She calls him her "almost son" and Wanita Ray will tell anyone who will listen all about him — and the day that it became that way.
Forty years ago, Brad Nielsen was 16 when he showed up at Ray's home holding a sleeping bag, asking if he could stay the night. It was an odd request considering what had happened earlier that cold, February day.
Ray's 17-year-old son, Larry, was found dead that afternoon, just up the street in an abandoned storage shelter following a two-day search. He had been murdered on his way home from work by a man out on parole.
Ray remembers opening the door that night to see her son's childhood friend standing there. She said she had no hesitation in letting him stay with her and her now-late husband Dar Ray — even on what was the worst night of their lives.
"I told him that I could make up Larry's bed if he wanted me to, and he said, 'Nah, I'll just sleep on the couch if that's all right.'"
Nielsen isn't totally certain what caused him to want to sleep there that night, but he said it changed his life.
"I remember coming to Wanita and Dar's house after work and just wanting to stay here," Nielsen said. "Maybe I was just taking up space. Maybe that's what I felt like I was doing — just filling up a spot. I don't know. It was just one of those deals where I didn't know that I could really do anything. Maybe I thought I could. Maybe it was more for me than anything else."
Nielsen spoke about Larry and the days after he went missing as being really difficult. He spoke about growing up with Larry, having sleepovers and midnight convenience store runs when they were kids.
"Wanita was my Cub Scout den leader, and so a lot of the kids would come to her house," Nielsen recalled. "That was how we met. Larry and I would have sleepovers in the shed out back, and we'd store coins up there so that we could sneak away in the middle of the night to go to the 7-Eleven."
"When we got into high school, we had our different hobbies, but we still stayed good friends. Larry was really into music, and was pushing for some scholarships," Nielsen said. "He had so much ahead of him, and was just getting started."
Larry’s senior year
Ray perked right up when Nielsen spoke about her son and music. She talked about going to Calgary, Canada, with her son on a band trip his senior year at Jordan High School. In fact, Ray was working at Sears at the time and when she wasn't granted the time off, she quit. She was every bit a dedicated mother to her son, which earned her the name "Momma Ray" by his peers.
"Larry played the clarinet, and I went to Calgary on a band trip with him," she recalled. "It was a long trip, and when we were driving through Canada, all the kids were sleeping. I made sure to keep Larry awake because he may never see this again. I kept telling all the kids on the bus to wake up, and one kid from the back of the bus yelled, 'Momma Ray, will you shut up and let us sleep?!' I've been Momma Ray ever since."
Dedication to her son's extracurricular activities wasn't the only thing that kept Ray at the high school. Having not completed high school in her youth, Ray was attending night classes at Jordan High School to get her own diploma at the same time as her son.
A high school graduation never came for her son and there were no more band trips. Nielsen recalled seeing Larry just a couple of days before he went missing.
"When he came up missing, there was a lot of weird stuff that was said," Nielsen said. "The police would ask if he could have run away. We all knew he didn't, and we all said he didn't. I think they came to that conclusion real quick."
"I remember I was working at Minute Lube on 7th East when I got a phone call from my dad, and he just told me, 'After work, you need to come over to Dar and Wanita's.' I just said, 'Just tell me, did they find him?' My dad said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'It wasn't good, was it?' My dad said, 'No.'"
Making sense of senseless things
A few years after Larry's murder, Nielsen served a Latter-day Saint mission and recalled getting a couple of letters from Larry's dad, searching for answers.
"I remember Dar used to write me on my mission, and he asked me to explain to him how God would let something like this happen to someone," Nielsen said. "There was a lot of soul searching because it made me think a lot about that, too. And, you know, it is a hard thing and I think that oftentimes we forget that we can't control other people, and sometimes things that other people do infringe upon our rights.
"There are times throughout my life when I think, 'Larry should be here for this.'"
What he means is spending birthdays with Larry's mom, and having her in the lives of his children. Yet Nielsen and his children have been filling in for Larry since that first night.
Needing each other
As the years went on, Nielsen became estranged from his own family, and as a young dad, he found himself needing help with his own children. What began as Ray tending Nielsen's children during the day, turned into her becoming part of the family and earning a new name: "Grammie."
Nielsen said it all began with him feeling like he was filling a void — to having his own void filled.
"They ended up with grandkids, but in a different way. And I ended up with parents in a different way," Nielsen said. "As much as they adopted me, I adopted them."
Nielsen, who now owns his own landscaping company, used to work in law enforcement and spent some time as a guard at the state prison where the man who murdered his friend was serving time. He described that time of his life as being really hard.
"That was a little hard to look at the person and go, 'Why?' And I don't think he can even answer that question," Nielsen said. "I think that's another thing people forget is how short this time is, and sometimes it's even shorter than you even realize."
As time grows short for Ray, who is getting into her 80s, things have come full-circle with Nielsen once again filling a void. He can often be found at her home — which is the same home she lived in 40 years ago — mowing the lawn, shoveling the walkway, and taking her to hospital stays and doctor appointments.
"When I go to the doctor's office with Wanita, people will say, 'Your mom sure is a hoot!' and I always laugh and say, 'Yeah,’" he said. "Some people will think she's my mother-in-law, and I tell him she's kind of my den mother, and they laugh."
Nielsen's children who grew up calling her Grammie are all adults, and now a new generation of great-grandchildren have come into her life, and her into theirs. Nielsen says it's all part of the journey.
"It's been part of the journey, I think, of taking care of her, and she takes care of us, and takes care of the kids and grandkids," he said. "That's her joy. Her joy is the kids. She finds a lot of happiness in the little ones.
"We all need people who care about us, and who we care about. And that's kind of the way that it's been."