Seventy years ago, my distant cousin, Sidney, at the early age of fourteen, inadvertently sliced his eyeball with a knife while trying to cut the string around a package of challa. Since that fateful day, any child in my family who has ever looked sideways at a knife or scissors has been told the melancholy saga of Cousin Sidney.
Now I don't recall ever meeting Sidney. It may be that the adults in the family thought it too traumatic to ever produce the actual honest-to-God victim himself. But, if that is so, then they missed a great chance to point to the maimed eyeball and say, "You see! Did we lie?"
All I know is that well into my own adulthood, I cannot chop an onion or use a scissors without picturing myself spurting arterial blood across the table. I can't even use a safety razor without visualizing my own face minus a lower lip or handle a circular saw without the word "Amputation" flashing in my brain-thanks to Cousin Sidney. It is as though someone had branded the story into my frontal lobes. When my gray matter perceives any kind of sharp instrument with a point and a cutting edge, there becomes scrolled across my retinas the family's Eleventh Commandment. So that no matter where I go or what I do, there in my psyche is Cousin Sidney, standing on Mount Sinai with stone tablets in each arm, a patch over his eye like Moshe Dyan and shaking his head in a warning "no-no!"
When I was in the service, I was handed a rifle and told to fix bayonet. And as I stood there with trembling fingers trying to attach the blade to the gun, a squad of soldiers came marching through the parade ground singing in cadence,
"Here's the army marching by-
Remember Cousin Sidney's eye!"
In time of peril, the Texans cry, "Remember the Alamo!" My mother cries, "Remember Cousin Sidney!" Sidney stands alongside Nathan Hale ("My only regret is that I have but one eye to give for posterity"), and John Paul Jones ("I have not yet begun to slice"), and Neil Armstrong ("That's one small slash for Sidney, one glass eye for Sidney's kin").
My family has adopted and paraphrased a number of aphorisms which children under the age of ninety-two must commit to memory. These include:
"A fool and his eyeball are soon parted."
"Don't count your eyeballs before they are sliced."
"An eyeball saved is an eyeball earned."
"Two eyeballs in the head are worth ten impaled."
"A rolling eyeball gathers no vision."
"Too many knives spoil the eyesight."
"People who live in glass houses should wear safety goggles."
It remains the greatest mystery to the male children of the family how all of us happened to be circumcised.
In any other family that I know of, Sidney would have been just a hapless klutz who incautiously maimed himself through an incredible act of personal negligence. In my family, he and his catastrophe have been elevated to the level of biblical parable. In fact, when we kids got old enough to roll our eyes to the ceiling at the first mention of Cousin Sidney, we used to say, "Uh oh. Here comes the terrible parable."
I'm sure that someday, some relation, overcome with the poignancy of the tale, will establish a fund for kids with a machete fetish or create an award for any child in the family who can go for thirty days without gashing, slashing or dicing some part of their body. I have to tell you, that thus far, in spite of parental hand wringing, teeth-gnashing and perpetual foreboding, no kid in my family has ever been able to go the distance. Most of us have been fixtures in the local emergency center. They know us not only by first names, but also by a litany of injuries.
Nonetheless, with high hopes and confidence in an unwounded future, we've always said this bedtime prayer,
"Cousin Sidney's my shepherd, I shall not slice.
He maketh me to lay the knife down on the table,
He leadeth me beside the still scissors,
He preserveth my sight.
Yea, tho I walk through the garage barefooted
I will fear no broken glass or loose nails,
For thou hast provided me with combat boots.
Surely warnings and admonitions shall follow me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of paranoia forever."
God bless you, Cousin Sidney.