The life and luck of Jim Weiss – and how he found his promised land


It wasn’t quite an ideal day for a cruise in Newport, but somehow it worked out splendidly. Patricia and her daughter, Liza, memorialized the life and the romance of Jim Weiss aboard the Rum Runner II, and with champagne and chocolates.

The sky – I mean the “firmament” – was pearl gray with dark clouds, but the actual downpour waited politely and patiently until the ceremony and the celebration were done and the famous vessel (first launched some 87 years ago to serve the capitalist purpose of profiting from Prohibition) had returned to port at Bannister’s Wharf.

Now, let me start with a sketch of the life of Jim, an orphan from the East Side of Providence and Patricia’s late husband. She called her notes “Jim’s Life Line.”

While his three older brothers were sent to the Jewish orphanage situated at the center of what became The Miriam Hospital, on Summit Avenue in Providence, Jim, a newborn, was placed in a foster home under the trusty care of “Mama Bertha.” Why? Because their mother was suffering from tuberculosis, and then passed away, while their father, whose entire extended family in Poland was threatened, and then murdered, by the Nazis and their collaborators, left our town to seek his fortune out west, across the U.S. 

When the administration at the orphanage found out about the sibling in Pawtucket, they felt obligated to reunite the four brothers. Jacob, Ben, Charles, and now Jim, had access to the orphanage’s recess asphalt block, which abutted the recess yard of the Summit Avenue Elementary School, which was how my brother, Chick, and I first met Jim: through the bars of the chain-link fence that separated the two realms.

Jim felt altogether abandoned, and endeavored to run away to find, at the very least, Mama Bertha, the only mother figure, the single and solitary maternal face, that he remembered.

Upon the closing of the orphanage, the brothers were shipped by bus to their father in California, where they were once again left to fend for themselves when their dad simply took off! A not-so-uncommon occurrence in the desperate depression. And yet, they thrived, and Jim recalled this time as the best part of their boyhood lives. All on their own! Until administration officials reclaimed them and placed them in foster homes.

On his 17th birthday, Jim joined the military. As a veteran, he set up his own used furniture business, borrowing small amounts from his brothers and Jewish agencies.

Patricia closed this short bio with a touching statement in her handwriting on lined paper: “He never forgot his ‘Mama Bertha’.”

But back to the boat! Patricia gave me a cap that Jim used to wear when he sailed on Narragansett Bay, and asked me to say a few words about him to the small crowd. I started out by saying that Jim’s boyhood was steeped in the conditions of our shared generation: Rhode Island was hit hard by the depression and the duration, when the shoreline was dangerous, with submarines possibly hidden close to the beaches, and our shipyards were busy and noisy with war-related activities.

Jim longed for a safe haven. Did he finally find it at a chance, or beshert, encounter at a party one New Year’s Eve in the penthouse above a former factory in Providence (perhaps once used as a lookout for enemy aircraft)? There, he saw a lady he remembered admiring in his school days.

“Are you free?” he asked.

She nodded.

Everyone could see the sparks of their sudden mutual attraction! On the Rum Runner II, my wife told that tale, Liza joined in, and several other guests confirmed the magical moment when Patricia and Jim began their romance.

I made the claim – no, it wasn’t false modesty, it was the Rhode Island School of Design effect on my thinking – that things, images, paintings, pictures, drawings express meaning more clearly and colorfully than mere words, mine or anybody’s.

I tried to describe a painting Patricia had created, and then shown at the Providence Art Club, of their honeymoon in Las Vegas, on a fake lagoon in a manufactured Venice! It revealed Jim going forward in his life, seated in the gondola full of happy expectations of a genuine, and generous, pursuit of happiness.

“He found in fact what he had sought in dreams, somebody who loved him and would stay with him and protect him. You could see it in the painting better than I can describe it in words, written or spoken.”

Remember the song that launched Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace? “I’ve been in love before: haven’t YOU? I’ve been in love, it’s true … been learning to adore ... just YOU.”

Yes, Patricia and Jim had their separate pasts, but also a shared future!

We went around the passengers on the Rum Runner II and everyone cheerfully added their commentaries on the character of Jim Weiss and the collective collaborative impression of their meaningful marriage. The words were sometimes funny or verged on the blunt, but other times they were lyrical and lovely.

Jim liked to flirt and to laugh. He smiled and greeted his friends with a mix of humor and heart.

Among those onboard was a young man named Zachary who had flown in from Texas to attend this event. 

“Jim was like a grandfather to me, the only grandfather I had, and he kept a kindly eye on me, generous and good-natured,” Zachary said with utmost sincerity. He is Liza’s son, Patricia’s grandson, and Jim’s adopted and wonderful ward.

Like the rest of us, Jim Weiss had his troubles, but he had his pleasures as well, and in my eyes he seemed to have found the best luck of all, and you could see it whenever he went anywhere with Patricia: She kept him lookin’ great, and, maybe strangely, they began to resemble each other, with style and with a similar flair.

When we clinked our glasses of champagne, I relied on the word l’chaim, to life itself! But I also opened a prayer book I had inherited from my late Uncle Sam, a heroic medic in World War II who, like Jim, had lost his mother as an infant and lived the life of an orphan. I read, in Hebrew, a portion of the Kaddish, to acknowledge that life is like the ocean itself, with its own rhythms and currents. But even here, I had to contend with a kind of riptide.

Patricia said to me, “Jim didn’t really value his Jewish heritage. He associated it with being rejected by his father and suffering the absence of his mother. He found his spiritual values mostly, instead, in art and in nature, here, in Newport.” Or words to that effect.

I translated it into my version of the story and the journey as a variation on the Touro Synagogue and the Touro garden, right here in Newport, Rhode Island. That is, face Jerusalem, find your own freedom and your private promised land, and face the Firmament and your Fate, with a sort of Hasidic comradeship offered by Ha-Shem!

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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