The specter of cousin Eugene, part one

Growing up, my family had a parable for parents who bragged too much about the intelligence and promise of a child.

“Careful now, or he’ll end up like Cousin Eugene.”

I can never remember the exact relationship of this cousin Eugene to my grandmother, but his station in life went something like this: He was the boy genius who learned to do everything earlier and better than any of his peers – he could read, write, add, subtract, draw a map, conduct emergency surgery on his dog, negotiate a peace treaty between rival playground factions and make a perfect baked Alaska. Surely, his mother would boast, he would one day find the cure for several major diseases, invent a hovercraft that could travel at the speed of light and be easily elected the first president of the world that he single-handedly unified.

But Eugene apparently grew up to become something the family saw as no big deal in light of his boyhood promise – an office manager for a sign shop or a car salesman or a professional envelope stuffer. I personally don’t feel comfortable with disparaging Eugene’s accomplishments as an adult. I have no way of knowing that he wasn’t the greatest undiscovered Tango dancer in North America, that he didn’t hand-write pages and pages of of equations that decisively proved a unified theory of everything but got lost in a tragic barn fire, or even whether he just managed to be an unshakably happy and loving person.

I only know him as a fable with a moral that warns us not to brag about our children, lest they grow up with the burden of disappointment, be it in themselves or from the people who anticipated their greatness. I can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t have at least a sliver of cousin Eugene in them.

To be continued…

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