An unlikely pair

One shouldn’t live in the past, but it’s a good thing to revisit parts of it now and then, even when one’s memories are vague.

Last week, a ripple of dismay and disbelief washed through town, a simple message that anyone of my vintage who grew up here, and many others, could sadly decode immediately.

“Did you hear that Brillo died?”

His profuse mop of extremely curly red hair earned him that nickname in grade school, even though it didn’t look much at all like the scouring pads of the same name. That’s how we all knew him: Brillo.

He was a couple of years behind me in school, and at that time, I didn’t even know his real name. He didn’t need one. He was Brillo. I’m not sure when I learned that he was really Dennis Druse, but I’m certain if last week I’d heard, “Did you know Dennis Druse died,” I’d have had to scratch my head wondering who was being talked about.

I don’t have any specific memories of Brillo from my school days, just impressions. I remember a kid who was jovial, good-spirited, who had a quick wit, and occasionally was the target of seemingly good-natured ribbing, or at least that the way he took it. And I recall wondering if that’s just the way he found to fit in.

When I came back to Marion a couple of years ago, I was at a local convenience store when a man in overalls with a long beard and little hair on his head walked through the front door and the calls began: “Hi, Brillo. Hey, Brillo, what’s up?”

I couldn’t believe it. It was Brillo, and in that moment, I felt pure delight. We chatted briefly in the checkout line, and we both left. It’s a scene that repeated most every time he walked in, and I suspect at most every place he went.

I don’t know a thing about how he lived his life over the years, but I’m sure everyone who knew him or knew of him had their own opinions. Icons are like that, and for many of us, Brillo was an icon.

All I know is that I felt good when Brillo was around, even for just a few moments, and so did a whole lot of other folks. That’s as good an impression as any to be left with.

Then yesterday, I learned that Mrs. Edmunds, Pauline Edmunds, the sixth grade teacher I never had, died.

As my fifth grade year came to a close, there were a number of us hoping that we didn’t get placed in Mrs. Edmunds’ class. We heard she was “strict,” elementary school code for what we’d later appreciate as “appropriately firm.” I, for one, was happy to learn I’d be in the other class.

Memories are tricky, and many are like muscles: If you don’t use them, you lose them, and I’ve lost most of the specifics about Pauline from all those years ago. But again, impressions.

Pauline and my Mom were alike in a couple of ways. Both were teachers, and both kept getting cooler as I grew older.

It was hard enough for my folks to keep up with where I was living and what I was doing through all my moves in adulthood, and when I’d come home most folks were rightfully clueless.

Not Pauline. I haven’t the foggiest idea of how she did it, but when I’d run into her at Old Settlers’ Day or something else, she’d ask something like, “Are you still in Chicago, or have you moved?” She always knew where I’d been the last time we talked, and it was important enough for her to remember. I always loved that, as I did the conversations that would ensue. It always felt like I was talking with someone who should’ve been my aunt. I came to wish that she’d have been my sixth grade teacher.

I’m glad she’s finally at peace. But there’s also a sense of continuity for me that’s affirmed by her passing. She’s left behind quite a legacy, the sort that comes from being in a profession where the object is to touch people’s lives for good.

In the end, revisiting the past with Pauline and Brillo brings home how important relationships are to who we become and how we find our places in the world. I feel joy when I think of both of them, an unlikely pair though they may be. That’s a pretty good lasting impression to leave.

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 20, 2016

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