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July, 2009

Uncle Too Fat

by Julia

Uncle Too Fat was my Father's younger brother; I do not recall ever calling him anything else. His name was Leonard, and I suppose we adopted the name of Too Fat half in jest but mostly because he was indeed overweight. He had a limp which seemed to emphasize his roly-poly gait. I have no idea how he got the limp, probably some accident in his younger days. He had been a handsome man, but all I remember is how he seemed to me as I was growing up. We lived two doors apart, as I would describe it, meaning that he and his three sons lived with his parents in the corner house on our block. I lived with my parents, brother and sister in the fourth house with two other houses in between. Uncle Leonard had been married to Lou, and it was said of her that she was the most perfect woman who was ever born, beautiful and a wonderful cook and housekeeper. She had died two weeks after their third son was born. At that time a grieving Leonard had moved in with his parents, and his mother had looked after the baby Louis as well as the others.

Depression Era Waco, TX, Grocery Store, Russell Lee photographer

This was a long time ago in Waco, Texas, a rather small town surrounded by farms, mostly cotton. My father, grandfather, and uncle all worked for the Katy Railroad. My grandfather was an engineer, having begun about forty years before in the lowest position as an oiler and worked up to the highest as engineer. My father and uncle worked at the roundhouse, jobs consisting of keeping the trains repaired and in running condition. I remember well the huge, it seemed to me, round building with tracks like spokes, where the engines could be run under the roof. This provided a place where the workmen could be out of the heat in summer or cold in the winter, comparatively that is since there was no air-conditioning and little warmth in winter.

I remember little of those days but Uncle Leonard had gradually become Uncle Too Fat. I do not have a picture of him from that time so I have to rely on my mind to see him going down the sidewalk with his distinctive limp. But I well recall that he liked to cook. It seems that in my memory he made sugar cookies often. I have never been able to duplicate them and have never tasted any others so delicious. The ritual was that after the baking was done the warm cookies were placed in a cloth bag with sugar and jiggled a few times. Then I was allowed to reach into the bag and pull out a warm sugary cookie. What bliss!

The other specialty was taffy which he made only on cold wintry days. This involved boiling sugar, water, and vanilla flavoring until it reached just the right "cracking" stage. He would test it by holding up the spoon with a bit of the fluid mixture and let it fall back into the pot. He never used a thermometer but he could tell when it was time to remove the candy from the heat. The candy would make a thread like fine crackly hair. Of course it would be very hot. It had to cool until it could be handled but still quite warm. This was because the next thing to do was pull the taffy. Uncle Too Fat had his boys and me eager to take over. As soon as it could be handled he gave each of us a big blob of the now almost set sweet. Our job was to start pulling it to make a piece of candy about as big around as a finger. When it became firm enough Uncle Too Fat cut it into three-inch pieces. I don't hear of people making taffy anymore, but back then it wasn't unusual to have a taffy pull party where the entertainment was to have a large batch, with several of your friends to make the candy.

It was good during those years when both my father and uncle had jobs. The Great Depression changed everything for us but it is nice to be able to remember Uncle Too Fat and the fun times.

(Thanks much, Julia, for another great personal story! Not only does it add a remarkably sweet dimension to a suggested family essay theme, about unusual work we have had [in this case, pulling taffy], but it helps us get a better "taste" and "feel" for growing up in the South just before our country's worst economic collapse. Your account jogged my memory of a time when I was small and you made taffy at home, complete with the taffy pull! I was amazed how thick the taffy was at first (as big around as a man's arm) and how hard to pull. It was a slippery, hot, sticky, messy chore, but with a super payoff at the end! Larry)

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