I’m so glad you’re at the kitchen table today. I wonder which of you are here? It doesn’t matter, I’m just glad to chat with you a bit. I was thinking about cousins today. You have so many cousins and you know so few of them. Geography and, I have to say, some apathy as well, has played a part in you not knowing your cousins. I hope this little chat helps you to consider seeking out this most precious family member. The Cousin.
Your 3rd cousin Miles, for instance, just graduated from high school. Miles is Jordan’s son. Jordan, is your dad’s only girl cousin. And she has two brothers, Marshall (who is Ethan’s dad) and Adam (who is Bryn’s dad). These three are your Aunt Jean’s kids… Aunt Jean is your Grandpa Henry’s sister, and Miles’ and Bryn and Ethan’s grandma. Get it? If not, it’s on the family tree wall by my desk. Easy Enough.
When I asked Jordan what Miles might like for a graduation gift, his mom said “Honestly? He’d like a book about his cousins. Really.” While I was anxious to make such a book, I was also saddened when I realized that whatever I eventually put into that book will be much of what he knows of you. There’s this picture…
We had a wonderful time at this outing, but in all likelihood, none of you will remember much of it. Nevertheless, Miles and Bryn and Ethan are your cousins.
Bryn, as a matter of fact, beautifully creates the Christmas card we receive every year from Adam and his wife. Bryn has created this card since she was little…I think I have every one of them if you ever want to review the artistic ability in our family. You’d probably look at those Christmas cards differently now than you did, and do, when they are hung across the dining room window every year. Anyway, Never underestimate the power of a cousin!
Some of your dad’s best memories are with his cousins, downstairs at your Aunt Jean’s house. He and Marshall would set up a Hotwheels racetrack down the basement stairs and race their cars for hours. That’s the part your dad remembered best. And Jordan remembered Hotwheels from a different vantage point…she played, too, but she did say she was more of a spectator than a participant; “It was just that they were all having such a good time, I didn’t want to miss out.” Though Adam was the youngest cousin, he needed no protecting from the big cousins and participated in the Hotwheels-o-rama, too. Adam very likely played regularly with his big brother and big sister, but I do get a kick out of the fact that siblings are never bothered when a little brother OR sister plays along - when the cousins are around….just gives you a warm feeling, doesn’t it?
Your Uncle Tom also played Hotwheels and his role was to provide color commentary for all heats and races. Jordan said the Christmas that she remembered best was the year Uncle Tom got a cassette tape recorder as a gift from your grandpa Henry. The cousins fooled around for hours recording commentary and sound effects (for all crashes and wipe-outs) for their race day. As a side note, your Aunt Jean said she thought your grandpa was nuts for getting Uncle Tom a TAPE RECORDER as a gift, but she acknowledged later that she had misjudged the gift when she listened to the tapes and heard how much fun the five cousins had with it!
While your dad went to your Aunt Jean’s house at Christmas time to make friends with his cousins, I went to your grandma’s houses during the summer to make friends with my cousins....
When my oldest cousin, Curtis and me and your uncle Kevin met for the summers at Papa and Gramma Thompson’s, we helped shell beans, we played games, chased fireflies and made Indian Stew. Ahh, Indian Stew. It was an extraordinary concoction made from the gravel of our grandparents driveway, Papa’s rotten tomatoes that he used to sit on the well-cover in the backyard by the shed - and plenty of grass and sticks. We put the Stew in one of Gramma’s old canning jars (probably not as “old” to her as it seemed to us) and slapped a lid on it and shook it. I think Curtis and I tried to talk Kevin into drinking it a couple times (which is likely why we weren’t allowed to play with Eric), but he never did. I wish though, that Eric had been there … and as long as I’m at it, I wish that Nathaniel and Simon and Andrew and Megan and Ethan and Natalie had all been there, too (pictured below in their younger days). We had such a good time. We ran from Papa most of the time….Papa was always after Curtis for somethin’, I think he was our scapegoat!
Your gramma was at work at the mill during those long, hot summer days. She would leave early in the morning, and would come in about 4:00 or so every afternoon; hearing her wheels on the gravel as she pulled into the driveway was music to my ears. As I look back on it, we probably just terrorized poor ole Papa. A house full of kids for a grandpa to deal with? Makes me smile to think about him wondering how many ways he could possibly ignore us. There are lots of stories there to recount about Papa and us and Aunt Joyce and Aunt Becky and their hand in our summers, but we’ll limit it this time, to Indian Stew. I can’t remember how we came up with the name, but it fit what we were doing at the time, or at least we thought so.
