Saturday, December 19, 2009

Part of Something Bigger

When I was a child I knew I had cousins, I just didn’t know what they looked like. That’s not entirely true, I had seen pictures that were tucked in Christmas cards every December. They were children who lived three states away, and looked like they’d be a lot of fun, but we never spent any time with them, so it was hard to tell if photo impressions were accurate. And those were just the two cousins we had from my dad’s side of the family. In my teens I found out I had two on my mom’s side who were a mystery to us because of a family rift. The whole cousin thing frustrated me.

Being a voracious reader, I knew some kids thought of their cousins like siblings. The idea that you could actually hang out with these kids who were related to you fascinated me. I had way more than my share of siblings and foster siblings, but the cousin connection seemed exotic. Kids, my own age, who were related to me, but didn’t live in my house. I never grew tired of craving that relationship.

So when my siblings and I became adults, we all agreed that our kids would know their cousins. Our own kids would mix with our siblings kids and have close connections.

It worked for the first five or six years. We all lived in the same state, the most distance between us was a two hour drive and every holiday we came together, as well as many casual weekends. There are lots of pictures of our toddler children draped over cousins while they watch Barney videos and sharing triangles of grilled cheese sandwiches, perched side by side on booster chairs.

Then my mom died and the hub of our wheel was gone. My dad remarried and moved away from our childhood home, where we’d all so easily congregated. Jobs took some of us out of state. Then jobs took more of us out of state. Suddenly we were spread across the country and the mixing didn’t come as easily. As the kids grew, their cousins became photos posted on the fridge. More of my siblings, and more of Jeff’s siblings, started having children. They all seemed so far away and so out of touch with our world. They all seemed like strangers to our children.

This is a good chunk of the reason we left a life we pretty much loved in Utah to move across the country to New York. Most of my kids’ cousins on Jeff’s side live in NH. Living this close to them gives my kids plenty of opportunity to know those cousins on a personal level, while there is still time to make childhood memories. One of my favorite moments, just months after we made the long move East, happened as we piled out of our van during a weekend visit to NH. My nephew, Jacob, who was six at the time, turned to me and asked, “So, where’s Meredith?” My eldest had stayed home to attend a school dance but I was deeply moved that this young nephew not only remembered this ‘new’ cousin’s name, but realized she was missing. It was a start.

My own siblings still live all over the country. It is not possible to just move closer to them. We do our best with emails, birthday cards, and facebook pages, but sometimes it makes me sad that my kids don’t have more memories with them. We have visited them in their homes and several of my brothers and sisters have visited us. But the desire to be one big group led us to make this crazy promise. No matter what, we’d all show up, with all our kids, in our hometown, the week of Thanksgiving in 2009. And it happened.

As our kids piled out of the van and rushed into the hotel, which was already heavily inhabited by ‘Johnson cousins’, my heart swelled. Finally, finally, my kids could make some quality memories with these other children they were so closely related to. For four days they mixed and mingled. They built Lego forts and Lincoln Log cabins. We played endless hands of Apples to Apples and even had an energetic running version of musical chairs in the hotel lounge. Every morning we met around the breakfast table and made plans for the day. For me, the actual activities didn’t matter. As long as my kids were hanging out with my nephews and nieces, and finding out who they were individually, I was happy.

So now we are home, with almost a thousand pictures to document our travels. For now at least, I don’t have to explain who I’m talking about when I refer to “Garrett”, or “Megan”, or “Alexander”. My kids have their own memories of these people and their nine other Johnson cousins. They know who is shy and who loves to swim. They know who goes with which aunt and uncle and why their mom has so many funny stories about Uncle Keith in his childhood.

When the Christmas cards start pouring in, from Dallas, and Atlanta, and Missouri, I won’t have to name off the people in the pictures. My kids will know. They will tell me stories about their cousins, not the other way around. It was a long drive. It wasn’t a cheap trip. But it was worth it. So worth it. Because I’ve provided for my kids the one thing I wanted when I was a kid. To know my cousins and feel like we were connected.

Even five states away.

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