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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Perhaps 10 or so years ago for an English essay titled “A Most Memorable Character,” I wrote about someone from my youth during the 1940s, a guy called Martin the Iceman who delivered ice to homes that did not as yet have refrigerators. I could have written about dozens of other people but for some reason this one man stuck out in my memory. A few years later I happened to meet one of the kids from my old neighborhood, only to discover that he had once written a poem about that same grizzled old iceman. Why that geezer made such an impression on us is beyond me, but it just points up the fact that people of seemingly little consequence can have profound effects on our lives.
Not only have seemingly casual acquaintances made indelible impressions, but even relatives who I rarely saw now frequently pop into my thoughts, more often than those who had a major influence in my upbringing. I can easily understand why certain events prompt fond memories of a few uncles who always kidded with me or gave me my first baseball glove, making me feel special and really wanted as part of the family, or aunts who took care of me during difficult times, but why others who were on the periphery of my childhood should ever come to mind is something I cannot comprehend.
Two of the most prominent in that category are cousins, though both were much older than me and were certainly never playmates. Additionally, neither was a person worthy of emulation or someone held in high regard by others, in fact if anything they were looked down upon, almost considered as pariahs by the rest.
One of them was rather simple-minded, not stupid or mentally challenged but just naive to the ways of the world, childlike, always grinning and never serious or apparently concerned with anything. He never joined in conversations but just listened, and when others made teasing remarks against him he just good naturedly laughed insipidly while never responding in kind. I always felt bad at those moments as he obviously was incapable of clever repartee, and I resented the others who made him the butt of jokes. He served in the Army during WW II but came out the same as when he went in, a slap-happy guy unaffected by life. He got married, had kids, and lived productively without ever changing, and when I learned of his death I was very touched though I hadn’t seen him in perhaps 30 years. I didn’t know why I was so affected, but I was.
The other was a cousin only by marriage, someone I didn’t meet until I was in my teens though we were neighbors for a brief period afterwards. Like the other mentioned above he also grinned a lot though was always cracking jokes and telling funny stories about his exploits in the Army during the war, hanging out with tough guys or with pretty women while in his youth. They were obviously flights of fancy, made up tales designed to impress as well as entertain so he was also childlike though of a different variety. Due to his embellishments, everything he said was taken by others with a grain of salt but to me he was just fun to be with regardless of how much or little truth came out of his mouth.
Perhaps that’s what attracted me to both, their inability to fully mature or comprehend reality. My daughter has often referred to me as Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, so maybe their immature qualities were things with which I could empathize and desire for myself. I’ll have to think about that.