What would it have been like if my little cousins; the second flight so to speak, had been there? Would Natalie and Megan have run with me to grab the gravel for the Indian Stew? Would we have laughed together and played tricks on the boys? Or would we girls have all just played Barbies together? Would Ethan and Eric have sat back with their bottles (not that Papa EVER poured a bottle!) and watched? Would Nathaniel and Simon and Andrew and Kevin run off across the street to the blanket of blue Morning Glory beauty that we saw every afternoon? Would Gramma have taught all us girls to sew - at one time?! Would she have run after all the boys with an even bigger switch than she got after Kevin and Curtis with? Oh it makes me laugh to think of what life would have been like there at the house with all ten of us cousins in one place at one time…
From birth, we go to our grandparent’s houses because that’s where our parents feel safest; where their childhoods remain. And when we’re there, we get to know our cousins, and so our cousins become our first friends. Curtis was surely my first friend. He was the first little kid I played with; as I grew, he was the last kid I played with, too, now that I think about it. We went to the movies together (I saw Scarface with Curtis), we went to Speed Skating competitions together and we visit each other when we can despite the distance. I cherish the time we had together because those times created a warm place in my memory that I can visit any time. I love talking to Curtis on the phone every once in awhile when visits aren’t possible, birthdays, Christmas, Superbowl.
If all ten of us cousins had been the same age, would we all have gone to see Scarface together? Probably. Maybe we’d have all gone to Natalie’s Track Meets, or to Simon’s Cross Country meets… or maybe we’d have sat and yapped with Megan when she was recording stats for her high school Wrestling team. Fun to think that our likenesses could’ve shown through on the sports we did and the hobbies we particiapted in. Robin Williams once said “We’ve been cloning in the South for years – it’s called Cousins.” I liked that. We’re all together underneath. We have grandparents in common and farms we grew up on and the same tables we hid under – even though decades apart - and aunts and uncles and tradition, all in common, as cousins.
At Granny and Papa Armstrong’s house, there were four of us cousins. There’s no second flight. We were all we had, and we were plenty. We also became friends in the summers when we all came together at their house. I have one cousin particularly, in whom I find my second self. That’s Lynnette. She is utterly dear to me and talks to me any time I need to, and I her. Ed Cunningham (an American sports announcer) said in an interview, “Cousins are those rare people who ask how we are and then wait to hear the answer.” Lynnette and I talk every week. We vent and share and laugh and dream and plan. She’s the one who gave me the cousin cup pictured at the top of the page. Lance, her brother, is six years younger than me. He could always make me laugh, and still does. He has an infectious laugh and a kind heart. He and I knelt together at the altar in Granny and Papa’s church one Sunday night about a hundred years ago, he after he rolled his car in an accident and me in the midst of a mess…I’ll never forget it. Cousins in pain, leaning on each other. No fear. No distrust. Just family and familiarity.
When the four of us get together now, we make it a point to sit around a kitchen table – just like this one and tell stories, for hours, from our childhood. After your uncle Leon died, Lynnette’s one request was that we all sit around the table and tell stories, like her dad would do if he were still here. We did. No one wore make-up, no one to impress. No one had their cell phones on, no one else to talk to. And our own kids, cousins themselves, who regularly take center stage, sat behind us and listened and laughed, and learned our inside jokes and heard about their heritage. I know my uncle was there in spirit, and Granny; they’re the ones who started that story-telling tradition at Granny and Papa’s table.
You really can’t argue that it’s our cousins who save childhood from ever being completely lost. Apart from the grace God provides in our lives, cousins keep the magic of life in the memories of childhood.
I have to throw in one cousin camping story (there are many). We went camping every year during the summer with Granny and Papa. We went to the Blue Ridge Mountains and camped in what I remember being the most beautiful campgroud. After setting up our camp one weekend, Papa sat us four (me, Lynnette, your uncle Kevin and Lance) all around a fire he had made (he made the best fires whether in the fireplace or in a fire ring) as twilight began. We each had been given permission to get a stick and put it in the fire; I don’t remember roasting marshmallows, we were probably just playing in the fire (Granny would’ve loved that and Papa didn’t seem too worried – or we wouldn’t have been able to do it). As we sat there, we heard an owl screech and Granny, in an uncharacteristically calm moment, pointed up in the tree at the owl; all of our eyes followed her hand and I seem to remember that we were awed by the sight. What a magical moment …. Ha! All of a sudden, the peace of the night was broken when Granny started yelling in her gravely voice, “La-ance!!!! La-ance!!!!” Kevin, Lynnette and I all jumped as we looked away from the tree to see what the commotion was, but not Lance, his eyes were still turned upward toward the owl and his smoldering stick was still pointed downward, wedged perfectly between the bottom of Granny’s knee-high stocking’d foot and the inside of her plastic, strap-on sandals. As the tiniest human there, he was oblivious to his fire stick wandering into Granny’s shoe. We all yelled at Lance and he just sweetly kept looking up in the tree…. She finally got the sandal off, and removed the burning stick – and slapped Lance on his knee with her shoe. Lance was unscathed by the whole thing, but we were all rolling with laughter, and still do when we get around the kitchen table – year after year after year – and recount that story.
Those stories are funniest to those who knew Granny though, who knew how her left eyebrow raised in both judgment and arrogance after she’d determined she was right about something. And when I write “La-ance” in two syllables, all us cousins know exactly the strain and frustration that Granny’s voice had in it when she sought to yell that name out with all her might…and we remember Papa’s smile and eventual supremacy in bringing order to the fire ring - or to the spilled milk or to the fierceness of Sunday mornings. We all know that was one of his great gifts to our family. Cousins truly understand the craziness of your family like no one else can.