Dozens of Cousins
They are those strange people called cousins, strange and familiar at once, whose blood — nay, whose noses — exert a powerful claim on your duty and who, in their numbers and their crazy variety and their blissful being-themselves, place you within a community whether you like it or not and remind you that you are not the most important person in the world.
I had 39 first cousins and she had 43, all blood relatives, thank you, not counting in-laws. Twenty of my cousins lived in my hometown of 5,000 people.
But few others we know have been so blessed. The fewer cousins you have, the less likely it will be that a single one of them will live nearby, especially in our Age of Tumbleweeds. For all that our children ever see of their cousins, most of them effectively grow up as if they had none. There is the small family, and the more or less indifferent world. What’s missing is the great mediating institution of kinship, with its slender but unmistakable bonds connecting family with family, even village with village.
A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn’t necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin’s house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy. Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn’t like you, and he comes readymade.
My cousins were quite an assortment: a very pretty girl for me to have a crush on, a fellow Cardinals fan and memorizer of statistics, a shy bully, an inveterate coquette (whom my father didn’t like at all, but I did). Some were sharp and some were dumb; some were good-looking because they looked like our family, and some were homely because they looked like our family; one was adopted, and a couple you’d swear must have been but weren’t. Want diversity? Check out the first cousins of a big family. Nothing is less clannish than a clan.
It was your community; and at the same time it was big enough to put even the smartest kid in his place. You may grow up to be a neurosurgeon, but your cousin Bobby remembers you as the dumb kid who didn’t notice his clumsy sleight-of-hand when he slipped himself a five-hundred-dollar bill while beating you at Monopoly.
You may stack up the honorary letters after your name, but your cousin Terry remembers when you stacked up ABCs in wooden blocks, crawling about the floor with a suspicious aroma about you. You may forget when you were young and silly, when a scraggly path down a snowy hill was like a slope at St. Moritz, but your cousin only remembers you when you were young and silly, or at least, if he is a good fellow, he will not let you forget it, because that hill was like St. Moritz for him, too.
I can certainly testify to the value of cousins. I’m an only child, and maybe as a result I value my cousins more than I might if I had brothers and sisters. But at the same time, I know my cousins value each other highly. (At least on the Smith side of the family.) I’m one of 16 Smith cousins, and much of what Anthony Esolen says above is true about us.
We do hold embarrassing moments from childhood over each other. (“Remember when Jule and Lori went to play dolls on the Shea’s front porch and we couldn’t find them and almost called the police?” Lori and Julie still hate that.) I’ve been in the wedding parties for two cousins and threatened a cousin’s husband on their wedding day that he’d better never hurt her. (The husband and I are good friends, so it wasn’t an angry threat, just a promise.) We’ve been ready to take appropriate action against a cousin’s boyfriend who was not treating with the respect she deserved. (The situation resolved itself before our involvement became necessary.) I’m also godfather to another cousin’s son.
But as he also noted, despite our closeness, many of us are very different. From reading my blog, you’ve gotten a good sense of what I’m like. Now, go check out GranmaDave.com and see how our different my cousin David is. His sister Anna is also very different from me.
We now we’re weird, but we don’t care. We laugh at how some people must see us. (Lori story again: In response to us teasing her, she got so frustrated in the middle of a Friendly’s that she yelled out “Will you stop talking about me committing incest!” Long story, but she’s not guilty of that offense.) And speaking of Friendly’s, it’s a requirement that we go there at least once each time we get together. We know we intimidate people who are new to our group; boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, etc. get a little overwhelmed when presented with the Smith clan. My girlfriend was, and I went easy on her. She only met four cousins and two second cousins; it could have been a lot worse. And just from that short weekend, she noted a lot of Smith traits in me. Every now and then when I engage in one of weird habits, she’ll just look at me and say “Smith.”
I’m also different around my cousins. For whatever reason, I guess due to comfort level and a shared sense of wackiness, I’m much more vocal and outspoken that I can be with other people. We’re very free with our opinions, but rarely hurt each each other. (We’ve learned who to be careful around, but let others have it.) And, as he noted, even though I have to travel to visit my Smith cousin, it’s still okay for me just to walk in without knocking. Family’s always welcome.
Cousins are a great thing. Make sure your kids get to know theirs.