An Anecdotal Tribute

Two pairs of brothers backpacking in 1987.  I’m on the left next to my younger brother Eric.  My dad, Tod, is on the right, next to his younger brother, my uncle Bob

Dr Robert Olson, 1940-2022

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my uncle, Dr. Robert Olson.  After a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma that included periods of remission, he succumbed on September 15, 2022.  He was a remarkable man, and there will be many tributes that capture his many talents, his professional contributions, his passion for gardening, and his strong friendships and family relations.  They will all be inadequate, as is any attempt to capture the essence of a person’s life.

But to the list of inadequate tributes, I would like to add mine, an anecdote that I wrote a few years ago following a Thanksgiving dinner, one of many large and boisterous holiday gatherings that he loved to host, with his daughters handling cooking and logistics.  I was able to share it with Bob in a letter, at a time of better health.  He was an important influence on me during a formative period of my life.


Dear Bob,

It was nice to once again share the Thanksgiving holiday with you at your house.   After returning home, I wanted to share some sentiments and memories that I have recently re-encountered.

The other day I was explaining to someone how I came to enjoy eating certain vegetables as an adult that I absolutely detested as a child.  We had the shared experience, along with many other children during the 1950s, of being served vegetables as part of the balanced meal that mothers of that era insisted on for their families.   As I’m sure you’ll recall, fresh vegetables were only available for a short period during the year when they were in season locally.  Widespread distribution of foods from other areas did not yet exist, and so most of the time vegetables were salvaged from a can.  Canning and bottling were breakthroughs in food preservation, having been invented to sustain Napoleon’s on-its-stomach-traveling army, but the tradeoff for a supply of food that was not rotten was that the flavor shifted nearly off the palate, and the texture was transformed to near-mush.  Spinach, asparagus and peas were particularly hard hit by the process, and these were the vegetables that I came to dread when they came up in my mom’s menu rotations.

Today I love these vegetables, along with cauliflower, broccoli, and even others that were unknown in my youth, such as artichokes and okra.  I wondered when this transformation of taste had occurred, because for many people it never happens, and I realized that I am indebted to you Bob, for this lifelong benefit!

During a spring break when I was 18, you invited me to spend a week with you in Oakland where you were completing your duties for the Navy.  It was a wonderful experience for me, and you introduced me to many things, including your fiancée Karen.  We went to dinner one evening at a small bistro where I learned lessons of etiquette and style for high end dining.  I ordered something that I’d never had before:  Veal Oscar.  And when it was served, I realized I’d made an awful mistake, it had asparagus spears embedded in it!  I feared their taste, but I was committed to my choice and decided to suffer through it without comment; it was the polite thing to do. 

Of course there was no actual suffering involved whatsoever; it was delicious!  In fact, this was the exact moment of my asparagus conversion.  I am now an avid fan, and when offered on a menu, I will often go with the “xxx-Oscar” preparations, or any other entrée that includes asparagus.

The following school year, you and Karen settled in a house in South Minneapolis and made the generous offer to let me live in your garage apartment.  I could commute to the University by city bus.  The rent was cheap and the food superb.  Karen had brought her California cooking expertise to her new home, and I got to partake in wonderful dinner meals.  These included dishes that had ingredients that constantly surprised me:  spinach that actually tasted good (in quiche and salads).  Peas.  Artichokes.  Vegetables prepared in new and wonderful ways.  I began to wonder what other great flavors I had missed until then.  I concluded that there is a way to prepare just about any vegetable that renders it delicious.

So I credit you, and Karen, for expanding my food horizons and broadening my world experience. 

That experience has been further broadened by various travels since.  Two years ago, Poldi and I visited Egypt, among the first American tour groups to do so after the Arab Spring.  It was a magnificent tour of places I had dreamed of visiting since childhood, and of artifacts I had been unable to see as an adult.  Our tour guide, Hassan, was an Egyptologist and former curator at Cairo’s famous Egyptian Museum, the home of King Tut’s treasures. 

We spent ten days touring Egypt, ending with a farewell dinner.  Each tour group member was invited to share their most memorable experience.  I found myself in a never-imagined position to convey a story I had first heard from you.  It was a joke about Egyptologists who had found an artifact in a tomb.  You may recall it, but I couldn’t resist personalizing it, so the protagonists were Poldi and me, arguing over whether the object we found in that last pyramid chamber was the “fossilized forefinger of a Phoenician pharaoh”, or the “petrified penis of a Persian prince”.   We had the dispute settled by Hassan, who told us that it was neither. Rather, it was “the calcified crap of a cat that crept in the crypt to crap, crapped, then crept from the crypt.”  Of course the telling of the joke elaborates, repeats and embellishes the lines.

I don’t often tell jokes, mostly because I don’t remember them, and when I do, I often get to the punchline and realize I have forgotten it.  This one however had left a strong enough impression that I was able to remember and deliver it intact.  It was received with great hilarity by the entire group. 

I later explained the origin of this joke– that I had learned it from you during that year I spent in your garage.  It was a highly formative year for me.  You and Karen were role models who inspired and supported me.  I have many fond memories, and after I explained these few experiences to Poldi, I realized that I should let you know how valuable they were to me.  So it seems appropriate on this Thanksgiving week that I express my appreciation to you.

I often look back and am surprised that you would take on and shelter a young nephew during your first year of married life while embarking on your medical residency.  I hope the experience was net positive for you and Karen; perhaps it was—you continued to offer your home as a haven and base for my siblings, whom I suspect are just as appreciative as I am.

Kind regards,

Thor


I have another essay that captures a bit of my relationship with my uncle—my very first road trip!

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