I was an only-child, so a cluster of first cousins was my longed-for siblings, my expanded family. I’ve just returned from a writers’ festival in a cousin-rich environment—Winnipeg, where my mother, aunts, and grandparents are buried—and where my surviving first cousins are still hanging in and their middle-aged children and their college-age grandchildren are thriving. I’m still the only part of my mother’s family to have been born, and to live, in the U.S. Of my father’s side, they’re nearly all in upper New England.
And so, I’ve been giving some thought to the attractions and oddities of cousinhood. First of all, cousins are part of us, but fully on their own. That’s a good basis for friendship. In fact, it’s unique. We’re not responsible for them; they’re not our siblings, children, parents or grandparents. They’re a little bit like us, but not really. Hospitable strangers, we might say. At most, we might share some traits, like a talent for drawing. We may have greater world-consciousness than most families; somehow, we all warmed to maps and atlases as children. We travel. Politically, we’re liberal. But cousins are only a fraction of us, a diminishing fraction with each new generation. Even with that little slice of shared DNA, we’d never recognize each other, we’d pass unnoticed on the street.
My cousins are generally healthy. Alzheimer’s runs like a late-blooming, toxic weed through my mother’s family; it’s something I fear for myself, as do many of my cousins. My mother, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, all died with it. One of my first cousins has it now. Genetic diseases entered my branch of the family from outside sources. (Hybrid hardiness is good for wheat, not necessarily humans). Our children are paying the price. There were twenty of us at dinner last week, ranging in age from 75 to 10, a clan, tending to a tribe. I added to the sum of family lore--did they know that one of our cousins was a two-time Olympic gold medalist? Did they know that another cousin’s ceramic work is represented in major museums on four continents? (Google Carolyn Waldo and Marilyn Levine). My host-cousin had gathered everyone’s photo albums (we’re album-keepers, one of our shared traits), and through one family’s photos we absorbed 120 years of western Canadian history. My baby-photos were tucked away in other cousins’ albums, doubtless to their confusion. Even my father, the long-forgotten “Uncle Leo” to the older generation, as alien to my mother’s family as could possibly be imagined in Canada at that time, made his dashing, boulevardier entrance, probably a “snap” taken my mother before they were married. But now, through marriage, French names, Ukrainian names, German names, are edging their way into our Scots-Irish and Flemish clan. My mother was banished for many years for daring to marry a French-Canadian.
And did I know my host-cousin is the CEO of three companies, which she founded? Or that her husband, a major lawyer and Mennonite choirmaster, had made the Julia Child boeuf bourguignon for twenty by getting up at five a.m. before going off to give a lecture to seventy-five lawyers.
Our extended family recycles names. Every generation seems to have its Annes, Ruths, Kays, Bens, Russells…although the youngest among us have gone a little exotic. Alexa? And they’re getting taller, and the women are better-looking than ever.
What I’m suggesting is that cousinhood is an invigorating exercise in building a social-media empire. Cousins are like the quasi-intimates on my FaceBook page; we’re aware of each other, we have joint attractions—there’s a reason we hang out together—in a nuanced, distant way, we love each other.