Family and Cousins
Yesterday while a friend and I were exchanging grandchildren pictures, she stated, “ Your grandson looks exactly like your son who looks exactly like you.” While it is true that my son does resemble me and my late father, my darling grandson less so. I see more of his mother’s side in him.
My husband laments a baseball trip back from Florida where families were invited to approach the Customs’ desk at the airport. As father and son approached, the guard barked, “Only families, sir”. From the eye of the official, the tall dark and handsome young man appeared to have had no connection- at least resemblance- to – the older man standing close by. We laugh but Howard ponders why all three of the kids look much more like me than him. Physical traits aside, they share, at least we say they share, other attributes of his- intellect, stubbornness, brilliance.
As I was falling asleep last night I was ruminating about some of my cousins and how different my own nuclear family is from them. I think this was prompted by a Facebook posting by a cousin’s daughter from Nashville and pictures of her nephew. Someone had written, “ Gosh. Never realized how much Jonah looks like Josh”. Actually, this may have been in response to my post, “ All these kids look like Levines” because they reminded me of their mom, Julie, and their dad, Jon, who is my cousin. But if we look closely enough, I think we can MAKE association with almost anyone. In that, oh yes, he has Uncle Freddie’s eyebrows or gee, isn’t that Auntie Flora’s smile!
I grew up playing with my cousins. Best of all were Sunday romps in High Park, the kids running wildly up and down hills, parents grouped in foldup chairs at the top, solicitously watching. My father preferred one of his sisters, Jon’s mom, to the other but still the family would gather for these outings, my father usually grumbling that he really didn’t want to go, my mother insisting that it was family. In my mind’s eye, I see my father talking and laughing with Jon’s father, Syd, about something musical, technological, likely speakers or amplifiers. When my parents were first married, I think they lived on a flat near or with Jon, newly born, and his parents and the grandparents. It seems to me, that was what people did in the 30’s.
Part of my resentment to my mother’s side, perhaps, is centred in their celebration of my birthday on Christmas Day. Like flock of birds they descended, feasting on the turkey my mother had risen to prepare in the early hours and devouring my precious layered cake from Patisserie Francois, leaving her with the cleanup-and not much else. I recall one scrawny great aunt who given the thinnest piece of cake I could cut politely whispering if she could please have another slice. No wonder my family called me “ Pat the brat”, The cousins on this side were less friendly, one always with a non-cousin in toll; the other with a Lassie-dog, my preferred ones having moved to California. My mother, half- dead from preparations, scurrying about to make sure everyone had what they needed. Me, seething, that my birthday had been chosen for the site of a family gathering.
Howard too tells of his family’s childhood reunions every summer near the Love Canal where apparently dead fish floating in the water and lines of tar that did not deter his family’s summertime visits. But that’s his story.
We were reflecting that usually one side of the family gets preference. As a kid, I considered my father’s side more intellectual as they all loved music and my favourite aunt was an art aficionado who doted on me. I, unlike the rest of my family, could arrive unannounced at her door and be welcomed in with exotic teas and cakes. She had included me in a tour of Scandinavia, bypassing my sister and another niece. I was aware of her affectation but her topics of discourse were endlessly fascinating to me. So I played along. And for once, it was nice to be the one who was made to feel she deserved undivided attention, not my sister with her high marks in school studies or piano-playing expertise: that someone felt I was worthy of being singled out.
This morning as I responded to a bar mitzvah invitation, I wrote,
“You will not remember me as we only met briefly at my mother’s shiva in September.
My mother, Auntie Eve- to you- thought you and your brother were so wonderful. She was so happy when your mother brought you both over to visit her from the time you were babies. I would always receive a report about what you were doing and what you did. How quickly 13 years go. She felt a special pride in you because you are named-as my own son is- after her father, Joseph. When people speak of him, they talk of his kindness…”
When I reflect on my cousins now, I count one suicide, one who is a rambler in Vancouver, one doctor, another who has cut herself off completely from the family, refusing even phone calls, one social worker, one lawyer, one landscape architect, two dentists and one retired teacher-track star, I ‘m surprised that I number them, for the most part, by their professions. Perhaps as we are not children anymore ( long past that) and we don’t tend to spend time together, I list them by their careers or jobs rather than their personalities or activities we once shared.
