In 1904 a young man named Antonio Raffa stepped off the boat onto Ellis Island with a small bag of belongings, $9.00 in his pocket, and hope for a better life. His first act was to kneel and kiss the ground. As he told us years later, there was nothing for him in his small hill town near Messina, Sicily where his only choices were to be poor or join the Mafia. Neither option sounded good to him. With help from his older brother Phillip who was living in New York, Antonio established a barber shop in Brooklyn and settled in.
The next year Phillip returned to Italy and chose the lovely Giovannina Iannelli to be Antonio’s wife. Escorted by her parents, “Jenny” came to America and met Antonio over dinner on Friday night. They were married the next day. After a while she contracted a lung infection and their growing family left Brooklyn for the mountain air in the Catskills town of Liberty, NY. This is where Anthony Raffa, Jr.,or “Tony,” the third of four sons, spent his youth. (He’s the third son from the left in the picture.)
Growing up as children of Italian immigrants wasn’t always easy in those days and Antonio wanted his sons to have every advantage. His first rule was to speak English. The second was to work hard and do well in school. The third was never to leave their house without being well-dressed and immaculately groomed. Tony Jr. was an especially intelligent, well-meaning, and attractive young man, (he could have been Ronald Coleman’s double with his wavy black hair and thin moustache), who thrived in the land of opportunity and made his parents proud.
After working his way through the College of Osteopathy in Kirksville, Missouri where he joined the Acacia club, played the violin in a small combo, and paid his bills by ironing his friends’ shirts for four cents apiece, Tony returned to Liberty and started a medical practice on the downstairs floor of a Victorian house on Main Street. When he married Julia Vera Segar, a nurse of Scotch-Irish descent, they set up housekeeping above the office. My husband is their firstborn son, Fred. His favorite memory from those days is of coming home from school and meeting Rocky Marciano whom his dad was secretly treating in preparation for his upcoming match with Roland La Starza! Wouldn’t the paparazzi have had a field day if they had known?
Sadly, Vera died after the birth of their second son. Five years later Tony married Helen Scobell, a home-economics extension agent, and they moved to Tampa where he was blessed with three more healthy children, a thriving medical practice, a sophisticated home filled with art, music and laughter, and a country club membership. Active in the Masonic Lodge, he was awarded the 33rd Degree and became a Noble in the Mystic Order of the Shrine. Tony retired from his medical practice at age 74 and lost his second love, Helen, to cancer at 82. At 85 he married Winn Wiley who still fills his life with love.
Unlike his feisty, cigar-smoking bantam rooster father, my fun-loving and even-tempered father-in-law is the most humble, gentle and tolerant man I’ve ever known. I’ve never heard him criticize anyone or speak an unkind word, never seen him angry. As one whose favorite saying is, “Family is the most important thing,” he brought his parents to Tampa and looked after them until they died. Last weekend I was reminded of the wisdom of these words when his family and friends gathered to celebrate his 100th birthday! I can’t imagine my life without him, his son Fred, or our children and grandchildren.
Family. As Dean Martin, a fellow Italian-American, once sang, “That’s amore!” Happy Father’s Day to Tony and fathers everywhere. May your lives overflow with amore!
Ego and God-Image: Part VI
[T]he most important relationship of childhood, the relation to the mother, will be compensated by the mother archetype as soon as detachment from the childhood
What a heartfelt, beautifully told story, Jeanie. You are blessed to have had such a long and loving relationship with a man as marvelous as your father-in-law. And he is blessed that he has a loving daughter-in-law who can so eloquently and lovingly tell his story. Brava, Jeanie.
Thank you, Charlie. I thought of you as I was writing this yesterday. Your family stories on your blog were part of my inspiration for it! Your writing makes a difference.
Thanks. Yes, this story is right up my alley, Jeanie. And you did a great job drawing me into it. You paint a wonderful portrait.
Just beautiful, Jeanie! The tender ties that bind!
Thank you, Beth. I feel the truth of your phrase, “The tender ties that bind,” in my body and emotions: gratitude, affection, admiration, appreciation, wonder, inspiration. People who elicit these emotions in us do, indeed, tie us to them with great tenderness.
Jean, I got your link from Charlie Hale. What a wonderful story you weave as you trace over 100 years of family history. What an accomplishment to actually be a centenarian and how great that you are all celebrating such a special Father’s Day.
Coincidentally, my paternal grandfather (who died a year before my birth), came from Messina, Italy as well, and also emigrated to Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Small world isn’t it.
Your husband must be proud of your tribute…it was so enjoyable to read…Keep up the great work!
I recognize your name from some of your comments on Charlie’s posts. I really appreciate your stopping by! Thank you for the kind words. It truly will be a very special Father’s Day this year.
How neat that your grandfather came from Messina too! Grandpa Raffa’s little town, which was just outside Messina, was called Lardoria, (the spelling might be not quite right…), and Grandma Raffa came from Mille su Mare (also possibly not spelled completely correctly!) Both little hill towns were close to each other. We took Tony Jr. to Sicily with us after Helen died and visited Grandma’s town and saw the Ianelli home, but it was a holiday and all the government buildings were closed so we couldn’t check the records. A neighbor said most of them had moved to South America.
My husband does like this post very much. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too!
Thank you for this story, it is really beautiful. The “Raffa Family” is very special and I feel blessed to be part of them. The compassion, love and care that is so heartfelt alway’s has me wanting more. Your right it is hard to imagine life without Tony at the helm,but I am thankful for the time I have known him and all of you!
Thank you, Rene.
I feel blessed to be part of this family too. It’s filled with huge hearts and open minds, you included.
So nice to know the whole story. What a full and wonderful life he had! I’m sure he was so proud of what the American Raffa’s had become.
Thank you, Angela.