I used to think Valentine's Day was instituted in honor of my older brother James. Of the six boys in our family, he seemed to be the only one with superpowers. Not that he could fly or bend steel with his bare hands, but ever since childhood he has seemed able to cast a spell over women.
And in this age of computer dating, with eHarmony commercials on every TV channel and self-help books about finding your soul mate crowding bookstore shelves, I have often thought my brother could make a fortune selling his secret.
We first saw evidence of his talent at a late-summer family gathering at the city public beach. We were swimming and eating hot dogs and playing catch with a football when my uncle's neighbor showed up with his daughter.
We had already heard that she had been on magazine covers at age 15, so seeing her in the flesh, delicate and elegant in a peach-colored, two-piece bathing suit, struck us dumb with infatuation.
If you've ever seen dogs cavorting in a field or meadow off-leash, then you have some idea how the McGrath boys made fools of ourselves that afternoon. Running, diving, grunting, and chicken fighting in the shallow water, we showed off in every inarticulate way imaginable, never once succeeding in getting the teenager to turn her head.
Eventually we gave up, retreating to the volleyball court for a game.
When we returned after about an hour, there was James, kneeling at the water's edge beside the young model, the two of them sculpting a castle in the sand. She was leaning on her right hand, scooping out the moat with her left, all the while smiling and talking a mile a minute to our brother – that silken skin only inches away.
It must be magic, we thought, because James is not even good-looking. Kenneth has always been more handsome. Patrick is smarter, and Kevin a lot funnier. Charlie has the gift of gab, and I am twice the athlete.
Even Bob Braash, James's buddy in high school, has confessed to being puzzled by the phenomenon.
"Your skinny brother," he once confided, "with his slicked-back hair and crooked teeth, reminds everyone of Jughead in [the] Archie comics. But somehow he always manages to date the prettiest girls."
Today we are all old men, married with grown children. James is married to Michelle, one of those beauty queens that every other guy chased after.
Recently, we reunited at a wedding reception for my nephew and his new bride. In attendance among the nearly 400 guests was my nephew's cousin, one of the finalists from the reality TV show "The Apprentice," a dazzling young woman with shining black hair.
We snickered to see clusters of wedding guests circling the ballroom to get a closer look, one even sending a child to the table for an autograph.
But wouldn't you know it, toward the end of the evening, my gray-haired brothers and I stood open-mouthed at the bar, near where the young TV star was touching James's shoulder, laughing and chatting away with our bald and bespectacled elder.
When I asked him his secret, he denied there ever was one.
"I love women and talk to all of them," he said. "You noticed when I talked to a knockout. But you failed to notice that I've also been talking to at least 10 who were not knockouts."
Hardly the stuff for a bestseller titled "Top Ten Secrets for Dating." It seems James has no tricks. He offers something that appeals to us all, and that is the real theme of Valentine's Day: making an individual feel special.
In fact, I guess the only secret is how to be more like James on the inside.