Missin' Cousins

[Previous Suburban Farmgirl, October 2009 – October 2010]

When the strawberries and sweet corn are ripe, charcoal grill smoke fills the air, and days seem lazier just because they’re longer, I think more often about a particular kind of relationship. It’s less analyzed than the one with your parents or your menfolk, more fragile than the bond with your sibs (who, love ‘em, hate ‘em — or both simultaneously – tend to boomerang back at you your entire life), and yet potentially more enduring than ties with even the best of friends, because with this relationship, there’s blood involved.

Summertime has me thinkin’ ‘bout cousin time.

Have you noticed how a little-discussed byproduct of scattered families is scattered cousins?

That’s me, the lone brunette (above), in typical summer cousin mode: Picnic table and coloring books. Leaving church on Sunday, my sibs and I would always ask, “Who’s house are we going to?” (Or, “Who’s coming over?”) By “who” of course, we meant which cousins? Juli and Terri? Jennifer and David and Scott and Jeff? Jimmy and his sisters? Dennis?

A really lucky answer was a Boulan Park cookout, where my cousins’ cousins assembled in lawn chairs with coolers full of burgers, homemade peanut butter cookies, beer (for the dads) and red pop and orange pop (for us). (I was oblivious to everyone’s exact relationships until I was a grownup.) Or I’d learn that my cousin Jennifer was sleeping over at her grandmother’s house, right next door to my grandmother’s house, which meant we could play Marathon Monopoly for, oh, five days running. Holiday, birthday, first communion, graduation — all led to a family party. But mostly we’d gather because our parents liked to hang out.

Some summer days, my sister and I rode our bikes eight miles to Juli’s and Terri’s, imagining ourselves on horseback on the open plains, oblivious to the fact that we were on suburban sidewalks next to busy roads (and helmetless, of course). Once there, we might swim in the above-ground pool, dig worms. Make up a play starring the dress-up box of vintage great-aunt clothes. Ride those “horses” some more. Beg for a sleepover.

(A favorite cuz memory: Spending an Earth-Day-inspired morning with Juli making “Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute!” crayoned signs – which we then spent the afternoon plastering all over the neighborhood.)

Some of you are probably lucky enough to spend your Fourth of July fests and Sunday picnics with your cousins still. After college or marriages, most of mine just moved around too much. As did I. We continued to get together with our immediate families. But the cousin connections mostly floated away, just out of reach. We’d hear one another’s headlines (from our parents) and exchange Christmas cards, but all a bit once-removed.

Check out this cornucopia of girl cousins — a cousincopia!  — me  at 12 with two sisters and four first cousins. (Can you pick me out?!)

Thanks to the wonders of Skype, Gmail, Facebook, et. al. , though, these cousins and I have been rediscovering one another after a lengthy lapse. Thanks, too (perversely) to the funerals that go with the midlife territory, reconnecting us ex-kids as we say goodbye to moms, dads, aunts, uncles. (It was nicer when weddings accomplished this, but we’re sort of in the lull between our own weddings and our children’s.)

My cousin Juli, for example, just earned an MBA from a university in England and, had I calculated the time better, I might have watched a live feed of the event. Her daughter is my Facebook friend, and there’s a certain comfort in at least keeping tabs on the next gen down. Another cousin, MaryJo, whom I only saw once a year in my dad’s distant hometown (and who, a little bit older than me, seemed like a mysterious adventuress) emailed out of the blue to urge me to write about this inspiring familiy, who live in her town; that led us to catch up with one another. Cousins Chris and Dennis and I have become penpals. (E-pals? Keyboard-pals?) Even cousins’ wives are newfound friends — one post soon I’m sharing Tracey’s good-for-you cookie recipe, thanks to a nice reunion at my dad’s pre-burial brunch, of all places.

Affter cousin Ricca mapquested her way to my N.C. house on a drive from Florida to Michigan last year, we parted wishing we lived nearby enough for a monthly girls’ lunch. With all the girl cousins! (Growing up, glamorous and cosmopolitan Ricca was Ringleader Cousin, teaching the bookish, glamless me to avoid cheap Indian cotton, buy Lancome mascara for the longest lashes, follow my heart, be brave, and drink mint tea at night…I’d love to serve her some homegrown, home-brewed mint tea, inspired by Mountain Farmgirl!) Why just this very morning she emailed a batch of us cousins an inspiring Thoreau quote: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Here we are last year: (She’s in the above foto too!)

And the aforementioned newly-minted MBA Juli? She’s been a sweet sounding board in recent times for me, and not long ago helped me make a really vexing decision by asking, “What happened to the cousin who was our fearless leader and directed our plays and made up our games and adventures?!”

Even more than siblings (maybe because we log less time together overall), cousins idealize one another. How handy, years later, to be remembered as a fearless leader, an adventuress, an anti-pollution crusader, a tastemaker, an inspiration.

My own poor kids don’t have any cousins within an hour’s radius, like I once did. Connecting them all takes more work and planning. But we their parents try, because we remember our own cousin bonds. (Below, a scene from a girl cousin beach trip last year.) These kids may not have so many Monopoly Marathons and lazy-Sunday picnics as we did, but we’ve noticed that they, too, now stretch their semi-annual contacts with text messages and status updates.

