Max Nelson died September 24, 2014, in Weston, Massachusetts. Doctors had warned him he would be unlikely to live to 50, but he was 96 years old.
As the grandson of an Orthodox rebbe, life in the Jewish Bronx came with recognition: elderly men kissed his feet in front of the neighborhood synagogue. Max grew up speaking Yiddish and delivering the Bronx Daily for 12 cents a week. Then, when he was 14, he woke one morning and fell off the bed, unable to move. It was polio. He never regained the use of his right leg. When the hospital discharged him, it was on a sacred Jewish holiday, and his father had to ask the rabbi’s permission to bring him home.
Jewish and crippled: two invitations to discrimination. He dealt with the first by changing his name, from Katzenelson to Nelson. He dealt with the second by swimming daily into his 90’s, traveling the world, triumphing.
On the opening day of college, Max fell in love. “Look at her! What a dish—she’s for me!” he told a friend. Charlotte was taking a math course, and very bad at it. Max was very good at it, and, by fortunate coincidence, right outside her classroom door whenever it opened. He endeared himself to her with tutoring, and through 70 years of marriage, Charlotte remained his dish. He used to warn his four daughters that when she died, he needed three weeks to get his estate in order before joining her. He survived her by two years.
Along with a wife, his good math brought Max a career in accounting. He could add rows of phone numbers together in his head faster than an adding machine. In half a century of work, there was no higher satisfaction than browbeating an auditing IRS agent, unless it was bumping into famous clients on the streets of New York: Bert Lahr, Cole Porter, Eddie Cantor. Yet when he and Charlotte moved to Florida, he took just as much satisfaction doing taxes for the widows in their retirement community for free.
Max had strong opinions about investments—never believed in mutual funds—and checked his stock portfolio several times a day, filing updates in a hole-punch notebook. He made all his own financial decisions, and paid for the college and graduate schools of each adored daughter. His devotion to them entwined with a devotion to education. “You can talk, you can argue, you can go to law school,” he told one daughter. She did—and then, twice a week, he tutored her through the tax course.
From an early age, he had understood illness all too well. Once polio struck, his leg never worked again—yet his heart became all the stronger. After his father-in-law had a stroke, Max used to come by to shave him. And when he decided to sell his Florida condo to some beloved neighbors, they had to insist on raising the price—because the hardline numbers man wouldn’t think of it.
Did you know Max Nelson? Share your memories in the comments section.