Earlier this year, my 72-year-old uncle moved from Pennsylvania to my parents’ house in South Carolina. His name is Richard, but we’ve always known him as “Dickie.”
It wasn’t much of a mystery to me why Uncle Dickie was living alone at such a late stage in his life. When I was a child, he seemed miserable. When I was a teenager, he seemed more sentimental, but miserable nonetheless. Now, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say he is sentimental, ornery and – even at his best – miserable.
But I do know better these days.
My 7-year-old daughter loves her great-uncle for good reason. Despite his tendency to be crotchety and, well, miserable, his generosity, selflessness and lust for life has built an alluring persona that can be hard to resist. In one breath, he may – without warning – spout something cruel and cutting, while in the next, state in a coarse, stern tone he’ll still pay for dinner if you want to go.
It can be confusing and problematic, at the very least, to those who don’t know him – particularly children. He certainly doesn’t epitomize “soft and sweet.”
The quality I’ve found most captivating of Uncle Dickie’s is his love for food. It’s admirable, really. The man’s life seems to revolve around food.
“Justin, I want you to take me to the store,” he’ll say when I’m at my parents’.
The first month or so he was here, I just said “okay” or told him I would. Then I learned it was entertaining to toy a bit with Uncle Dickie.
“What for?” I might say nowadays. “You’ve already bought all the junk food they have.
“What more could you possibly need?”
Something like this usually causes him to inhale quickly, like a criminal gasping for air before leaping from one building to another in an attempt to allude police. Then he might say, “No, that’s not what I was going to get. I was going to see if they have any blue glass. Then I was going to see if we could stop at CVS to see if those idiots have my prescriptions ready. Don’t be a pain in my ass.”
Blue glass is another thing about which Uncle Dickie’s extremely passionate. I’ve already taken him to every antique store in this county and three others to check their supplies of small birds, vases, water goblets and religious symbols made of transparent dark blue glass. He’s convinced spending large quantities of dollars on these will one day translate into lottery-type earnings. He’s also convinced his blue glass collection back in Pennsylvania is being targeted by thieves, who are in the scouting stages of a massive upcoming heist.
But his love for blue glass pales in comparison with his affection for food. He’ll go grocery shopping with Kalista and me; we’ll split up in the store and reunite 30 minutes later. I’ve got milk, eggs, bread and typical grocery stuff; he’s got six varieties of chips and dips. I’m not sure why he even bothers pushing his cart down all of the store’s aisles.
Or he’ll drop what he believes to be subtle hints (that are actually rather direct) I should make a pumpkin cheesecake. Or “those oatmeal cookies with cranberries and apples you made that one time.” Or chocolate cake – or chocolate chip cookies – or some pasta concoction.
I usually do make something for him when he visits my house. Truth is, I’m glad he enjoys my cooking. But sometimes I’m not in the mood to clean up the kitchen later and, therefore, unwilling to steam or grill or bake or fry.
“That’s okay,” he’ll say when I tell him so. “We can just go out to eat. I was thinking we could get some wings at that Ragin’ Rooster place.”
And I’ll never turn it down.
“I just love their wings,” he’ll say in the car, waiting 30 or so seconds for my response, which I’ll sometimes not give just to see if my prediction about what he’s going to say next is correct. “What are you going to have?”
“Oh. You always get those.”
A few seconds.
“Do you like those?” he’ll ask, looking at me from the passenger seat.
“Oh yeah. They’re pretty good.”
A minute or two will pass before anyone says anything.
“I was thinking we could stop by Bruster’s for some ice cream afterward. Or maybe Dairy Queen. We won’t tell your mother.”
Then he’ll snicker.
We’ve been to Ragin’ Rooster somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,423 times since he’s lived in this town. Although it’s a fine eatery that offers the best wings I’ve had south of the Mason-Dixon Line, nothing ever changes with the place.
Yet we have the same conversation every time on the way there.
What might seem even more peculiar to someone who doesn’t know better is the topic of conversation at dinner: what Uncle Dickie plans to eat the next day or, as it worked out during lunch at IHOP yesterday, for his next meal. When I drop him back off at my parents’ house afterward, he reminds me of these plans and says, after a few minutes of thought, “Those (insert name of food he just ate) were really good … at least, I liked them.”
This isn’t a statement – it’s a test, I learned the first month he was here when I told him I hadn’t enjoyed something we ate.
“Well, fine. We don’t have to go there again. In fact, you don’t have to go out to eat with me again for all I care. See if I care. I won’t care. There – how do you like that?”
Then he’ll look at me with pouty-shaped lips.
“That’s fine,” I’ll usually say, nonchalantly.
“It is fine. I’ll just stay here and tend to my business and carry on.”
Then he’ll go back to watching whatever crime show he was watching on TV before he decided to ask how I liked dinner. Fifteen minutes later, we’ll be conversing like nothing happened 15 minutes earlier.
It’s sometimes difficult for me to comprehend, this life my uncle leads, but each day I am with him, I grow more convinced he’s got something many of us don’t: peace of mind.
Yes, Uncle Dickie is happy. No, Uncle Dickie is not miserable. My daughter picks up on that through his gruff demeanor and unpleasantries. Deep down, his heart is full of love, compassion and tranquility.
He appreciates food, for instance. Not many of us do – not the way he does. He considers the seasoning, the degree to which it was baked or cooked and if it satisfied his appetite. He doesn’t just ingest food, he eats.
If only we all could apply that sort of passion and attention to what we love instead of what we don’t. If we all could come to terms with our priorities, we all would die happy – as will Uncle Dickie someday.