When I was little, my older cousin Cheryl called me the Professor. As in, “How ’ya doin’, professuh?” Always with a smile, and always with love.

Why “Professor”? I was a very good student, and I read a lot. There weren’t many books in my house, but when I was six or seven I devoured the little Peanuts books my parents got me, and when I was old enough to walk to the Harrison Public Library by myself, I went there religiously and took out anything that looked good – Jaws, the Exorcist, Portnoy’s Complaint, the Great American Novel, some salacious romance called The Other Side of Midnight—anything, really.

I don’t think my parents had much idea what I was reading, but they certainly knew that I was reading. All the time. If I wasn’t shooting baskets in the driveway, or down at Parsons Elementary playing football or baseball, I was reading. Even if my mother made me go outside, I brought my book with me and sat on a branch of our dogwood tree, or on our front steps, or in the back seat of my father’s Cutlass. Reading.

Or it might have been the way I looked—which was, to be honest, exactly like the character Ernie Douglass from “My Three Sons.” Thick glasses, skinny, bookish. Professor-in-training.

Whatever the reason, Cheryl was more prescient than anyone would have guessed. Because while I started college as a Music major, I switched to English after walking into my Music Theory class and having no idea what anyone was talking about. (As it turned out, there was a “II” I didn’t see—that Music Theory class was the second part of a two-semester course, and all the students there had already taken Music Theory I.) And bam—from that point on I went B.A./M.A./Ph.D and became a professor.

Apart from how weird coincidences like that Music Theory mix-up end up determining the path your life takes (like, for example, how my father happened to join the Navy for the Korean War just because his buddies did and happened to be stationed in Naples and happened to play for the Italian team in Pozzuoli that happened to play their games on an outdoor court that happened to be right behind my mother’s apartment building and when they met she just happened to have broken up with her boyfriend . . . and so on and so on and as a result of thousands of these coincidences I am here writing this and there you are reading it), I find myself wondering if Cheryl’s nickname for me ended up somehow determining my “life path”—because I don’t remember ever choosing to become a professor—or even to go to grad school. It just happened. After I got my BA at Nazareth College one of my professors told me about a fellowship that was available at St. Bonaventure, and I thought, “Free masters degree? Why not?” And since I taught courses there (that’s right, I was a 22-year-old teaching college, and not very competently, I assure you), I was offered a graduate assistantship at NYU, so I decided to go there (“Free PhD? Why not?”)–so while it certainly seemed to everyone that I had chosen this career path and was consciously pursuing it all the way, in reality it was all quite . . . unconscious. As if I was following a preordained destiny, in other words. I mean, I never thought of it like this, but in the back of my mind, I must have thought I was meant to be a professor—didn’t Cheryl call me that? And wasn’t Cheryl the coolest cousin ever?

It makes me wonder how different my life would be if Cheryl had called me “the Rocket Scientist.” Or “the CEO.” Or “Lebron.”

Why am I thinking about all this? Because Cheryl recently passed away. She was only in her fifties, and our families have never been very good at keeping in touch, so while I had heard she was sick, I had not the slightest inkling that she might die. When I heard the news of her death from my cousin Kenny, I was stunned, and then the first thing I thought of was Cheryl calling me “the Professor.” It as if she knew something nobody else did—that the nerdy kid in the family who looked like Ernie Douglass might actually have what it takes to be a college professor, when at that point nobody in the family had even been to college.

Anyway, thank you, dear Cheryl. It’s worked out well for me.