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Donald:

My cousin Donald was the son of my mother’s oldest sister, Ethel. He and I share the distinction of being “our” generation’s two “only” children. I have no conscious memory of him. He died at the age of 23, when I was no more than 6 or 7.

My Aunt Ethel was born in 1907 to Uncle Bronty’s 1922 and he and Donald were not all that far apart in age. Certainly close enough for there to be a couple of anecdotes concerning the two of them.

One that I recall in particular was of the time they and other members of the family were up in the mountains to enjoy the snow. I am supposing that it was a general family trip when they were both kids, most probably Aunt Ethel’s branch of the family with Uncle Bronty along for the fun. Ma and Dad may have been along as well, or even the whole clan.

I suspect that such an outing was a long-standing family tradition. Certainly when I was growing up, Ma, Dad, and I would make at least one trip up to Mt. Baldy each winter to tramp about in the snow for half a day before stopping off in Montclair on the way home for spaghetti. By that time, Ma’s three sisters had long gone off to Washington State, Uncle Bronty and Aunt Pisces were raising their own family and Donald was dead.

Even the stories concerning him are fading out by now, and this is a belated effort to pin a couple of them down before they disappear completely.

Uncle Bronty’s specialty was machines, not woodworking, so I am assuming that the toboggan was not a homemade effort. In any case, he and Donald set off down the mountain on it and ultimately ran it into a tree.

It split.

So did their blue jeans. Both pairs.

And both sets of glasses were knocked off into the snowbank.

Did I mention that Ethel as well as Uncle Bronty had inherited their mother’s appalling eyesight? Well, so had Donald. At that time he and Uncle Bronty wore “coke bottoms”. I will draw a merciful veil upon them in their predicament.

But the underlying point to this story is that this incident is perfectly in character for every tale concerning Donald that I can ever remember being told. The boy was accident-prone to a positively legendary degree.

Donald was the kid who would sit on a curb and really did get his feet run over.

At least according to Ma. I do not know if it really happened. (But I doubt it.)

There was an enduring connection between Donald and Ma insofar as she had been one of his most frequent caretakers while he was growing up. Despite my own opinions regarding my mother, I can readily appreciate that she was well equipped to become any normal child’s very favorite aunt. Still, her “Donald” stories were not numerous, nor frequently told.

They were suggestive, however. And while I doubt that anyone in the family would have confirmed it, had I ever brought up the subject, one or two them strongly suggest to me that he may have grown up to be gay.

My cousin Val, by contrast, was told that after Donald died there was an Asian girl somewhere with a little altar that had his picture on it and some incense sticks burning. Somehow, this addition to the tale (a bit of embroidery from Uncle Bronty, which I was only told of after Val had gone online and read the original version of this essay) comes across to me as so exaggerated as to offer no real contradiction. But it hardly matters at this distance of time one way or another. He certainly grew up to be unlucky.

For, despite all indications to the contrary, Donald did live to grow up. Just. More or less intact, too. I have always assumed that if he wasn’t simply too young, it was his eyesight that kept him out of the Army during WWII. It did not, however, keep him from joining the Merchant Marines.

I do not recall the name of his ship. But I remember being told that it was loaded with wheat, engaged in a crossing of the North Atlantic, in, I believe the late winter of ’52 or ’53 (in connection with the Marshall Plan perhaps? Was the Marshall Plan still in effect by then?) when it ran into a storm. A distress signal was sent and received; but not a stick or a scrap of the ship was ever found.

We had not seen him often after he was grown, for he was a seaman and his duty was to his ship. But on those occasions that he was on leave and in reach of Los Angeles he had always made a point of visiting Ma. The last of these visits had been when I was a toddler.

In accordance with what was evidently a standard joke between them, upon departure, he had teased her by leaving behind a dirty black handprint above the kitchen door, which she, at 5’2” would have to climb a stepladder to remove.

As I say, I do not actually remember my cousin Donald at all. I have only the fading recollection of a period when I was six or seven when Ma’s eye might occasionally be caught by the patch of wall above the kitchen door and dissolve into tears.