One night in June 1982, I woke up with ants crawling all over me. I can still see them, a thin line of black marching up the blanket. I’m sure I screeched or yelped or did something appropriate for a 7-year-old. We were in a pop-up camper. In my cousins’ driveway. In Corpus Christi, Texas. In the middle of the grandest adventure I had up to that point in my young life. That my dad had accidentally put one of the feet of our camper into an anthill was unfortunate—but by the next day, it was already filed under “That was hilarious, now what’s next?” Because being in Texas, seeing the ocean, and meeting this batch of cousins who were still new to me trumped any escapade some ants could pull.
Technically, I had been to the ocean before (1976; Florida; I was 2) and met these cousins before (they left Cincinnati for Texas in 1977). I had no memory of either. But that trip? I remember.
We drove for three days in our blue-and-white Chevy van, camping on the way, with nine people in tow—including my frail 77-year-old grandmother, who said the rosary nonstop. We drove toward the beach and jellyfish and Whataburger and listening to the adults tell stories while we swatted at mosquitoes and ate potato chips.
That trip, in all its stickiness and swarms of ants, was the beginning of knowing a particularly delightful truth: Summertime was for cousins.
I grew up in Northern Kentucky with a total of 19 first cousins in my orbit. My parents each had two siblings, so the cousins encircled me on both sides. On my dad’s side, there were The Cincinnati Cousins (who lived in the exotic locale of Delhi) and The Cigar Cousins (because my uncle always seemed to be smoking a cigar). On my mom’s side, it was The Texas Cousins (named for obvious reasons) and Chris, an only child.
I was the youngest kid in my own family of seven and the youngest overall, with 18 years separating me from the oldest cousin, Mickey. Though my cousin Molly was only six months older than me (we were both later-in-life babies), everyone else was at least three years older. I was always the little one looking up at big faces—a feeling that was 100 percent transferable from my immediate family to my extended family. In fact, with my cousins, I had three times the amount of people to dote on me, even if a third of them were technically in Texas by the time my memory started recording things.
What I figured out early on about cousins was that they were their own category of people. They were connected to me, but not as tightly as my siblings. We shared a common family language and starting point, but our individual customs were different. My cousins were outside of the day-to-day of my life enough that being around them was still novel, without feeling foreign or frightening. Also, as with siblings, I didn’t choose them, the way you choose friends. On the other hand, in a way, I did choose them with each gathering, because it was either sit by my mom’s side and be bored or run with the herd and see what adventure might be brewing.
Whether it was graduations (someone was always matriculating), the Ketteler picnic (my dad’s side), or the Seiler Reunion (my mom’s), being with my cousins in the summer came to equal a kind of freedom. The adults were usually on their way to being toasted, with any supervisory duties falling to the oldest cousins (come to think of it, they were probably getting toasted, too—or in the case of my oldest brothers, getting high in the basement). It didn’t matter. No one was driving anywhere or operating heavy machinery. The grownups had the whole afternoon and most of the evening. As for the kids? We had green space and coolers of soda. Badminton games and water balloon tosses. And sparklers! My god, the sparklers we had at the Ketteler picnic on the Fourth of July! We’d throw the spent ones two at a time into an old metal bucket, our eyes still seeing streaks in the air.
Gathering spots rotated every summer, but our tiny ranch home felt far more important when my cousins descended on it. Hosting, say, my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in 1983 meant home turf adventures—like secret expeditions to the rock road that sat atop the hill at the edge of our backyard. However, the real jackpot location was The Cincinnati Cousins’s house. It was gorgeous and huge and surrounded by acres. It had so many porches and patios, plus seven bathrooms and two staircases—one that was a secret servants’ staircase into the kitchen. Servants! (Not that they had any, but still.)
The other prime spot was my aunt’s condo. She moved there with her daughter—my cousin Chris—after her divorce. My mom had hushed conversations with my aunt about the divorce, making it clear to me that divorce was A Very Hard and Stressful Thing. Still, living in a condo seemed a terribly chic thing to do, especially considering it had a clubhouse and a pool. The thought of a pool only steps away from your front door was almost too much for my childhood brain to process.
