There were six of us in that house on 55th street in Brooklyn. My Dad, my Mom, my two sisters, Kathleen and Joan and our brother Richard. We all inherited a love for sweets from both sides of the family, but Richard, lucky Richard, could eat as much as he wanted without gaining an ounce. He was skinny. How thin was he? When he went swimming in all the hottest days of summer, he would emerge from the water shivering with blue lips. He could have posed for one of the Save the Children pictures. My grandmother would cross her arms, shake her head and say, “Takes after PopPop’s family. They were all rails.” PopPop was our maternal grandfather.
If his stature resembled the Toms family, so did his personality. What a pain! A mischievous child, he couldn’t let an opportunity go by to tease his sisters. “Mom,’ a girl’s voice would cry out, ‘Richard hid my coloring book!” My poor, exasperated mother would chase her only male child around the house, threatening him with her shoe. This was a mystical threat, designed to strike fear in his heart and cause him to see the folly of his ways. She would never, of course, hit him with her shoe and, of course, the threat only encouraged him. It became a game.
Richard’s sisters were academically talented. He was not. Today he would have been diagnosed as learning disabled, dyslexic, to be specific. Then, school subjects that depended heavily on reading were a problem for him. His charm and superb ability in math and science got him through. He spent only a semester in college, but his achievements are legendary among his friends and family. As he inherited his slender physique from the Toms family, he inherited his musical ability from the Smithwicks … the male Smithwicks; the females were not so blessed. Without a lesson, he played percussion, the bass, and trumpet in several bands. He also fronted several others as lead singer.
It wasn’t the music that astounded as much as it was his knowledge of how to build and repair things. Our father could build or fix a sunny day. Replacing a light bulb was the only visible extent of our brother’s inheritance in that area until, inexplicably, in his mid-twenties, all of the skills that were part of our father’s skill set, appeared as part of Richard’s. We were amazed. Where did all of this come from?
He traveled through the remainder of his life, so competent that the company for which he worked kept him fully on the books despite long stretches of time when he was disabled by life threatening diseases. Treatments for Hodgkins in his twenties saved his life, but left with a badly damaged circulatory system. Heart disease in his early fifties required numerous surgeries and hospitalizations. The final assault was his diagnosis and treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in his sixties. The chemo left his ailing heart so weak that it needed a mechanical assist. That assist was inserted into his chest a bit over a month ago.
My brother, the pest, the tease, the heartthrob of many a girl and woman, the consummate fixer, the kindest, sweetest man in the world went home to God on Tuesday. I’ll bet that Mom, Dad, and our sister Kathleen were there to put him in his place.
—Ann Smithwick Ferro
This column was originally published in Eagle Newspapers. Reprinted with permission.