Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Crowd of Cousins Is the Gift of a Lifetime

Even Grandpa looks a little overwhelmed by the pile of cousins.

The holiday season can crowd one's schedule with multiple parties on any given night, so the range of conversations one can have over the course of an evening can be very entertaining.
Yet on a recent Saturday, the juxtaposition of one conversation with the reality of a previous party seemed almost preordained.
"I have about 12 or 13 cousins," a new acquaintance told me for reasons I don't remember. "I guess that's not a small number, but we don't really know each other. That's kind of sad."
He spoke of how there was bad blood in his family at the parent level, and at a recent funeral, he and his cousins decided that when all their parents were dead, maybe they'd start hanging out.
That seemed particularly sad to me because I had come to this second party after being over at my cousin's house. While there, I hung out with about eight other cousins. Some of the cousins said something about joining them on Monday for a birthday gathering, but I couldn't because I was already going to be joining some cousins for another birthday gathering on Wednesday and then a bunch of us cousins would be getting together to see our cousin, a musician, play on Thursday.
I have a lot of cousins.
What struck me as sad about the guy's comment was not so much that he didn't know his cousins, but it's clear none of those parents made knowing them a priority. I can't imagine my life without my cousins.
Generally speaking, children of a generation are members of at least two families and maybe as many as four. Distance and family size likely define to whom we become closest (barring no family drama or ill will). My father was from Hollandale, a smalltown in southwest Wisconsin, and my mother is from Hilbert, near Lake Winnebago. They met in Milwaukee and returned to this area after they were married.
Because of that, I grew up closest to my father's side of the family. There were 10 kids in his family, three of whom died before I was even born.
That pile of kids then had their own pile of kids. There were 27 in my generation, and we've lost three because of Vietnam, a car accident and cancer. But because there's such an age gap between youngest and oldest (32 years, in fact), I consider another 10 or so around my age to be my cousins when actually they are my cousins' kids.
On what seemed to be every Sunday, we were together. We didn't live in the same town, yet we came together often for dinner or cookouts, for family celebrations, for holidays or for dancing if family musicians were playing somewhere.
Watching some of my Uncle Dave's old movies a couple years ago, we saw the same cluster of people grow up together, year by year, at what could only be called the family compound in Hollandale. Little children turned into teenagers, the sort of age where many would want to be anywhere except a family gathering, yet there was nowhere else any of us would have wanted to be.
It's only now, years later, that I realize what a conscious choice this had to have been for our parents. They understood that family was what was important and made sure we got together. It had to have taken a great deal of work for the cooks and a huge amount of patience for the grown-ups (and OK, maybe a lot of beer). We were good kids, but we couldn't have been quiet.
It's also only now, years later, that I have great admiration for my mom and for my aunts and uncles who are not related to me by blood; this was the lot they married into and became willing participants in. My mom didn't have to take us to my dad's relatives all the time. She could have chosen that we spend more time with her side of the family (and we did, quite a bit -- just not as regularly).
That's why it was ironic to hear someone bemoan his cousin experience. About an hour earlier at my cousin's house there was a moment of melancholy because I saw his family pictures and realized how much I miss my Uncle Bob and my Aunt Marie. Of course, I miss my parents terribly and all the uncles and aunts who died before them, with whom we all spent so much time.
But in missing the generation that has passed, I couldn't help but think at this holiday season what a wonderful gift they had given us. It's one that has lasted more than half a century and grows as the years go by.
They gave us the gift of each other. 

So as parents knock themselves out trying to figure out what to get their kids this Christmas, it's important to think of what lasts. Families aren't as nearby as they once were, and not nearly as large, so it takes some work. Have the little ones make cards for their cousins across the country. Open your homes to extended family when the kids come home from their college breaks. Visit the relatives instead of Disney World. Let the next generation grow up hearing the stories families pass down and help them feel they are part of something bigger. 

It's what our family did for us, and our crowded social calendars show that we can never thank them enough. 

Still hanging out after all these years.

 (This post first appeared as an essay in The Capital Times on Dec. 23, 2006)