Saturday, August 02, 2008
As I'm sifting through the hundreds of vacation pictures for suitable blog fodder, I come across this one and it stops me in my tracks ... just an unguarded moment of affection as Ben plays Nintendo while Sophie reaches out to stroke his ear.
Sophie and Ben are the firstborns of the family, first cousins destined to share that demanding role. They were told repeatedly by respective parents during our two-week stay to "set an example" for the younger ones. That's a hard ride when you're only seven and sometimes just want to have all the spotlight to yourself, going back to the way it was before those younger intruders cramped your style, space and toys. Even though I am an only child, I do get it. After all, only children are firstborns too. Based on my own experience, I think that being first cousins will let Ben and Sophie share a lot of ups and downs as they grow older.
I had the chance to visit some of my first cousins on my trip back to Philly in May. It was a journey of the heart. We are the vanguard now since the older generation of our parents, aunts and uncles have all passed on. We are in our sixties and eighties and beyond. We are the repositories of family history. Yet, when I hugged my cousins, I felt like I was in my twenties again, back home with the faces and voices which were such a big part of my childhood and youth.
Like Ben, John was the oldest of five cousins - the only boy and then four girls to follow on my mom's side of the family. Like Ben, he had the attention of his four girl cousins who secretly adored him. When we were kids, I remember us all kneeling on the sidewalk near our grandmother's house, watching as John tried to help an injured sparrow. I remember how he and I played accordion duets in his basement. I remember how he convinced me to strap on a set of his boxing gloves and then threw a few punches at me. He got away with it too because I was so in awe of him that I gladly took the punches. I also remember how handsome he looked in high-school and how proud I was to let the older girls know that he was my cousin. He married the girl he fell in love with during his Army tour of duty in Germany. I was in his wedding party and he and I were godparents for another cousin's child. Years later, I visited him after a disabling stroke and watched in amazement as he did the hard work of rehabilitation. He had to give up riding his prized motorcycle but, today, he is able to drive a car again. John, you rock!
And then there's cousin Frankie, my mom's first cousin and the oldest of the clan. He is now in his 90s and nursing his wife, Bernice, who has been fighting Parkinson's for years. He was a big part of my growing-up years and is still as sweet and funny as I recall from family vacations when I was about Hannah's age. Ben has some of Frankie in him too, always ready with the mischief and able to make me laugh. Just like my dad, Frank loved to hop in the car and travel all over. Sadly, he's no longer able to drive but he still gets himself out the door for his daily walk around the block. Frank, thanks for the memories. Sto lat.
This is the lady I admire most on my dad's side, cousin Alice. She is not only a grandmother, but a great and great-great gran as well. Alice is the matriarch of a clan which would put the Brady Bunch to shame. I grew up around her five kids but lose count after that. I just know that she has always been a part of my life. As a teenager, she sang at my christening. When she was a young wife and mother, her house was often our Sunday car-trip destination. She and hubby, Matt, have just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. She's a fantastic seamstress, found the time to make her own tailored suits when her kids were small. My mom loved to sew and Alice would watch her as a child. I am so pleased to see that Sophie is now showing quite an interest in sewing too. It's all in the family. Alice is tiny and perky and never looks her age.I should be so lucky in another twenty years. Alice, you are my role model.
There are other cousins as well, near and far. Some have drifted away from the family circle; others re-appear. It's like an infusion of joy to see them, share in the stories of our common past.
This was an unexpected diversion but it speaks to what I wish for Ben and Sophie - that they enjoy and cherish these special moments and tuck them away. They are the seeds of a lifelong friendship.