Girl, Chic and Boy at the Salt River, AZ.

Girl, Chic and Boy at the Salt River, AZ.

My paternal grandparents had 24 grandchildren. My maternal grandparents had 7 grandchildren. (Or 8? Depending on how one viewed it. I never met the 8th one in any event.)  I have one brother, so that means I have 27 first cousins. That is nothing for some people, but it seemed quite a lot when I was growing up.

These first cousins span currently span ages from 18 years old to 55-ish. (An interesting note is that the oldest and youngest are from the same sibling of my father.) Although there is a giant age range, most of them are close to my age or older (up to 12ish years older).

Chic, Chicklet and Girl at Saguaro Lake

Chic, Chicklet and Girl at Saguaro Lake

On my father’s side of the family, the cousins I saw the most when I was really little were the oldest ones because those uncles/aunts were significantly older than my parents and well-established in life. My parents were poor, and my dad’s generous siblings had us over all the time for food and entertainment.  Those cousins were idolized by me. Most were in high school or beyond in those days before I was even in school, but I fondly remember some of the things they did with me.  (Not-so-fondly I still have a scar from my leg touching the exhaust pipe while riding behind one of my cousins on his motorcycle. Come to think of it, I have no idea why my parents even allowed that!)

First Cousins making Christmas cookies

First Cousins making Christmas cookies

As I got older, my paternal cousins changed. My oldest uncle divorced, remarried and adopted his new wife’s three children.  This new generation of cousins was closer to my age, and OH, how much fun my brother and I had playing with them. My uncle by this time had a swimming pool and acres of land. There was nothing more fun than going to their house.

When I played with my cousins, we always paired up or had teams. There was always an odd number, and someone was always left out and probably offended. That person was never me! When the boys played with the boys and the girls played with the girls, I was fine because there were only two girls. When we all played together I was fine because being the cousin instead of the sister, I was a novelty to the boys who sometimes fought to be paired with me in whatever we played.

First cousins at Incredible Pizza

First cousins at Incredible Pizza

I remember sitting at home and hearing my parents say the smallest thing that might indicate a visit to a cousin’s, house. My brother and I would exhange excited glances. Our ears would prick up for further information. Our bodies were on edge as our nerves were hoping against hope we could go play with our cousins.

On my mother’s side of the family things were  a little different. I will not go into that in detail  here because I did quite a bit in this post. What I will say is that neither my brother nor I were as excited to go visit those cousins, but it was not the fault of the cousins as much as it was the family rift that made it so unpleasant to be there. When we got there, we had fun with those cousins.  There was always a price to pay, however, so we would dread it until we actually got there.

My other maternal cousins were about ten years younger than me, and they lived in another country; we saw them about every three years. I used to really love it when they came because they probably idolized me the same way I had idolized my older cousins when I was little, and they were novel. Although they were from the same family from where came all the misery in our lives, they were far removed and not like that–at least then.

Girl, Chic and Boy dancing at the marshmallow roast

Girl, Chic and Boy dancing at the marshmallow roast

So now I am grown up, and it is interesting to me to know to which cousins I am now closest and are “my favorites.” It is not my childhood favorites, for sure! Most of my oldest cousins went their own ways and care very little what happens to me. That is not true for all of them, but most.  My younger cousins from another country now live in the United States, but they do not make the “favorite” cut, either. In fact, I am mostly of a mind that I do not care if I ever talk to them again. (Hopefully I will cover some of this later, but now is not the time.)

Chic, Girl and Boy in Salt River

Chic, Girl and Boy in Salt River

The cousins that mean the most to me now are the ones about whom I was most ambivalent in childhood.  They have been the loyal ones. They suffered through the same family (but in a much worse way than I did). They understand why I would not go to my grandmother’s funeral (and why we will all go to their step-mother’s funeral wearing party clothes).  They have always loved me. Even when we were little and I KNOW I could have been nicer, they loved me. Maybe then it was because I represented something so far from their own lives that they could only dream about it, but they could have resented me for that. (I have had plenty of friends who have resented my seemingly charmed life.) Not only did they never resent me, but they have stood with me in my own troubles. They have never judged me for the problems that have come my way or for my viewpoints that may not be like their own. (Though most of our viewpoints are amazingly similar–probably due to the unbelievable stupidity around/in which we were raised. I was raised witnessing it; they were raised in the midst of it.) And they are even nice, EXTRA nice to Prince  Charming even though there could not be found on this planet more polar opposites politically!   They are almost the sisters I never had. I say “almost” because they are sisters themselves, and I can never be to them exactly what they are to each other, but they are to me what I imagine sisters would be.

