When my mother died in 1991, I looked around and realized how tiny my “family” had become. My father had died in 1967. I had no grandparents. I was married, and I had one older sister, who soon would move hundreds of miles away.
I didn’t like what I saw. So, as I was putting death certificates in envelopes to send to government and insurance and financial agencies, I made a decision.
I had a bunch of smart, funny, fascinating cousins. Only a few had I spent much time with; they were all older than I was, some nearly 18 years older. They had grown up at a different time and had different experiences. But I decided right then that I wanted to find a way to pull them in closer.
So little by little I reached out to them. As the youngest, it felt a little awkward sending entreaties to my revered, accomplished relatives, but I tried to suppress my insecurity. I asked them to meet me for a meal in Lexington. I invited them to watch polo at the Horse Park. I made a trip out west to see my cousin in Seattle. I spent time in Indianapolis where two of my cousins were caring for their mother, whom I adored. I traveled to North Carolina and Florida to hang out with the more elusive ones, took car trips to Atlanta with the gung-ho ones. I went biking with one cousin, visited the art studio of another, hiked with a few, exchanged political emails with several.
When Rick and I moved to “Camp Showalter” here on the lake, I tried to organize occasional family gatherings so we wouldn’t see each other only at funerals. For a while, I even got better at sending Christmas cards.
When my friend David Hoefer urged me to compile my father’s early writings in The Last Resort, I had new and more urgent reasons to contact my cousins, especially the older ones. They knew my dad. They had stories. They had spent time with him on Salt River. I always enjoyed our conversations and their company.
Then I started this blog. My initial audience was essentially relatives and a few friends. As book projects came and went and the focus of the blog shifted, my connection with my cousins deepened.
Anyone who knows me now knows that when I talk about my “family,” I mean my cousins. Which is why the following passage in a recent New Yorker magazine article struck a chord with me.
The author, Peter Hessler, is describing his Chinese students at Sichuan University, where he was teaching in 2019.
“Among all my students that fall, nearly ninety per cent were only children. I learned that when asking [about their families] I had to clarify what I meant by the word “sibling,” because otherwise students might include cousins in their responses. As families shrank, the term broadened—for many young people, a cousin was a kind of substitute brother or sister.”
I couldn’t have said it any better. So to all of you cousins—first, second, third, or fourth—thanks for letting me latch on to you and your families. You have enriched my life in immeasurable ways. I look forward to more gatherings by the lake, more chance meetups on a whim, more walks along the trails.
Hail, hail, brothers and sisters!