For example, for years when I thought of my eldest cousin Allan in California, I would reminisce on how he would lead all the younger cousins to the basement of our grandparent’s house on Passover. While the grownups lolled over- stuffed and usually the men wearing borsalino hats at the table, and the women chattering, had just re-enacted the exodus from Egypt, Allan was engineering battles between stuffed animals and rubber army men, all cousins, all ages happily rolling on the floor and participating. Later years when I thought of him, it was of us together consuming more bags of chips than even I could eat and records of the Smothers Brothers or George Carlin littering his tiny room in Culver City.
Likely, the cousins might say about me that I was quiet, pretty, or maybe “ she was a teacher” – not knowing that I developed policy or strategy at the College of Teachers, that I had a doctorate and had dined with Princess Diana. However once Jon said to his kids, “She’s like Cher”??????
Truly now- except for the odd family gathering, funeral or wedding, I hardly know my relatives and then I fumble for something to say, attempting to retrieve a childhood story to pass the time as I am very bad at making conversation. Unlike Joseph’s “ kindness”, I have narrowed my cousins to signposts of what they do in the world. ( See above “ doctor, social worker, lawyer, etc) Yet my friend Anne reports that she and her elementary school friends are meeting on a regular basis, having rediscovered one another, so years later, and are still enjoying one another’s company. Perhaps if we all still lived in the same city, that might be the case. Maybe not. Little kids grow up and out.
In some families they work at maintaining the connections as in my daughter-in-law’s where they take cruises together and seem to always be at one another’s houses. I think when people lived closer to one another that was usually the case. And so, if you were running next door to borrow a measuring spoon, you might have sat down for five minutes that grew into an hour to chat; or maybe when you had to take the kid to the doctor, the cousin or aunt next door might have popped in to watch the baby.
I must admit that the summertime family reunion with Howard’s mother’s family was enjoyable. From Texas and Ohio, they came and some even partied for three days of mainly eating. It was fascinating to observe the changes of people over time. We had seen Linklater’s “ Boyhood” recently and in an encapsulated three hours the boy protagonist went from 5-18 years of age. The film surprised me: that the endless boring conversations we have can be so telling. When an older Mason admonishes his father ( Ethan Hawke) for having sold his prized car, a GTO, once promised him, Hawke has no memory whatsoever of ever committing to that act. Similarly I recalled my mother’s vow that my father’s car was to be given to my son, with the same results. But that is what happens in ordinary familial conversations, one focusing and keeping those words as amulets, small treasures that are savoured like tiny jewels, incandescent; the other forgetting them as soon as the words have left their mouths. The film is real in that the moments portrayed are quiet little moments, such as watching the clouds in the sky, hanging out with friends, witnessing parental anger. Just small everyday occurrences that mean so little but equally so much to the fabric of one’s life.
It’s like that with the cousins. They had a role in your/my growing up, being part of a family, making you/me who we became: learning about life, relationships, secrets, and your/myself. I think fondly of my cousins , funny, likable individuals who extended and deepened my childhood experiences. Even now as I write this, I focus on the laughter, the companionship, the ease of being a family at a certain space and time, of good times and friendship.
To my mother’s disgust, my aunt Marion would pontificate, “ You can choose your friends, not your family.” And it is obviously true, for often some friends are more like family. Yet sometimes it is your family who is there when you really need them: the bonds of blood stronger than anything else. For me, it was my mother who was my rock when I needed her. Cousins come and go, but mine left an imprint like a foot in the sand, now barely discernible but still there.