Second cousins in Salt River

Second cousins in Salt River

Something else about these cousins is that they are not my flesh and blood; they were adopted into my family. Their wicked step-mother was my aunt.  (I have always thought she adopted them because my father’s brother adopted children from a later marriage. She was always trying to keep up with people who were esteemed in some circles.) I would not even bring this up, but recently there was a question about why we were so close, and our children are so close, when we are “not blood.” To me this is a ludicrous question, but the answer, given by one of them was, “Because we grew up together!” To me it is more than that. I grew up with other cousins, too. But the three of us had shared experiences that were often unpleasant (definitely more so for them than me), and the three of us have a strength of character that maybe not all the other cousins have. The trials brought us together, gave us solidarity and gave us love and understanding for one another.

Chicklet, Girl and Chic in Salt River

Chicklet, Girl and Chic in Salt River

Now our kids are the best of friends whenever they are together, but thankfully without all the tenseness, struggles and abuse that we had. Maybe it is the word “cousins” that makes people close, not blood.

Note: The title of this post has been in my head for weeks. It was originally meant to be about my children and their cousins, and how although they do not live near any of their cousins, when they get together, they act as if they are best friends and have the best times. My kids play well with most kids, but it is different with their cousins; it is magic. (I was also going to briefly discuss 2nd and 3rd cousins and “removed’s.”) But when I started typing, the story above came out. I do not know why; it must have been meant to be.

And another note: All the river pictures were taken mid-December when we visited Arizona. It was not exactly warm, but it was nice!

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This post is in response to a prompt from Kelly at *Weekly Anamnesis.*  I like Kelly’s word prompts to help me think of something to write.  She is not picky about when someone uses a word.  It can be a word from previous weeks, which I have done before.  But today I am using “Realized” which is actually this week’s word. Anyone is welcome to use her prompts.  Just go there and follow the instructions. I love to see what different people write about the same word prompt.

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Ducky and Jennifer came into my life when I was six, I think. That would have made them four and three. (My brother was five, so we were all about a year apart in age.) Their father married my aunt, my mother’s sister. I do not remember being introduced. I do not remember wondering if I would like them or not. I only remember them being there.

The youngest specific memories I have of them was probably when I was seven. Ducky and my brother were in Kindergarten and in the same class at the local public school. I remember not having school one day, and I went to their Kindergarten. (We made snow ice cream that day.) I also remember going to their trailer when they both had chicken pox or measles. They were wearing socks on their hands and had on sunglasses. I never got any of the common childhood diseases, and my brother’s cases of them were mild, so I really could not empathize with their misery. I thought they were lucky to each have a pair of sunglasses. At that time I never realized how unlucky they were.

My aunt, Sue, who was Ducky and Jennifer’s stepmother lived with my family for a few months, or a year, or something before she met their father. I wanted to like her. She was nine years younger than my parents and quite worldly. But I did not like her.  She lived with us when I was six, and all I remember is her being loud and laughing loud and being the reason for the only time in my life I ever got my mouth washed out with soap. She was not a doting aunt. I think she actually did not spend much time at our house, but was out “hunting.” (That would be looking for men. I’ll leave it at that.)

When Sue inherited step daughters, I had two new cousins close to my age. I should have loved that, but it was rarely that much fun to be at their house. Although it was a little more fun for them to be at my house, I still liked spending time with cousins from my dad’s family better. There was always tension in the house when my mother’s family was together. Even at six and seven I realized the tension. Ducky and Jennifer and I played, and we got along most of the time, but the tension in the background never made it the most pleasant experience for me. And I will admit to not always being a very good cousin to them. Three is a crowd. Being the oldest, I  was in the position of power. I was not completely aware how this all played out, but I know that I was never the “3rd Girl Out.” One of them was always my buddy. Which one would change, but the other was often left out. Although I knew what was happening (or could at least understand it when not playing with them), I never realized how much it might hurt the one that was left out.

None of  us were “big” girls. I was tiny, and apparently they both were as well, for they got my old clothes. Or maybe by the time they got to Jennifer, the clothes did not really fit, but she had to wear them anyway. I do not know. I remember one of them saying once, “Hand me downs. Hand me downs. All we ever get to wear are hand me downs.” This bothered me. My parents were not rich; they were poor, but I never thought of my clothes as being something miserable. In fact, I loved some of them and hated passing them on. It  upset me so much that I begged my mother to not pass a dress to them that was my favorite. I have no idea what happened to that dress, but I think they did not get it. I never realized how horrible their life was and why they would say such a thing.

