Softly, As I Leave You
A few days ago, my friend Henry died. He was 90 years old, and he’d lived a good, long life.
I became acquainted with Henry at karaoke nights at the Village Casino in Bemus Point in Western New York. In those years before we moved to the area, we’d head to Chautauqua Lake from Delaware for a long weekend on a Thursday, stopping in for dinner at the Village Casino before we settled in to our place in Maple Springs. At that time, Thursday was karaoke night, and even though we’re not into karaoke, once we discovered Henry we went as often as we could. Henry mostly sang Sinatra songs, and he did it very well.
Some people are pretty good at karaoke, but Henry may have had enough talent to make it in the big time. He left people stunned and brought tears to their eyes. I tried to capture the feelings he evoked in a chapter in my memoir that includes Henry as a main character.
Chautauqua Lake and the villages and hamlets that surround it have a nostalgic feel. It was important for me to express in words this sense of nostalgia and to understand why this lake drew me in and felt like home. For me, the Village Casino symbolized that nostalgia, and Henry embodied it.
The Casino is not a gambling casino at all, but an old-timey bar and restaurant that sits on the water at the narrowest part of this beautiful lake. It has always been a music venue and Frank Sinatra did sing here, along with other greats who did gigs in the Catskills and Adirondacks, Buffalo and Cleveland during the 1930s and 1940s.
This is how I described Henry as he took his turn in the karaoke lineup:
Henry was in his seventies; maybe even eighty. With white hair and glasses, dressed in a polo shirt, khaki slacks, and boat shoes, he looked like a retired middle manager, or teacher. He modestly made his way to center stage, adjusted the mic, and the music started. As soon as he hit that first note, though, Henry became Frank Sinatra. He snapped his fingers and moved with ease as he came in off the beat, a little early or a little late, and every note, every lyric, was perfect. The phrasing and the tone rang true…He looked at the crowd openly, with no airs, and never glanced at the monitor that flashed the words, follow-the-bouncing-ball-style, to both the singer and the audience. He didn’t embellish or change things. Henry was Frank Sinatra. He hit it, nailed it, and was pure understatement, perfection, and grace.
I certainly have enjoyed karaoke night at the Village Casino, but I don’t really like it for its own sake, and would never dream of singing into a microphone, even in private. Good things have happened to me because of karaoke, though. It served as a window or lens through which I wrote a book chapter that I believe captures the essence of this place.
One evening I actually got to read my chapter, “Karaoke Night at the Casino,” at KARAOKE NIGHT AT THE CASINO! After one of the sets where Henry and some of the other regulars sang their songs, I got to take the mic and do a fifteen-minute reading about the place I was in and the people who were in it.
See HENRY, Page A7
I joke that it’s the only literary event ever held in the Village Casino, and that may, in fact, be true. It was a very touching experience for me, and I felt enveloped by the community both within and outside the Casino. I also got to give the karaoke guy the side-eye when I read about being suspicious of people who were into karaoke, or line dancing, or scrapbooking, and that was a moment I’ll never forget.
The best part of my involvement with karaoke has been getting to know some of the singers — especially Henry. I probably would never have met Henry had I not written about him. I put him in a book and changed his life a little bit, and he gave me a chapter which led to the book that changed my life a lot.
And now Henry has died.
At the visitation before the funeral at the Falconer Funeral Home, music played softly in the background as old neighbors, friends, acquaintances and fans filed in, greeted the family and slowly made their way to the table that held bouquets of flowers, pictures of Henry and Henry’s ashes in a wooden box. People spoke in hushed tones, some recognizing each other, others softly making connections or comforting each other.
A number of people, including the deacon who officiated, said they thought the music that played was Sinatra when, in fact, it was a recording of Henry. We shared condolences with Henry’s adult children and his grandchildren. People hugged and cried.
As we settled into our seats for the services, somebody cued the music and Henry sang Nice N’ Easy, sounding just like Frank Sinatra. In a lovely gesture, Henry’s children rose from their chairs and danced with their spouses there in the funeral home, to the sound of their dad’s voice.
The karaoke crowd was there: Cowboy Steve, his signature hat tucked neatly under his chair; the singer who does Mack the Knife; my neighbor, Dick Davenport, and his wife, Mary. Dick sings Sinatra, too. Julie was there with her husband. Jules ‘R Us is their professional name, and they hold the center of the karaoke crowd around here together. This time, only Julie took the mic to pay her respects to Henry, crying as she spoke.
After the formal part was over, Henry closed his own funeral service with a recorded rendition of I Did It My Way.
Although Henry and I never became close friends, there was an intimate connection between us and we both knew it. I noticed him and wrote about him, and he was touched by that. To write about him, to bring him to life on the page, I had to study him, note the nuances of his gestures and expressions, consider his dialogue and movements, imagine his life. I had to pay attention to him deeply, which in itself is a form of reverence and somehow sacred. It is the basis of love, isn’t it?
Dedicated to Henry Huf, 1928-2018
Beth Peyton is the author of Clear Skies, Deep Water: A Chautauqua Memoir, published by SUNY Press in 2014.