The Texas Cousins, of course, were less present. That made visiting with them all the more glamorous. After our trek down to Corpus Christi in 1982, they made the journey up here in the spring of 1983. My grandmother, who was in ill health by then, desperately wanted to see my uncle before she died. She got her wish. She passed about five minutes after they hit the road back to Texas. My mom couldn’t get in touch with them until they were back home again. They got out of the car, went to the bathroom, and immediately made the 1,200-mile journey back for the funeral.
That was when I learned another, far less delightful truth: The cousins always came for the funerals. I would come to know this lesson too well.
If throwing sparklers into the bucket with my cousins was one of my greatest summer joys, watching some of those same cousins walk down the aisle behind a tiny casket was undoubtedly one of my biggest summer sorrows.
It was the funeral for my cousin Mark’s baby daughter. He and his wife lost their 18-month-old daughter, Sophie, to a brain tumor in August 2006. Mark’s older brother, Danny, had already passed from cancer in May 2000. Three years after Sophie’s funeral, we were all together again for my brother Paul’s funeral. But it didn’t stop.
Two years after that, on a mild May morning, The Cincinnati Cousins lost their dad—suddenly and far too young—to a heart attack. A few weeks later, my cousin Kathy passed away (also from cancer). I remember Mark saying to me outside of church after the mass, “We have to stop meeting like this.” We laughed the way sad people do—against our will, but with no other option. My daughter, Georgia, was a baby, and I brought her to the funerals because I needed her wriggly warm body next to mine just to survive.
When my own father passed away in August 2013, some of my Texas cousins made the funeral trek yet again (this time they flew). It was wonderful to see them after so many years. We looked at pictures, laughed, and ate potato chips. There were always potato chips. Though, by that point, I was ready to tell summer to go screw itself with a sparkler.
I’ve had my fill of catered meat trays, black dresses, and graveside services among the magnolia trees, but I’ve never actually been able to stay away from hanging out with my cousins in the summer. That’s why, in the summer of 2014, I planned an epic trip down to Texas with my kids, who were then 6 and 4. I asked my mom and sister to come. In Corpus Christi, on the same beach where I had fallen in love with the ocean thirtysome years earlier, my kids frolicked with their second cousins. We laughed, played games, and fed chips to the gulls.
While that trip was such an obvious attempt to give my kids a piece of my childhood, I’ve been wondering lately if they feel the same kinship with their cousins. Not only am I the youngest in my family, I also waited a while to have kids. I’ve basically recreated my own generational situation, but to an even larger degree. At 7, my daughter is the youngest cousin. Her oldest cousin—my nephew Tony—is 33. Though they have two closer in age on my husband’s side, on my side the closest cousin is a senior in high school.
I worry what my kids might miss by not having that bond. When we gather, it seems like everyone is on their cell phone. My nieces are usually on the deck having wine with me—not having adventures with little kids. There’s too much poison ivy in the pathway leading up to the rock road anyway. I don’t know the last time we had a sparkler. Are they even safe?
A few weeks ago, my sister hosted game night. I brought my two kids and my niece Liz brought her three kids, who are similar in age. Technically, they are first-cousins-once-removed. Aligned ages, but misaligned generations.
At some point in the evening, my 9-year-old son Max decided that all the kids should take my sister’s dog, Brody, for a walk. My sister handed over the leash, with some instructions about how to use a plastic bag over his hand to collect dog poop. They scampered out the door before any grownup could notice what they were doing.
About 20 minutes later, they all came back—except Max. They were all aflutter, with flushed cheeks, hands gesturing wildly, and sentences running together. _Max is at the high school with Brody and is he really allowed to be there because maybe you said not to go that far and we were all running and it was so fun but he’s still there so what do we do?!
“Uh, how about just go back to the high school?” my sister said.
“OK!” they shouted together, running out the door in a tizzy. Liz and I were drinking vodka and tonics in the kitchen, and we dissolved into giggles.
“They’re having such an adventure!” Liz said.
That they were. And who cares if the generations align? A herd of cousins is a herd of cousins. Especially in the summertime.