On Cousins and Only Children

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Not me and G, Puget Sound, 2014

Not me and G, Puget Sound, 2014

 

The cure for what has been ailing me (homesickness, friendship distress, caffeine withdrawal, and general malaise) came this past week in the form of a seven- day visit from my cousin G. If you don’t have a cousin like her, then I give you permission to go berate your aunts and uncles right this minute for not producing one for you. Such a person really should be an unalienable right mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

 

What did we do all week? I don’t remember. We walked by the water a lot, including a lovely long wade (or “paddle” as Z calls it) in Puget Sound. We went to bookstores and yarn stores and ate things we shouldn’t. We spent an afternoon on Hudge’s houseboat. Saturday night we went to the Seattle International Film Festival’s showing of the South African film Leading Lady, and had the added bonus of “Billy” from Ally McBeal sitting in the same row as us. (Other than taking some blurry photos, we acted nonchalant with this brush with B-list fame.)

 

But mostly, we just talked. Yesterday I woke up and realized she wasn’t still in residence, and I felt decidedly ho-hum about life in her absence. It was good to have a paisano in the house.

 

Though I acquired two half-brothers as a young adult (and am now reaping the benefits of aunthood), I was an only child for the whole of my childhood. I was not one of those lonely, pitiful characters in literature like Jane Eyre who has no family, but instead grew up a few miles from my cousins on my mother’s side, which meant weekends and summers in the country with them, avoiding cow pats as we played in the fields, demanding one of the endless Eskimo Pies my grandmother kept in the freezer, rubbing my allergy-inclined face onto the fur of barn kittens, and riding a garden tractor/go-cart/Radio Flyer train around the barnyard while dressed in our best parade finery (which mostly involved fancy hats and Nerf balls stuck under our shirts, Dolly Parton style). From these cousins, I learned a little of the positive side of what it might be like to have siblings (the camaraderie! the similar family experience! the Eskimo Pies!) with only a hint of the dark side (the arguments! parentally-forced sharing! the hair pulling!) Often now that I’m in Seattle and feeling a longing for home, it isn’t lost on me that I’m not missing home so much as I’m missing 1974 in a tire swing at my grandparents’ house, waiting on the cousins to arrive and the fun to begin.

 

G was not one of these cousins. Since my parents divorced when I was young and since all of my cousins on Dad’s side lived in different parts of Indiana, I often felt less connected. I went through a period of time when I wasn’t even sure if I belonged anymore, like somehow those cousins with their intact families were more legitimate than I was.

 

Once a year or so, we’d all get together and it would take awhile for me to feel satisfactorily reacquainted with them. Because I was the baby girl, I was often in awe of my older cousins, studying how they dressed, what they did, what they read and listened to, and then attempted to incorporate it all into my life. From these paternal cousins, I developed an affection for horror movies (for a time), miniature golf, Shakespeare and John Irving novels, and, randomly, the Carpenters and the Beach Boys even though we were really too young for this to be “our” music. I loved these cousins, but they were more like exotic, affectionate strangers than the closer, more sibling-like connection I had with my cousins back home in Wayne County.

 

I can’t pinpoint when the magic happened on my dad’s side of the family. It was after we were all out of college but before the family funerals started adding up. For me, it was as if a switch was flipped and suddenly I realized how much I genuinely liked these cousins. We didn’t grow up together. Our lives had evolved differently. And yet, we were somehow connected. I’m convinced that if I’d never met them and then bumped into them at a cocktail party, I would have gravitated to all of them intuitively. They’re smart, well read, wickedly funny and somehow. . . familiar.

 

G’s familiarity is still a source of wonder to me. Six years separate us and our life experiences have been very different, yet we get each other. One of us might say, “I think I’m weird because I …” and before the sentence can be finished, the other is nodding her head and admitting to doing or thinking the same thing. Maybe it’s because we’re both Capricorns or share a bunch of similar letters on the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator. Maybe it’s just genetics. I don’t know. All I do know, is the day of my father’s funeral when I was sitting on the front “immediate family only” pew feeling very alone, I looked behind at G with what must have been a face of misery, and she nodded, knowing intuitively what I needed, and without saying a word, skooched herself out of the crowded row she was in, and came to sit beside me, leaning in and making the whole rotten experience bearable. Who doesn’t feel lucky to have that in her life? Could a sister have offered me more than that?

 

Right after I met Z, she is the one I took to scope him out and see if I was delusional or if he seemed like he had potential. He was working a bean-bag toss at the university Homecoming carnival and had no idea he was under surveillance. She gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up and kept giving it, years later after everyone else’s enthusiasm for Z was waning, and even mine was beginning to ebb because he was operating on what I would later learn was “African time.” Five years after the bean-bag toss when I was starting to feel mostly done with him, she dragged me out to buy new Z-catching eye shadow and gave me a pep talk about destiny, and a few weeks later, he told me his heart had shifted. (It was awesome drugstore eye shadow—if you have unrequited love, I recommend it.)

 

So a few years later when Z and I got married, it was only natural that I’d want G, who had been there on the worst day, to be my “best woman” on the best day. She even patiently gave in to my desire that she be gussied up like a Disney princess, along with me, never mind our middle-agedness and how we should have been wearing something more subdued and matronly, like grey pantsuits, instead of sparkle and shine.

 

When someone tells me they plan to have only one child, I never feel badly for that kid. The only downfall I can remember to my “only” status was the assumption by people that an only child was naturally bratty and spoiled. (It’s worth noting that these people making these claims always had multiple ill-behaved children.) Instead, I loved being just me. Loved the pockets of solitude and being treated like a little adult instead of one of the wildings in Lord of the Flies.

 

But maybe I can say I loved being an only child simply because I was rich with cousins. A cousin-less life sounds much less enticing to me.

 

Now if I can just get the other eleven to visit.

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