I had the good fortune to spend part of yesterday with some of my cousins. We gathered to celebrate the high school graduation of one of their offspring. A Sunday afternoon spent catching up and sharing quick exchanges that remind us how quickly time passes and how we really should see each other more frequently. Cousins share a bond that goes beyond DNA and childhood holidays spent with now deceased relatives. We’ve known each other our whole lives, through awkward phases, horrible hair styles and bad fashion choices. The frequent shared holidays of childhood become the less frequent weddings, milestone birthdays and funerals of adulthood. With cousins there is no drama, just a sincere affection and the honest wish that we could gather with greater frequency.
I have 7 cousins; the flower girl from my parents wedding who was beautiful and brilliant and died too soon, their ring bearer who I saw less often growing up due to a divorce but who has always remained in contact and now stays in touch via Facebook. My solo cousin on the other side of the family who grew up in a suburb of my native Minneapolis but has lived in Louisiana for perhaps thirty years. She has two children I have never met but we faithfully exchanges cards each Christmas. I have another cousin who is a talented musician who I last saw when my brother and I showed up at his 50th birthday after at least a 20 year hiatus. Then the three I encountered yesterday, the hostess and mother of the grad, her younger brother who came with his wife, college-aged daughter and dog from northern Minnesota and the oldest brother who lives in Minnesota but is completing a three year work commitment in Singapore. It is these three (and their eldest sister) with whom my family shared a Wisconsin cabin during our childhood. We played together, pestered each other and eventually we grew up to be the adults who love to reminisce about the close calls, foolish choices and outstanding antics of our youth. I have good memories of each of my cousins and feel fortunate for the relationships I am able to share with each of them.
Growing up I recall only one of my mother’s cousins. He had come from Ireland and lived with my grandparents while he went to college. I have faint but fond memories of him being at holidays when I was little. Later he married and started a family before moving to South Africa with his wife and two children. My mother and he corresponded throughout the rest of her life and there were occasional visits. His wife was Desmond Tutu’s personal secretary for many years and he remains politically active to this day, while she works with the Tutu Aid’s Foundation. My father had a number of cousins whose names were typically spoken in pairs; the cousin’s name and their corresponding spouse.
This morning I was still reflecting on how pleasant it was to visit with my own cousins yesterday when I discovered that my father’s closest cousin had passed away last night. It was not an entirely unexpected death, as he had been undergoing various cancer treatments for many years. During that time he outlived his daughter and his grandson. Despite my own father being gone for over twenty five years and his cousin Wayne being well on the north side of 80, the man had struck me as perpetually youthful. Though my father had an older brother there were few stories of the two of them growing up together that one might reflect fondly upon. To be honest, the only story I recall of the two brothers as children is of my dad as the frustrated younger sibling of a cheating brother who retaliated with a croquet mallet. Not a cute story, or particularly charming. The entertaining, fun and comical stories were the ones of my dad with his cousin Wayne.
They were close in age, my father graduating from Minneapolis West High in 1949 and Wayne from North High that same year. While my parents Chuck and Dorothy raised me and my brothers in Minneapolis, where we attended Southwest High School (which sort of makes one think that only a compass was required to get to school in Minneapolis) Wayne and his wife Marge raised their son and daughter in the suburb of Bloomington where they would go to Lincoln High School. I raised my own son and daughter in Bloomington where they graduated from Kennedy High School (a community that names their schools after assassinated presidents). As a kid I recall seeing Wayne and his family at my Grandpa’s birthday each July. It was an annual outdoor potluck where the men played croquet in sandals with dark socks and my uncle seemed to remain a cautious distance from my father when he had a mallet. Wayne’s daughter Wendy Jo would perform a baton routine on the shuffleboard court after dinner in an elaborately sequined costume. The evening ended with cake and a slice of Neapolitan ice cream.
It was not the food, the games or the activities that made these gatherings such pleasant times, it was the stories and banter. The opportunity to catch a glimpse of these adults as the children they had been. There was a warmth and genuine affection that my father and his cousin shared that was unlike any other I had witnessed, they were friends that were related. They shared more than DNA. Throughout the years I would see Wayne at weddings, anniversaries and more funerals than I liked.
A favorite story is of my dad and his cousin which took place on a hot summer day in Minnesota. Wayne’s mother “Aunt Dolly” (a somewhat proper woman who liked things “just so”) was driving. My father who suffered horribly from Hay Fever was in the back seat when he staged the sound of a horrific sneeze and timed it with his trigger finger on a squirt gun which was filled with warm water and directed at the back of Aunt Dolly’s neck. She nearly drove off the road screaming “Chaaaaaaaarrrrrrrlllllles!!!!”. The retelling of such tales brought them both great joy and all of us much laughter.
Cousins; the ones we spent our youth with, keeper of our memories, teller of our stories.