I was always aware of cousins.
We did not even have a car until 1952. Our house was within walking distance of the steel fabricating plant where Dad worked. Three of his brothers also worked there and lived within walking distance. Mom’s family of six siblings was further east in Warren, still within walking distance.
I saw more than a half-dozen nearly every day. Some of us went to the same neighborhood parochial school. The public school cousins went to the same Mom ‘N Pop small grocery store to buy sweet treats, to buy cigarettes (“These are for Dad,” we would say, ever so solemnly), to play pinball machines. I got pretty good at pinball because my paper route gave me nickels and dimes to feed the machines, and Carmen Colosimo, the pinball wizard of 1950s Warren’s West End, took the time to teach me the subtleties of flippers, bank shots, machine shaking (avoid the dreaded “Tilt!” that stopped the game).
On weekends, we were either at my father’s parents’ house or my mother’s parents’ house or, after they died, at the homes of aunts and uncles — and cousins.
There were benefits. Male cousins who were a few years older made the bullies of that era a bit more cautious about whapping us when we were little. Older female cousins were maternal in a gum-chewing, bubbles-blowing sort of way — and, as teens, could introduce us to the our-age sisters of their friends.
Families tended to be large in those days. We had cousins by the dozens, “kissing” cousins and, in a few instances “distant” cousins. But most of them were within a half-hour driving distance.
I recalled those relationships wistfully last week when my son Mike and I mused about our decision to not host our Christmastime extended family get-together due to COVID-related concerns.
“I saw my cousins every weekend, more or less, because we all went to Grandma’s,” Mike said.
But his own sons, Marcus, 19, and Jason, 16, see the children of his sister Natalie only at our Christmastime gathering each year, if both families can make the trip. Mike’s sister Theresa lives in Warren as he does, but Theresa’s children are, at this writing, in Colorado, the Carolinas and Europe.
Without the Christmastime gathering, Mike’s sons won’t renew relationships with Jimmy, Jack and Joey, or greet and make baby talk with Lily, Charlotte (Charlie) and Cooper. They are among the spreading wave great-grandchildren to me and ... What? ... second cousins to them.
Google provides the technical details. First cousins share a grandparent, second cousins share a great-grandparent, third cousins share a great-great-grandparent, and so on.
Then there are “removed” cousins. Google again: The term “removed” refers to the number of generations separating the cousins themselves. So your first cousin once removed is the child (or parent) of your first cousin. Your second cousin once removed is the child (or parent) of your second cousin. And your first cousin twice removed is the grandchild (or grandparent) of your first cousin.
After that, it gets all fuzzy.
Here is a head-spinning case in point: In 2007, it was revealed that vice president Dick Cheney and presidential hopeful Barack Obama are eighth cousins.
In normal years, we ignore those details. If they show up, we welcome them, feed them and search for their children’s lost Hershey bars inside the fat black plastic trash bags that hold the discarded gift wrappings. They are family.
Even if they aren’t, they might become family. Swains accompany teens and young adults. I sometimes threaten these nascent relatives with a written test toward the end of the gathering, matching faces of Bonavitas with names and spelling out relationships. The new arrivals blink with out-of-focus eyes until I wave their very own giant Hershey bar and say, “Joke!” Those giant Hershey bars remain my go-to second gift in case the recipients cringe at my sometimes wacky sense of what is a suitable Christmas gift. My wife, health-food conscious, demurs. But Christmas comes just once a year, and therefore, giant Hershey bars do too.
This year, too many have to travel too far through too heavily COVID-infested areas. Even if we aren’t symptomatic, we can be carriers. Some attendees would have medical concerns or suppressed immune systems.
We might try Slack, Zoom, Face Time, Skype or something similar. Given the wide divergence in technical ability within our family, that could be its own legend-maker: “Remember when we blew out the entire Internet for Jefferson County trying to get everybody in on that Christmastime yak fest?”
So COVID drives us deeper apart as it darkens our isolation. We attend few or no weddings, funerals, graduations, anniversaries, holidays, parades, turkey and stuffing, hot dogs, hamburgers from the grill, even the mistletoe that puts the “kissin’” in some cousins.
COVID does more than sicken many of us and kill too many of us. It also frays the fabric of our relationships.
But then again, there’s always next year.
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