Dozens of Cousins
Anthony Esolen on Learning from Those Who Have to Like You, Even When They Don’t
On the day he died, my father was sitting in the living room, wide-awake and able to speak, though with some strain. He knew that the liver cancer that had ravaged his system was about to complete its work; it had been a day or two since he was last able to swallow any fluid.
The family had gathered around him, and in our case that meant that a few of my cousins who lived nearby stopped to say farewell. One cousin in particular hung his arm around my father’s shoulder and talked to him about the times long ago, when he was just a kid with a live fastball and my father was the coach. He smiled and told stories, leaning over to keep the old man from having to turn his head, almost whispering into his ear.
That cousin has had a rocky life of it, picking up a few of the self-destructive vices from his own father. If God brings him round in the end, and I pray that he will, who knows but that the love of an old uncle might be the cable that draws him ashore.
But the odd thing about this scene, for modern Americans, is not that my cousin should express his affection in so touching a way, but that there should be any cousin at all in that room—any person with intimate ties to a family beyond his parents and siblings, and a deep reservoir of shared memories with that family. Americans who live in separate bedrooms and worship at separate television sets may find it hard to imagine the bond that would link not merely brother and brother, but kinfolk a couple of streets or farms away.
They are those strange people called cousins, strange and familiar at once, whose blood—nay, whose noses—exert a powerful claim on your duty and who, in their numbers and their crazy variety and their blissful being-themselves, place you within a community whether you like it or not and remind you that you are not the most important person in the world.
That’s not a bad combination. Consider the converse: to be placed at the center of your very own sparsely inhabited solar system, yet really to belong to no community at all. No rubbing of elbows against bumpy cousins seated for supper on the stairs of grandma’s house, but only a distant kinsman here, a distant kinsman there, thinning away with the ages, like a demographic heat-death. I’m afraid that’s the cosmos of the small, faraway, atomized families of our time.
Most Christians have noticed that families have become small, and many Christians see that it involves a peculiar rejection of generosity. We say that we can’t have a lot of children because we want to give the children we do have the greatest opportunities we can. Thus we assume that our children are deeply selfish, as if they would prefer a yearly vacation in the Adirondacks to another brother or sister, or, to put it differently, as if in years to come they might look at a younger sibling and wistfully daydream of hikes that never were.
But that is where our analysis stops: with the nuclear family, the hydrogen or helium family. It hasn’t occurred to us to ask what our small families do to neighborhoods and churches, or even to the families to which we are related. For if we fail to give our children siblings, we also fail to give them cousins, and fail to give what cousins they do have the number of cousins they need. We cannot isolate ourselves without doing our part to isolate others, too, and whether they like it or not.
The numbers are not hard to tally. Let’s suppose for simplicity’s sake that the average number of children in a household is two. Let’s also suppose that the distribution of these children among households is fairly regular. For every ten households with children, four have one child, three have two, two have three, and one has four.
The first effect is that about 45 percent of children will grow up without a brother and 45 percent without a sister. About 20 percent will be only-children, growing up without either a brother or a sister. A full 70 percent of the children will grow up without a sibling of one sex or the other—a new thing in the history of the world, and one that does not bode well for their learning what it is that men and women are all about.
But again let us look beyond the nuclear family, to the effect upon the provision of cousins. Suppose that the parents themselves come from families averaging two children and thus that the average child will have two aunt-uncle pairs. The mean number of cousins will be four. About one-eighth of children will grow up without boy cousins, and one-eighth will grow up without girl cousins. Some will grow up without any cousins at all. (I’m assuming that all these siblings will marry; if many don’t, the situation worsens considerably.)
That was not how it was for me and my wife, and for this we cannot be too grateful. I had 39 first cousins and she had 43, all blood relatives, thank you, not counting in-laws. Twenty of my cousins lived in my hometown of 5,000 people.
But few others we know have been so blessed. The fewer cousins you have, the less likely it will be that a single one of them will live nearby, especially in our Age of Tumbleweeds. For all that our children ever see of their cousins, most of them effectively grow up as if they had none. There is the small family, and the more or less indifferent world. What’s missing is the great mediating institution of kinship, with its slender but unmistakable bonds connecting family with family, even village with village.
Mary will not travel in haste to tend to her cousin Elizabeth, great with child in her old age, because there is no Elizabeth, or the Elizabeths are so few and far apart that no bond is forged. Or consider that when St. Paul entered a new town, he essentially preached by the household, and the word spread before him from place to place across Asia Minor—spread by the mediating interactions of kinfolk.
It should be no surprise to find kinship at the foundation of community life. For cousins, as I’ve said, provide you that straight passport into a community.
A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn’t necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin’s house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy. Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn’t like you, and he comes readymade.
My cousins were quite an assortment: a very pretty girl for me to have a crush on, a fellow Cardinals fan and memorizer of statistics, a shy bully, an inveterate coquette (whom my father didn’t like at all, but I did). Some were sharp and some were dumb; some were good-looking because they looked like our family, and some were homely because they looked like our family; one was adopted, and a couple you’d swear must have been but weren’t. Want diversity? Check out the first cousins of a big family. Nothing is less clannish than a clan.
Those cousins were a regular proving-grounds for flirting, fighting, and teasing: all indispensable for a happy marriage. Even the cooperation among cousins of the same sex—we boys built a fort in the middle of the woods, only to see it wrecked by some other clan—helps in the forging of those friendships which have built every civilization that has ever existed.
Yes, we were a boisterous lot all right, trooping up to a nearby lake on Sunday afternoons in the summer, taking up a whole pavilion, consuming great quantities of meat, and hollering with laughter when Aunt Irene came up to bat in wiffle-ball and swung like the funny Polish girl she was.
It was your community; and at the same time it was big enough to put even the smartest kid in his place. You may grow up to be a neurosurgeon, but your cousin Bobby remembers you as the dumb kid who didn’t notice his clumsy sleight-of-hand when he slipped himself a five-hundred-dollar bill while beating you at Monopoly.
You may stack up the honorary letters after your name, but your cousin Terry remembers when you stacked up ABCs in wooden blocks, crawling about the floor with a suspicious aroma about you. You may forget when you were young and silly, when a scraggly path down a snowy hill was like a slope at St. Moritz, but your cousin only remembers you when you were young and silly, or at least, if he is a good fellow, he will not let you forget it, because that hill was like St. Moritz for him, too.
The Cousins’ Sign
And if you are a cousin, a good cousin, you may someday come to visit a dying uncle, and claim a share in the man’s affection, while the sons and daughters look on, put in their place, reminded that their grief is not the only grief in the world, nor the central grief.
To that central grief, and to the central hope for Christians, cousins give their strange witness, too. For there is a sadness in the joy of seeing a cousin after many years: his athletic frame at best “looking good,” as we say, but obviously slow and stooped and closer to the earth; her cheeks no longer young and fresh, but creased and stamped with all the cares of life.
Because we grow up with them and yet do not grow old in their company, cousins, even more than brothers and sisters, remain fixed for us in youth, while bearing upon their brows the signs of sin and age and a judgment to come. We are surprised by how swiftly the years have passed for Joe; and forget that he is just as surprised on our rapidly dwindling account.
Yet we see in him the boy we knew, and hope to know once again. And in the wonder of eternity that is but one of the things we have been promised. After all, what kind of wedding feast can it be, without cousins?
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