My family knew things were not good in Ducky and Jennifer’s house. We knew Sue was a tyrant. We knew Sue would make them weed their garden for hours on end as punishment. We knew that Sue would make them copy chapters out of religious books over and over as punishment. (Passages about children being obedient and respectful.) We knew that Sue was as bad or worse a person as she had always been. But we never realized just how bad. I remember driving places on many occasions when my parents would be talking about the situation and Jennifer and Ducky’s house. They said Sue “mentally” abused Jennifer and Ducky. They did not believe that there was physical abuse; we could see no evidence of it. I cannot count how many times both of my parents would say, “I wish mental abuse was easier to prove in court. Since there is no physical abuse, there is little we can do about this.” (And for the record, there were some ugly family dynamics going on here besides. Sue’s mother, my grandmother, was much like Sue, but in different ways. I plan to write about her someday. She held more power over my own parents, especially my mother, than I ever realized until years later. My parents getting involved in this when there was no hard evidence would have had devastating effects on our own family. It would have had devastating effects anyway, but it was not a risk they were willing to take when the outcome would likely be nothing.)

Ducky and Jennifer and I grew into teenagers getting along. We always mostly got along, but we got along more as we grew older. We were never best friends, though. The time spent together just was never that enjoyable for me because of the family tension. But my getting older did make me appreciate their plight a little more and realize that they were in no way in control of their own circumstances.

When I was seventeen the entire family was gathered at my grandmother’s house. It was summer, and the “foreign relatives,” who visited the United States about every three years, were there as well. Their children were about ten years younger than me, and although I loved them, when everyone was together, I hung out with Ducky and Jennifer. It was a typical time of family tension, but Ducky, Jennifer and I went to my grandmother’s bedroom to talk. We were teenage girls and had plenty to talk about. I had been attending a boarding school for high school. Ducky had spent her freshman year at the local high school. She wanted to call some people she knew from school, but both girls were terrified (my perspective) of using the phone without permission. I understood needing permission to make a long-distance phone call, but did not at all understand permission to call a friend for a few minutes. So I dialed the phone, and let her talk.  Apparently while on the phone, someone in the “adult quarters” wanted to make a phone call. I think it was my grandmother. She made a big scene about the phone having people on it. I really do not remember how it all went down, but Ducky and Jennifer were in big trouble, and I was the culprit as always. (Sue and my grandmother always considered goody-two-shoes me as a bad influence.) I do not remember a single word of censure that either my grandmother or Sue said, but I remember we were leaving, and things were very heated. My parents and brother and I were standing in front of my grandmother’s house, and some kind of bickering or nit-picking was going on, and I turned around and yelled at my grandmother and Sue collectively. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I know it had to do with how stupid they were and how I was tired of all the family tension and they needed to get over themselves, etc. I did not look at anyone else, but I am sure the rest of the witnesses were shocked and ashen. NO ONE confronted Sue and my grandmother. Oh, my dad did periodically,  but he tried to curb it for the sake of my mother. (Which I did not realize at the time.)

That was a wise move in many ways on my part, not the least of which meant that it would be five years before my family had anything at all to do with my grandmother or Sue’s family–other than Ducky and Jennifer. Sue would have prevented their contact with us, but the “foreign relatives” who were there made sure there was time that summer we spent together. And the next year Ducky, by a stroke of blessing from somewhere, attended the same boarding school that I did.

It was after the family blow-up that I learned all of those years there had been physical abuse–a lot of it–and things too horrible to imagine.  Sue was sly enough to make sure it was not visible, and both girls had been warned and bullied into keeping quiet. And apparently there had been questions before about it from places of authority, in which my father had even been involved, but it came to nothing. The things I learned will not be repeated here; they are the stories of Jennifer and Ducky to tell as they see fit. And as the years have unfolded, I have learned even more. There is just too much to learn, or remember, all at once.  And in the passing years, they have both become dear friends, among my dearest. And I regret some of my childish behavior toward them. My life was happy and good. When leaving the family gatherings that brought me emotional misery, I got to go home to a happy house with parents who treated me like a child should be treated; they did not. There is no way I could have understood their situation, but what is worse, I never realized how bad it was. If I had, if my parents had, I wonder what might have been different. I am quite sure my own behavior would have been different. But the question I ask myself it why was my behavior not different anyway? True compassion and kindness would have been evident whether or not I knew how bad their lives were. I was young, so some of that may possibly forgiven, but I definitely try to teach my children that there are lots of things in life we never realize.