Mitzvot

Rich uncle harry

I always thought it would be great to have a rich uncle. While I wouldn’t have minded being rich myself, that was the next best thing. Just voice your request in the amount needed and presto—it would be yours. Or so I thought. One day, it happened. Uncle Harry, who was really my great-uncle, a simple and unpretentious man, suddenly found himself with a large inheritance. Since his wife, Clara, was an only child, she was the sole heir to her father’s wealth. I felt like I’d won the lottery. I was newly married when it happened, so I didn’t feel a desperate urge to solicit any funds from him—yet. But as time passed and we were blessed with one adorable infant after the other, we gradually began to feel the pinch. In the very beginning, Uncle Harry didn’t even enter my mind. I was too busy juggling the babies’ feedings, bath times and going-to-sleep routines. And besides, it wasn’t as if we weren’t managing. Nonetheless, if Uncle Harry had come for a visit, I’m sure I would have dropped a few hints. In fact, though, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him; we’d never been particularly close. Even as a kid, I found the conversation during his Shabbos visits to be less than scintillating. He tended to talk about stuff like cutting down on salt or watching his cholesterol level. Baruch Hashem, our family grew. When my son Shaya turned 12, he had prominent front teeth that elicited comments from every neighbor on the block. “You’d better fix his teeth,” they warned me. Did they think I was blind? One visit to the orthodontist confirmed what we suspected: It would take five grand for braces that would shut the neighbors’ mouths.

By then, though, money was tight. In order to supplement his income, my husband decided to take on an additional job and become a fundraiser for a certain charitable organization. I guess you can say that every job has its perks. For us, it was a fundraising seminar being held in a fancy hotel a good two hours away. Since I needed a little break and Tully wanted company, we decided to go together. We got the kids ready for school, bundled up the baby and took her to the babysitter. Then we were off. Nearing the hotel, Tully told me that we were going to hear some amazing tips on how to fundraise. I thought I’d be bored, but some of the speakers actually turned out to be entertaining. This was interesting stuff! Even if I didn’t actually do any fundraising, I could apply some of the ideas to my kids—even to my spouse. It was explained to us that the most important thing is getting to know the donor. What does he like? What are his hobbies? What does he enjoy talking about? The more you know about him, the better you can relate and the more he’ll be interested in you, thus raising your chances of success. It was definitely food for thought— which reminded me of my outstanding food bill at the local grocery.

Normally I would just sigh and try to think about something else. But now I jumped. “Hey, I have a great idea! Why don’t we use our newly acquired fundraising techniques—” “On Uncle Harry?” he finished. “Yes! Of course! We could really use his help. He’s been blessed. Who knows? Maybe he’ll want to spread a little of his wealth around!” “Hmm. I’m not so sure about that,” Tully said skeptically, concentrating on the country road ahead. “Listen, it would be a great learning experience. And if you’re uncomfortable asking him for money, let’s approach it as a chesed project. Harry and Clara are getting on in years. They’re probably lonely and wouldn’t mind some company.” “You know, Mimi, you’re right. We takeh hardly even know them. I think it’s a great idea.” I agreed, but then again, I was the one who’d come up with it. And let’s just say that the potential for a generous gift somewhere down the line certainly sweetened the pot. By the time we were halfway home, we had already placed a call to a very surprised (and suspicious) Uncle Harry and told him of our plans to visit. He didn’t think we were coming for coffee and told us so straight out. “How much of a loan do you need?” he inquired. “Uncle Harry, we just want to come visit you and Aunt Clara,” I insisted in what I thought was my most convincing voice. “Mimi, my darling niece, you haven’t set foot in my house in 13 years! Now all of a sudden you’re interested in a visit? I’m sure a loan is what you have in mind.” “Uncle Harry! Don’t be silly. We just thought it would be nice.” He laughed. “Okay. Fine! I just wanted to know… Well, I guess we’ll talk in person. See you next Sunday.” Over the next few days I kept thinking of possible topics to bring up during our visit.

Then Sunday arrived and we set out for Uncle Harry’s mansion in Lawrence. As soon as we arrived, the butler took our coats. We were ushered into a spacious, elegant living room filled with expensive furniture and knickknacks. Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara sat down with us to chat. After five minutes of polite conversation, Uncle Harry looked at us and said, “You didn’t come for a loan?” “We came to spend some time with you,” Tully responded with a smile. “That’s nice,” he replied, still suspicious. Later, though, as Tully and I expressed interest in the couple’s exercise regimen, low-fat diet and favorite vacation spots, Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara seemed to relax a little. They pored over the pictures of the kids we had brought and begged us to bring them along next time. Our visit had been a big success! We promised to return. And we did. Each visit drew us closer to Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara. The funny thing was that we really enjoyed them. For some reason, Uncle Harry wasn’t so boring anymore. Now that I was older, I was able to see him from a different perspective and actually absorbed a lot. Tully also looked up to him for going out to learn the daf every day, regardless of the weather. You have to admire someone who’s committed like that. Then one day Uncle Harry shared some of the sadder elements of his life.

His children, Susan and Mark, were far from a parent’s dream. Tears spilled from his eyes as he confided in us that he hardly ever saw them, living as they did on opposite sides of the country. “They’re so spoiled,” he said sadly. “All they care about is my money.” Neither had ever married, and he and Clara had no grandchildren. I moved closer to Aunt Clara on the sofa and gave her hug. It was then that I realized how much I genuinely cared for Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara and wanted them to be happy. After two years of regular visits, with and without the kids, it suddenly hit me that we’d forgotten something. That evening at the supper table I broached the topic. “So when are we finally going to hit up Uncle Harry?” I asked Tully. He looked at me blankly. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Well, don’t you remember how it all began?” I prompted. “Of course!” He laughed at the memory. “So?” “You mean we should ask him for money?” “I guess things have changed a lot since then,” I said. “Or maybe we’ve changed. Remember how he couldn’t believe we just wanted to visit out of the goodness of our hearts?” “Maybe he was on to something after all,” Tully admitted sheepishly. That evening we paid Uncle Harry and Aunt Clara another visit. As we were about to leave, Uncle Harry came over and gave Tully a big hug. “You guys are so precious to us,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek. Aunt Clara looked at us with moist eyes. “You can’t imagine how much your visits mean to us. You don’t understand,” she said, clasping my hand and holding it for a long time. “You’re our only family.” “Well, that was a real drawn-out flop of a fundraiser,” I said to my husband quietly as we got into the car. “I disagree,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye. “I think it was very successful. And we ended up with a lot more than money.”

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