Savannah Morning News
Nov. 27, 2016
In some families – not all – they don’t mean that much when you’re young. They’re just someone close to your own age, someone you’re supposed to like, someone who also calls your grandparents Nana and Papa, in that order. If they live near you and go to a different school, forget about it. If they’re a year or too older (or younger), well, who cares about them? He’s such a baby. She’s only in third grade. Such a huge difference to a kid. If they live in another town, another state, they might as well be strangers.
Except they’re not. They’re your cousins. They’re blood. They know things no one else does. They remember things. And now that the world is so much more connected they can get your number and call you out of the blue.
“Hey, Jane, this is your cousin Bert,” the message began a few days ago. “I got a question for you.”
Bert, as in Aunt Joan’s son? The one we called Rusty because he had red hair? Could it be? It’s only been about five decades. I called him back right away. He got right to the point.
“Remember that black-and-white photograph Uncle Harry and Aunt Trudy took that one Thanksgiving day in Huntington Woods when we were all there, the one that hung in Papa’s den all those years?”
The one I snagged, I thought, and held on to through at least 20 different addresses in five different states? Yep. I remember that one, I said. I’m looking at it right now. I love it. There you are in a red-plaid vest, to go with your hair, I assume. I remember that vest. You were –what? -12?
Except I totally forgot it was taken on Thanksgiving, which is what made Rusty think about calling me. I guess. Holidays will do that.
Even before he asked I said I’d be happy to make him a print.
“But can I still call you Rusty?” I said.
I know nothing about him now, who he voted for, what movies he prefers, what he likes to do on Sunday afternoons, if he plants garlic or likes to cook collards. I only know we played together. We shared grandparents. We knew where they hid the candy, how they snored at night, how much they loved to watch, “I Love Lucy.” He probably remembers the orthopedic shoes our grandfather wore, how our grandmother was always going to doctors, the contraption she set up to make chopped liver in that sunny back kitchen of their ranch house.
For the first three or four decades of our lives, none of this seemed very important or relevant. Why would it? You take it for granted. When one of your cousins invites you to a birthday party with people you don’t know, you whine, “Mom, do I have to go?” They are not your best friends. Not even the death of a grandparent – which can happen when you are living out of town or when you’re busy with a different life – brings you closer together. Much of the time you tend to be closer to one set of grandparents than another. This has more to do with your parents than with you. The whys of these relationships often go to the grave. Why did our nuclear unit “go with” the Modell side and not the Fishman side? We don’t know. Rusty was a Modell cousin. Every time we get together, we Fishman cousins, we ponder this but we don’t get very far. No one is around who can give us answers.
When I visit a cousin who lives in Minneapolis she tells me, “You’re a Fishman. You have a big head. You’re not very mechanical.”
I do? I’m not?
It’s only when one or both of your parents pass on that cousins start to become more important or more interesting. Or when one of them remembers a certain photograph. Then a certain pride kicks in at the descriptor. “This is my cousin, Nancy,” I say when Nancy and her husband Ronnie visit. Or Marsha. Or Bonnie. Or Maggie, Andy, Carol, Beth and Steve (who used to be Stevie). As a kid I always felt I had so many cousins, but I really didn’t.
When I go to a restaurant with my cousins Melvin and Karla and the maitre ‘d might say, “Fishman party of four,” I do a double take and think there are four of us? Then I remember. I’m not the only one with that name. Melvin is a second cousin. Our fathers were first cousins. That kind of thing used to mean something. Now it doesn’t. Melvin – and my other cousins – know things about my parents and our family I don’t know. Some of it seems silly to me. You wanted my father to be your father? Really? Because my father would play catch with you and your father wouldn’t?
We have so much in common genetically but we all turn out so differently. It’s no accident that we make up our own family as we go along, that we gather our own sisters and brothers, people who are closer to us emotionally.
I’m still hoping a cousin or two will say something that will unlock the mystery that is family. But in the meantime they are my cucina and cucino. And one of them I still call Rusty.