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May 13, 2024

Uncle Maxwell's One-Track Mind

By Terry Petersen

Sure I came home for major holidays, trips as short as possible, a summer holiday visit or two. I wanted my kids to know they had another branch on their family tree, even if it was a nut branch with peculiar varieties that grew to basketball-size.

Mom had enough phobias to turn a grocery store trip into a horror story. Dad catered to her: the classic enabler. Uncle Max had a single life focus: food. Its preparation, history, texture, and symbolism.

Of course Max didn't have a life anymore. He died of a sudden heart attack. I was on my way to his funeral. Alone. My husband needed to work; the kids had school. And I traveled 120 miles out of duty, not genuine grief. The truth hit me. I tried to pretend I wasn't that hardened.

I wouldn't have minded if Max could listen to any other subject. But if Mom talked about how fearful she was about world events, he interrupted with a stroganoff recipe that used yogurt instead of sour cream. If Dad introduced the weather he said homemade soup could warm the soul. At least chowder had some vague connection to a discussion about easterly winds.

I remembered the day I'd told Uncle Max about my scholarship to the university. Sure, I'd known better. But I'd been excited.

He'd barely blinked. "That's in the corn belt, isn't it? Too bad so much of it is used for corn syrup. That stuff isn't good for anyone."

Sure, I'd complained to Dad, something like telling stagnant water to notice the algae. He'd said, "Bailey, he's proud of you in his own way. Sometimes you just need to take people as they are."

What else can you expect from a born enabler?

I sighed as I approached the old neighborhood. Strange. The street where my parents live looked like an overflow lot for a free music festival. But I lucked out as a neighbor opened his door, waved at me and then pulled away. The spot was three doors down from the house.

Mom appeared at the door. "Oh good. You are here. Trouble on the road, sweetheart?" Anxiety spilled through her voice like a gas leak, hot and ready to explode.

Nothing has changed.

The answer to my question about the lack of parking came as I entered the house. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews filled every room. Sufficient distraction.

However, apparently I'd heard the time wrong. I arrived less than 45 minutes before we would need to leave for the service. No wonder Mom had been concerned. Of course her worry could escalate into red alert at the drop of a dried leaf.

The funeral parlor lot was more packed than my parents' cul-de-sac.

Double-feature, I speculated. Two funerals going on at the same time. One on either side.

But only Uncle Maxwell's name appeared inside. Strangers packed the room.

"Here she is," one of my cousins called out to a man with half of his teeth missing. "Sam, I would like you to meet Bailey. She's our university scholar. Class-A statistician. We are very proud of her. Max was her uncle."

Sam hugged me before I could pull away. "I can't tell you how much your uncle has done for me. For a lot of us here."


"Goodness! I lived on the streets. Funny, all Max could talk about was food. Knew it inside and out. The history. Stuff like what kind of vitamins lived in apples, bananas, and spinach. I liked the story about how tomatoes were called poison apples. Rich people ate them off pewter plates in the 1700's. Tomatoes have acid in them and that acid pulled out lead from them plates. Lead poisoning knocked off those rich folks. But the tomatoes got blamed for it."

I had heard the story before, told in a more formal tone. However, this time I listened.

"But he fed me, found a place for me to live. When I was strong enough I went back to school. Guess what I do now?"

I saw him as a man in an old, out-of-style suit. He probably had a long history I didn't want to know. I took a wild guess. "Mechanic?"

"A cook. Not the chef. But I do okay. What else would I be?"

"Yeah." I tried to smile, but felt as if I'd fallen into the middle of a story everyone else knew, but I didn't.

"You know these days. Teachers. Parents. They would understand the kid had some form of autism. I think that's the right word. I ain't no expert. Max, he couldn't read cues other people see right off. He got stuck on one track and couldn't get off. He was smart and could care though. More than most."

I paused. "Can you introduce me to some of the other people he helped?" The words came out before I could edit them. But it was like diving off the high board, too late to return.

"You bet," he answered. "I'd be honored." He took my arm and wove me through the thick crowd. "This here is Cassie. Her family abandoned her when she was six. Max took her in. Fed her. He knew enough about nutrition to make her well again. You don't hear about rickets these days. But Cassie had them. He taught her to trust again. Gave her any kind of food with Vitamin D and calcium in it he could find and fix. Asked us to take her out into the sun whenever we could."

"But now I got to start over again," Cassie said, her voice breaking. "Without Max."

Cassie couldn't have been more than ten years old.

"Ain't gonna be easy, but you've got us now," Sam said.

I wondered who he meant by us until I looked closer at the crowd. Uncle Maxwell had fed many of these people with his one-track mind.

"There's Mr. Fisher over there," Sam said. "He's the principal of the high school. "Max started, of all things, a food club. The kids quizzed Max on everything from burgers to kumquats. Once a kid made up the name of something and Max called him on it. He asked him to look it up on his phone. The kid finally caved in and admitted it. He said that Maxwell was weird but he wouldn't want to be against him on a game show.

"And Miss Bailey's mama is finally getting some help from the same therapist I've been seeing," Sam added.

My mouth dropped open, but I closed it immediately and said nothing. Fortunately my response was misinterpreted.

"Yes, I know," Sam said. "So many years with that awful secret. Step-parents who beat her for looking out the window or missing the wastebasket with a wad of paper. No wonder the lady has nerves of shredded tissue. I am grateful she's getting it all into the open now. Giving herself a chance to heal. Slowly, maybe. But healing."

A man I figured must have been a minister called the group to quiet. "We are getting ready to begin. After the service there will be a huge buffet. Maxwell's friends have duplicated his recipes to the best of their ability. Of course no one could ever duplicate Max."

I sat up front, as expected, next to Mom. I took her hand. Within seconds a few tears trickled down my face. They turned into chokes. Mom put her arms around me. She didn't know that my pain did not come from simple grief. It came because I never knew about the agony my mother had experienced. Moreover, I didn't miss the uncle I'd known; I had missed the opportunity to understand the real Uncle Maxwell.

"Your chances to be fed are not lost," the minister said. "Now you can provide." He looked out at everyone, but I felt certain he zoned in on me.

I didn't know how that could happen, but I turned to my left and saw Mom, finally facing her past, then imagined Sam and Cassie behind me. Yes, I would go to this banquet my uncle had taught his friends to gather. And I would savor it, and savor it, and savor it. Until I learned to pass it on, too.

Article © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-01-18
Image(s) © Terry Petersen. All rights reserved.
3 Reader Comments
04:36:05 AM
I love this story! Don't we all have a relative we never appreciate or understand until it is to late. Thanks for the reminder.
greg gaynor
05:35:39 PM
great story. it brought tears to my eyes.
03:10:38 AM
Thanks, Terrie and Greg! Cooks don't mind spending a lot of time in the kitchen when guests appreciate their meals, and writers forget countless edits when readers enjoy their stories.
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