I grew up as one of 4 siblings. I’m the 2nd in that set, with an older sister and 2 younger brothers. Our parents grew up in Indiana. They spent their whole lives in small towns in close proximity to each other. They dated as teenagers, fell in love, and got married after my dad graduated from Tri State University in Indiana. His first job assignment was to Seattle, and after that they ping ponged on a journey that took them to many places, but never back to Indiana.
My dad’s job was such that as a family we relocated every few years, pulling up stakes, moving to the new locations to start new schools, make new friends. The longest stretch we had was in Maryland where we lived for 7 years in 2 different houses, which for me was grades Kindergarten through Sixth Grade. Every summer we’d get in the car, driving to make a pilgrimage from Maryland to Indiana. Back to see ALL of the relatives, the ones I thought of as Our Parents’ People. That was our annual vacation. 2 days of 6 people on a car trip in an Oldsmobile Ninety Eight to get to Indiana, followed by 2 days of 6 people on a car trip in an Oldsmobile Ninety Eight to get back to Maryland. And in between those long, hot, stop touching me, he’s touching me, stop breathing on me, she’s breathing on me, move your leg, can I have a drink of your coke, yes you can use my pillow but don’t get any food on it car trips, was a well orchestrated agenda of Seeing Old People.
At least that’s how I remember most of it. As I said, both of my parents spent their whole lives in those small towns. And their people before them had lived there all of their lives, seemingly for generations. So there were a lot of them. And we had to see all of them. Like the ones with the operating dairy farm, not to be confused with the ones with “just” the cows. The spinster aunt in a museum-esque house and the widowed great grandmother who spoke not a word of English. The aunt who served us Tab cola in a room that looked like a green house. The cousin whose house we went to and (for convenience, thank you) would have all of his siblings over for one big visit there. At the time I couldn’t always remember which parent they were related to, as they were just referred to as Uncle so and so and Aunt whatsherface and Cousins Tom, Dick, and Harry. No seriously my mom has cousins who are 3 brothers named Tom, Dick and Harry Lee.
And then interspersed with all of the Seeing of the Old People, we’d get to visit a few cousins. Like, our actual age cousins. On my mom’s side was her sister who had a boy my sister’s age and a girl my age. On my dad’s side was his brother who had a girl my age and boys each of my brother’s ages. I totally lucked out in the Indiana cousin lottery. Two girls! Each my age! And even more importantly, we got along. I think back on that now. That as bored as I was on the Old People Tour, how much worse would it have been if the cousins I was told to “run along and play with” had been total crappers?
I do remember, though, that the cousin on my mom’s side made a terrible first impression. My earliest cognizant memory of her was walking into her room when I was about 5. She had some sort of toy blender and she looked at me and said, “I have a blender and it makes chocolate milk and you can’t have any.” I don’t remember if I ever did get any chocolate milk, but I do remember her dad (my uncle) taking us to a candy store that day and buying us enough candy to make up for whatever deficit may have existed.
But every memory after that one that I have of spending time with that cousin is golden-tinged on reflection. The skits we created, the puppet shows we put on, our trip to a fabric store, listening to music in her room, playing with her dog in the garage… and dimmer things I can’t put a title to but that make me feel good when I think back on… I see her carrying a bowl of watermelon, I picture a row of dolls in her room, I hear her very distinct laugh….
Her brother was there somewhere… louder, cockier, older. He and my sister being thrown together by age, bonded by being the eldest sibling in the respective families. I was always slightly afraid of Jay Jay, as we called him back then. I was a tiny child, skinny as a rail with teeth out to there and stringy hair cut to here. Jay Jay was big. He liked showing off, he liked teasing his sister, sometimes carrying things too far as brothers are wont to do, forcing a parent to intervene. And I’d stand there, big eyed and mute, partly hoping that he’d pick on me, mostly terrified that he’d pick on me.
He grew up to play, unsurprisingly, football. One summer memory I have was on one of the very few trips we made to Indiana after we’d moved to Texas. I was in middle school, Jay Jay in high school. We walked to the football field to watch him practice and while I don’t remember the practice much I vividly remember walking backwards and falling into a 4 foot deep hole in the ground and bruising a few ribs. Not Jay Jay’s fault but I can’t think of him playing football without remembering that personal injury. And I STILL don’t know what the hole was dug for. Or how in the hell I missed it.
As adults we drifted apart, we cousins. My mom has always been very close to her 3 sisters so I’ve heard the news on all of the cousins over the years. Who graduated, who got engaged, who was employed, who was giving birth. We’ve traversed the country, attending each other’s weddings and reunions as schedules permitted. But much fewer and farther between as the years passed and schedules grew more convoluted. The 3 California boy cousins, the 3 Missouri girl cousins, and still in Indiana: Jay Jay and his sister.
As an adult, Jay grew a beard and dropped a Jay. He was just Jay now, when I’d hear news of him. He got married, did some teaching, had 2 girls, was a coach. Got sick. Went into remission. Got better. Got sick again. Didn’t get better. I would get notes and texts from my mom with status reports. How often I would drop my head after one of the texts and say a quick prayer, toward the end sending notes to my aunt wishing her good wishes, hoping for the best.
And then 2 weeks ago the news we had hoped wouldn’t come did come. Jay lost his battle. Jay’s wife and kids lost their husband and father. My aunt and uncle lost their son. My cousin lost her brother. I lost the first of the 8 of my maternal cousins.
In that chain of command, I realize my loss is nowhere near the depth of the ones closest to him are feeling. I grieve for my aunt and uncle as a parent because it feels wrong for any parent to bury a child, at any age. I grieve for my cousin who lost her only sibling, her first friend. I grieve for my cousin’s wife and children because I know the blessing that a good man brings to a family, and the hole that must be felt now that he’s gone.
Losing a cousin does something to wobble your childhood. The memories of my cousins, even though we’ve grown old and apart and lost contact, are still integral parts of my early family life. The best parts of my family vacations. A testament to the good people in my family.
I wasn’t ready to let any of that go… to let any of them go. Rest in Peace, Jay Jay.