Virtual sweet corn is better than none at all.

  1. Brenda says:

    I moved from Indiana to Michigan when I was married shortly after graduating from high school. Left all my family behind including the cousins. It is a six hour drive one way to the area I was raised and it is a chore to visit siblings and parents in the couple of trips I take each year. Sometimes only one. So when I got to go to a ladies only yearly family reunion a couple of years ago it was a blessing. Most of the cousins I had not seen for close to 30 years and I had to get re-acquainted with all of them. It was great!

  2. Paula, The way you write about our childhood makes it seem like it was yesterday! Remember picking raspberries in Grama and Grampa’s garden on Sunday Lake? Also, the little cute books you would write for everyone. I wish I would have had a little "memory box" that could have stored treasures like that.
    Here is another quote I read somewhere. You embody it completely. LIVE SIMPLY, LOVE GENEROUSLY, CARE DEEPLY, SPEAK KINDLY AND LEAVE THE REST TO GOD.

  3. Marilyn Collins says:

    Hi Paula,
    Enjoyed your reminiscing about your cousins. My sisters and I try to keep in touch with our cousins.It is not easy,since they are all scattered across the country.
    Thanks for the great feature, I look forward to your next one.

  4. Temple says:

    I remember holidays with my cousins and any time we were at my grandparents, they made sure that we all got together. Moved away when I was 7 and we all sort of lost track of each other. Cousins grew up and married overseas – I thought we would never see each other again. They all came to visit their Da who is 90 and isn’t up to the international travel anymore. My brother and I went to see them and it was like we had never been apart.

    Thank you for writing about such a wonderful time – it made me remember ours. Now I am going to write to them all. Bye!

  5. Bonnie Russell says:

    Hi again, Paula,

    My husband and I just returned home after driving over 800 miles, 2 days one direction, to attend a family reunion in Missoula, Mt. Nearly all surviving cousins made it, even though we are scattered in California, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, N. Dakoda, Arizona and Montana. What a joy to connect to some I had not seen for nearly 50 years. As we are aging ourselves, we are well aware of fleeting time and grabbing an opportunity to connect and gather while we have the health to do so. How were we to know that 3 of us would be taken early, one only a year ago? Through laughter and tears, we poured over photos, re-lived memories and made new ones. It’s so worth the effort!

    "It’s kind of fun to do the impossible." –Walt Disney


  6. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    Loved to hear that story. Today there has been talk of cousin reunions on both sides of my family! (:

  7. Carla says:

    How ironic that you wrote about cousins today, this upcoming weekend is our annual cousins weekend.
    There are 5 of us girls, stair stepped in age, that have made it a point to get together the 3rd weekend in July. Just us, no kids or spouses. We choose a different location every year. sometimes, shopping in the city, sometimes a resort town along the shores of Lake Michigan.
    we grew up within a mile of each other, attended the same schools, spent every holiday together, camping trips, and our birthdays were always celebrated with them unitl we started to drive and get part-time jobs.
    We have only been doing this for the last 4 years,and also get together other times of the year, even without the family weddings and funerals. We realize we share so much of our lives together and those moments make us who we are today.

  8. Juliann says:

    What wonderful memories and the photos made me laugh! I can’t believe some of the things we did but, it is true that the summers seemed endlessly fun! Terri and I looked forward to every weekend for the same reasons – Who’s house are we going to? or Who’s coming over? (We were always glad when the answer was ‘Paula and Patti’!)

    And talk about idealising cousins – part of the reason I’m living in England now is because Ricca’s postcards from London when she was living there took on significance of mythic proportions in my imagination! I just knew she was living such a glamourous life abroad!

    We should plan a cousin reunion….and we should skype more!

    Love, ‘Juli’

  9. Debbie says:

    Hi Paula!
    What a cute post…You have a memory like a steel trap! One filled with such special memories… I think there is an ART to that! You’ve jogged mine back to special holidays spent with my cousins too! I had plenty on both sides of my family and when I think back on the times we spent together as kids, my ears ring with laughter! As an adult, I was able to keep up with some of my cousins that stayed local because I was also their hairdresser!
    Now we are " faraways " too, but I have wonderful memories of times with them as a youngter and as " grownups"…Like you and so many people we stay connected with email and the occasional phone call in between a visit in person!

    Thanks for reminding me of those happy times….

    Now, here’s an addendum to your last post titled SCREEN QUEEN! We did it! In true farmgirl make-do fashion we set up our new SCREENED Garden Gazebo on our west facing deck last week to beat this Hot and Humid New England heat! We’ve been ejoying it so so so much! Morning coffee and breakfast,cool late evening family candle lit dinner’s and even a late night game of cards by the light of a karosene lantern…We decided to just use what we had, our orignal round table and chairs, complete with a colorful table cloth made for indoor/outdoor use. We gathered lanterns from other rooms inside and now we’re on the lookout for an outdoor chandelier to hang from the center post. I’m inspired by the one in Mary Janes Farm made from a thrify old lamp shade frame… We’ll see? This farmgirl isn’t all that patient sometimes, and it’s high summer… I may just purchase one and enjoy a little instant gratification with some candle light to boot!

    Happy Summer and thanks for the memories and inspirations too!


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