“Compared to everything else going on in the house, my cousin drinking chocolate milk in the shower almost seemed ordinary.” Cassie Beasley
There is no one crazier than the cousins on your mother’s side. Right?
That might be why it took us decades to organize a simple reunion with my sister Nancy and Auntie Jean’s three daughters, Karen, Janel, and Blair.
Karen, the oldest of my Auntie Jeans clan, is blond, feisty, and gentle of heart. When we were in our early teens, Karen got us all jobs at The Little New Yorker, a catering service for weddings, company events, and New Year’s Eve parties. Most of us had to get work permits because we weren’t sixteen. The job started at 3:00 pm, right after school, and often went until 3:00 in the morning. Then Karen drove us all home.
Janel is the middle child, the bridge, the one who will give you the shirt off her back, the benefit of the doubt, and a second chance times seven. She’s traversed her fair share of trials and tribulations but she survived and is all the stronger for it. We all went to the same high school. Janel was the school mascot, I was a cheerleader, she made people laugh, and I encouraged loud and rowdy behavior. Nothings changed.
Blair is the baby of the family, the only brunette, and damn that lady is drop-dead gorgeous. Blair has forged a life in the rugged Northwest with ingenuity and fortitude. She’s the one who took the road less traveled, started her own jewelry company in her twenties, homeschooled the kids, and utilized a diversity of talents to survive on her own. Recently she remodeled an entire house without the help of the Property Brothers.
They say everyone has that one really strange cousin. If you don’t know who that is…it’s probably you? Definitely me!
We tossed around all sorts of dates before landing on a weekend that worked for everyone. That’s when the real planning got underway.
It would take planes, trains, and a few vehicles to land us all in the same zip code. Blair, the one who took the road less traveled, had to cancel at the last minute.
I assume her ears were burning all weekend.
The thing is no one understands the craziness of your family more than first cousins. We spent so much of our childhood together that we were more like sisters than cousins. Most of our holidays were spent at one house or the other, there were wild and wacky vacations every summer, not to mention birthdays, fireworks in July (and other occasions), and tons of family
“You can kiss your family goodbye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” Frederick Buechner
Our past is irrevocably woven with the inevitable pleasantries and trauma of family gatherings, because parents can go from the most wonderful people, to totally embarrassing in like three seconds. A few of our parents made Linda Blair* seem tame.
But life happens. The adults matured, kids grew up, got married, and had kids of our own. Of course, we settled in different locations and started our own family traditions that no longer included lengthy vacations with the cousins.
Years passed…our relationships survived on quick coffees, Christmas cards, and the occasional phone call.
When the worst of the pandemic was over we decided to get together during the holidays and hatched the idea of a weekend getaway.
Nancy, Mackenzie (Nancy’s daughter), and I were the first to arrive. My son Dante, who had been working in Lake County all week, decided to stay on for the weekend to act as our designated driver.
Karen and Janel rolled in just before sunset and we ushered them onto the back deck to enjoy tacos and a glass of wine around the fire pit.
As you can imagine the chatting went on late into the night.
Our first day together started in our pj’s, sipping coffee, and lounging in the living room. As the morning turned today, our discussions became less trivial, more focused on the core of our experiences, and the nucleus of our relationship.
Janel says, “If you could do one thing different in this life, what would it be?”
Oh my…next thing you know we’d have more kids, live a little closer to the edge, take an earlier retirement, and we’d take better care of the most important thing…the hearts of those we love.
In need of restitution, Janel grilled up some delicious red pepper and mozzarella sandwiches, packed us a scrumptious picnic and Dante drove us to the beautiful Brassfield Estate Winery in Upper Valley.
This is a spectacular facility. Pulling open the large mahogany doors to the elegant tasting room, we enter as if a mild breeze, and are greeted warmly by the delightful Caroline. She offers us tastings while Dante sets up the picnic in the exquisite Brassfield garden.
Caroline made sure our wine was kept at the perfect temperature, that we had plenty of bottled water, and patiently answered all their questions about their estate wines.
Caroline is the constant, she’s why we come, and why we stay.
We did not rush or worry, but spent the afternoon lingering at Brassfield, the weather was pleasant, and the company splendid.
Dante drove us safely home and that evening I served up ravioli, artichokes, and garlic bread around the large dining table overlooking the lake.
A wild game of Mexican Train ushered us into the evening and can I just say one of us enjoys cussing while she plays! Because cousins, children of related parents, are perfectly normal until they get together.
While we fought over the organization of our trains, and whose turn it was, we returned again and again to our childhood memories, family dynamics, honoring the fond recollections, while putting others to rest.
It’s interesting how memory works, we tend to forget the pleasurable events, and cling to the trauma. But those scars remind us that we were once naive, vulnerable, and too kind for our own good. At some point in life, we are all laid at the mercy of another person. Some will decide to harm, some will save, and some will simply be indifferent to our needs.
The thing is life isn’t supposed to remain static, people marry, and some divorce. There is birth and death and a lot of shit in between. It’s always evolving, turning into something new, a sanctuary for some, a penitentiary for others.
Regardless of the past, we all survived our childhood, the raising of our own clans, and the escorting of parents from this life into the next.
We concluded life goes by way too fast, we’re lucky to have each other, and swimming against the natural flow of life is counterproductive, not to mention exhausting.
Our weekend motto, “fuck it.”
We favored slow mornings, sipping coffee, and shooting the shit.
Total bliss…until starvation sets in!
When the six of us were showered, shined, and stuffed into a pair of jeans, we headed to Kelseyville for lunch at the infamous Saw Shop. Our attentive waitress made us the best espresso martinis and we lingered over french dip sandwiches, hamburgers, grilled chicken, and fries.
Karen slips quietly out of the booth and pays for our lunch while we’re still munching, sipping, and gossiping about Blair! Does that tell you all you need to know about Karen?
Strolling the shops of Kelseyville while digesting our lunch was fruitful. I found an antique copper ladle that begged me to take it home. What can you do?
Then we talked Dante, who has been patiently chauffeuring us around the entire lake all weekend, into one more stop before heading home. I’m sure he was thrilled.
Boatique Winery offers a lovely selection of wines and extraordinary views. They did not disappoint. We were welcomed by Francesca who escorted us to an outdoor seating area with a lovely breeze, she put our sparkling wine on ice, and made sure we had everything we needed.
Back at the homestead, we were cognizant that this was our last night. I grilled up some fresh Salmon, rice, and asparagus to the delight of our enlarged stomachs. We spent the evening much as the first, sharpening our Mexican Train skills, and quibbling about life. I have no memory of who won but my abdomen aches from all the laughter. And the middle child, with her hands in the air, was in rare form.
Families are messy. Keep the civility to a minimum. That’s the best you can do.
We hung onto the final morning as if it were our lifeline, because this weekend was our way of resuscitating the past, opening up those corroded arteries, giving difficult memories permission to drift away, or graft themselves onto more favorable impressions. Ones that come with maturity, self-reflection, and a sustainable distance between letting go and letting be.
Until we meet again…
I’m Living in the Gap, cousins included, what would you change about your life if you could?
“No one’s family is normal. Normalcy is a lie invented by advertising agencies to make the rest of us feel inferior.” Claire LaZebnik
*Linda Blair starred in the movie The Exorcist about a young girl possessed by the devil.