My cousin Chris must be … I don’t know … ten or twelve … maybe more years older than me. One of my earliest memories of Chris is from when I was just shy of four years old.
We lived in a two-bedroom rambler in a neighborhood full of similar homes and young families. My parents had given up the master bedroom in order to give enough space to their three kids who had to share a bedroom in that tiny house. I never felt the house was so small back in those days, though.
In August of that year, our family was about to grow by one. Chris came to stay with us kids while my mom and dad were at the hospital. I remember crying because Chris was trying to make me eat peas at dinnertime and I didn’t like them. And I remember the house feeling strangely empty during those days my mom was away. But soon enough she was back with my baby brother. Our lives returned to normal – a new normal – but normal never the less, and Chris went back home again.
It wasn’t too many years later and Chris was back with us again, this time for an extended stay. My parents had finished the basement by then and my sister, two years older, and I shared a bedroom down there while my brothers were moved to the small bedroom upstairs. My parents had taken back the master bedroom. Chris was a mystery to me back then. She was a young adult while I was still a young child. And she was one of the cousins who lived in the country in Wisconsin. Her family’s farm really wasn’t all that far away from our city neighborhood, only a forty minute drive or so across the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. But when you’re young, such a distance seems a million miles.
Our newly finished basement contained a playroom next to mine and my sister’s bedroom. One weekend, my parents began to clean out the toys and paint the walls. A new hanging light fixture was installed; very seventies as I recall, with an orange-yellow globe and a bronze chain covering the electrical cord that plugged into the wall outlet. They explained that the playroom was being converted to a bedroom for Chris.
I didn’t question why Chris was coming to live with us. I was a kid and at that age, I just blindly accepted anything that happened as normal. It didn’t occur to me that other kids I knew didn’t have cousins living with them. I vaguely remember some kind of explanation about Chris needing to live closer to the job she’d just gotten in the city and now our family was a little bit bigger.
There isn’t much I remember about the time when Chris lived with us, other than the fact that we kids got on her nerves now and then, and understandably so. In such a small house, the four of us probably seemed like swarming bees at times. And I do remember when Bill started coming around.
Bill was a big bear of a guy and even at my young age, I remember realizing how very handsome he was. Everyone loved Bill. Chris did. My parents did. And we kids sure did. Bill was a big kid himself and he played silly games with us, gave us piggy back rides and made us giggle until we cried.
It wasn’t long before Chris and Bill were married and had an apartment of their own not far from where we lived. I remember Chris taking my sister and me to her apartment for dinner. I thought she did this so that we could play with Bill. She was probably just giving my mom a break from her child rearing duties!
Eventually, Chris and Bill moved back to Wisconsin, close to my aunt and uncle, Chris’ parents. Chris had babies of her own. Jamie and Brent were born in close succession and a few years later came Benjamin. I didn’t see much of Chris after that. Big family gatherings of aunts, uncles and cousins happened a couple of times a year, but as things go, it was never possible for every family member to attend. Chris had Bill’s family now too and she would often be absent from the holiday gatherings I attended. As I grew older myself, I kept up with Chris only through the things my mom or my aunt told me about Chris’ life. Everyone’s life has its tangles and Chris had her share. Bill eventually went his own way. I never saw him again. And Chris was on her own now, taking care of her kids. I saw pictures of her children but since I saw them on so few occasions, they grew up barely knowing who I was. And considering the age difference, Chris and I never were or ever became close.
About two years ago, Mark and I attended a birthday celebration for my aunt, Chris’ mom. It was held in one of the small Wisconsin towns not too far from home. There were probably a hundred people in attendance, many of them family and many others I didn’t know. While talking with some other cousins, Mark tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out a man holding a little boy.
“Who’s that guy there,” he asked?
I looked where he was pointing and tried to figure out if I knew.
“I don’t know,” I told Mark. It suddenly dawned on me that I was seeing Bill’s face, but I knew it wasn’t Bill.
“I think that’s one of Chris’ kids,” I said.
“I’ve seen him around at work,” Mark said. “I’ve talked with him before. He’s your cousin?”
“Yeah,” I said as it dawned on me that I was looking at Chris and Bill’s son. “That’s got to be Brent.”
I hadn’t seen him since he was a very little boy. Eventually Brent caught sight of us and came over, looking at Mark as if trying to place him and wondering where he knew him from. So we talked with Brent and I asked him if he remembered me, his mom’s cousin. Barely, he admitted, but soon we were all laughing and marveling at what a small world this can be at times.
Brent has a family of his own now and for some reason, really wants to hang out with us – Mark and me and our family, and my sister and her family. My mom’s side of the family, while close at heart, doesn’t often gather together physically, so Brent’s desire to spend time with us always amazes me. He has come to several family functions held by my sister and me in recent months and I couldn’t be happier. The connection has helped me feel closer to Chris too. I feel as if I’ve seen her more often in the past year than I have in the many years before. While she was visiting my parents recently, we got to joking around and she called me her favorite cousin. I’m not sure if I quite believe her, but I’m happy for the chance to get to know her better now, even if making a connection comes so late in life.
Today, my sister and I are heading over to Wisconsin. Brent invited us to come hang out with him, his family and some of the other cousins at their town’s festival this weekend and I’m really looking forward to it.
Sometimes, as the years go by, it feels as if the extended family is beginning to unravel a little bit. I think back to the years when my grandparents were still around and I wonder how they’d feel about the distance that sometimes settles between all of the family. It makes me a little sad to realize how disconnected all of our lives are most of the time. My grandma adored her family, so I think it would make her sad too.
So Brent probably doesn’t even realize it, but his invitation, and the chance to spend time with extended family feels to me as if we are taking those loose ends and tying them up tight again. I like it!