added Dammeier, who visited Sunshine in the hospital days before her death.
It’s a sentiment you hear again and again when talking to the people who knew Sunshine best.
On Sept. 9, Root passed away after a brief battle with an aggressive form of cancer. The disease progressed quickly, taking Root and her family by surprise, according to one of her 14 grandchildren, Carmen Lewis.
Root was 73, but to those who knew her, she will be remembered for the child-like joy she brought to everything she did, and to those around her.
There was no missing Sunshine.
Whether it was her car — a gold PT Cruiser with purple flames climbing up its hood — or her choice of clothing — particularly on the Fourth of July, when the proud immigrant would don the wildest of red, white and blue attire — Sunshine was frequently the center of attention.
According to Lewis, however, the real reason her “lola” touched as many people as she did was because of the attention she reserved for others.
“Even up to her last days, she was still smiling and still spreading joy as much as she could,” said Lewis, who recalled the hugs her grandmother would serve up from her checkout line, the candy she kept in her apron for the children who would come through, and the songs or giggle she would burst into at a moment’s notice
“If she could bring joy to anyone in any way, she was going to do it,” Lewis said.
In many ways, Sunshine’s story is the story of America itself.
She was born in the Philippines, and met her husband of five decades, Ron Root, there while he was serving in the Air Force. The couple married in 1969, and by 1980, they had settled in California near Beale Air Force Base. Sunshine worked for nearly 20 years at the base exchange before moving to Spanaway in 1999.
Spanaway is where Sunshine began her long career at Albertsons. Most recently, she worked for years at the grocery chain’s Steilacoom Boulevard location.
It’s difficult to say who enjoyed the relationship more — Sunshine or her customers.
Lewis recalled the way her grandmother, a devout Christian, would get dressed for work, even on her days off, just in case she was needed at the store.
“She had a really strong work ethic and would come in no matter what,” Lewis said. “She was very consistent and very loyal.”
Many of her customers, meanwhile, recalled the smiles she brought to their faces and the way she treated everyone like family.
In the wake of her grandmother’s death, Lewis started hearing from them — people who would wait in an extra long line just to get a chance to see Sunshine or stop by the store just to get a hug and a word of encouragement.
Many told her that Sunshine was there for them when they needed it most. They’re words that bring solace to grieving family, helping to ease the pain ever so slightly.
Sunshine’s family always knew she was special.
Turns out, so did a lot of people.
“You have probably heard this plenty of times, but she made you feel like you belonged to her,” read one of hundreds of notes collected in a memory box at the Albertsons after Root’s death.
“God bless you Sunshine for your beautiful soul,” the note continued.
“I will try to continue your legacy by being just as kind.”
I can’t think of a more fitting tribute.