YES, HE WAS A RICH MAN
I never realized the song “If I Were A Rich Man” was so long. But considering the circumstances, I was never more pleased.
My father was a nice, quiet man who, for some reason, could not resist a microphone. He was always affable enough, but rarely initiated conversation, preferring instead to just contribute to the dialogue. He was an Irishman, born in Dorchester in 1910. Irishmen of that generation fell into two camps; boisterous, full throated story tellers or more taciturn observers of life. My father tended towards the latter.
That’s why his life long propensity for “pop-up” performances at public gatherings such as wedding, birthdays and holiday celebrations came as a surprise to those who did not know him well. A surprise for some, a millstone for my dear mother. This lovely woman craved respect, but abhorred the spotlight. She dreaded attending large public functions knowing that if a microphone were present dad would commandeer it. Inevitably as he made his way towards the stage she would exit stage right to find the powder room.
You see, my father had trouble sustaining both pitch and tone for the full duration of his chosen songs. No, he wasn’t the finest singer, but, what he lacked in talent he more than made up for with delivery and charm. It was a shame that mom didn’t stay to see how by the end of his repertoire dad had everyone smiling and clapping. The obvious delight dad took in entertaining won over every audience. Guests would, in fact, would often beg him to “do a number”.
Then in early 1984 dad had his first stroke. For a son it was difficult watching this normally cheerful man, full of life, struggling to regain his speech and struggling to keep his balance with a cane. Slowly the physical damage seemed to be overcome as he worked diligently at his rehabilitation. More troubling was his loss for the simple joys of life. While his speaking skills improved, he rarely chose to speak. The smile which so warmed people seemed to be permanently erased. He appeared to be, psychologically, going through the motions of life.
Our family had a Christmas gathering at Watch Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island. A relative was the Auxiliary Bishop and was able to use a cottage, which had been willed to the Dioceses, for our traditional holiday get together. My wife and I drove my parents to the event where we caught up with the many aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces which make up our extended family. The evening was fun, relaxed and convivial with everyone paying extra attention to Dad who accepted the well wishes with a series of quiet, “Thank you.” responses.
Towards the end of the night dad made his way to the center of the living room and taped his cane on the wooden floor. Suddenly, slowly he began singing, “Dear God, you made many, many poor people…”.
All the chatter, all the conversations, stopped as his family listened.
“I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor….” he continued in a surprisingly strong voice.
Who knew there are nine long verses to “If I Were A Rich Man”? By the time he lustily concluded with, “Yiddle-didle-didle-didle man” he was luminous and I was a wreck.
So, my Irish father’s singing a Jewish lament at a Catholic cottage at Christmas time was the harbinger that Leo Raftus was not yet finished with entertaining or life.
My father died, mostly peacefully, twelve years later in 1996.
Yes, Dad, you were a rich man. Happy Father’s Day.
Jim Raftus lives in Cumberland, R.I. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org