Cousins | Two Poems, a Comic Vision & Much Reflection

To open our conversation on the word cousins, both Norma and I shared poems …

Extended Family

Distance, time,
and the well-protected elephant
withered branches from the family tree.

Facebook with cousins
sprouts a new pasture.

Norma T. Colman, January 31, 2013

Cousins

SiblingDiscovery_cousins

We Come from one family—
the Offspring of siblings.
My father is your Uncle; your mother is my aunt.
We Share grandparents, weddings, funerals, certain traditions.
But the branches In our family tree forked widely,
and you do Not know me.
So I spend Sundays with friends.

Beth Nyland, February 10, 2013

… and Paul brought a visualization that will resonate with many of our cousins on the Hatfield side of the family (yes, our mother was a Hatfield, and yes, those Hatfields).

“I picture a comic scene of hillbilly croquet,” he said. Having seen Paul’s wood-carved caricatures, I would love to see him bring this vision to three dimensions. How entertaining it would be to blend our backwoods heritage with the current cast of characters who play croquet each year when our cousins reunite.

* * *

Like the creative concepts we brought in response to this prompt, our discussion of cousins explored both past and present understanding of extended family.

Paul and Norma, having grown up a decade and a half ahead of me, enjoyed regular contact with first cousins of the same generation. Paul, the only boy in our family, enjoyed his annual week with the Hatfields who lived just a county away. “It was immersion in a family of boys,” he said. “There, I had brothers. They had fights, and we never did. That was regular for them. They were always competitive with one another, and I loved getting into that with them once a year.”

There were far-away Hatfields, too. “I think of how exceptional it was when John and Judy came [from Arkansas],” Norma said.

Paul recalled visiting Arkansas and being bored to tears in Mom’s tiny hometown of Swifton. Then they went Little Rock and played mini golf. “I remember that Johnny showed me how to roll my pants up right. It was probably to make me look right, so I didn’t embarrass him,” Paul laughed. “But I loved it and have always carried it with me.”

Also, due to our Uncle Ezra Terpening’s marriage to the widow Helen Floto, we had a slew of cousins who were not blood relatives, but became close family. Because Ez and Helen married before Mom and Dad, we were born into knowing these cousins. John and Bill and Carol were all grown and settled by the time the Terpening kids came up, but Loren and Gail were contemporaries.

“Gail and Loren were magical,” Norma remembered. “They were the big kids, so smart, so creative, sophisticated. And Bob Leudtke too [our Aunt Marie’s step-son]. I was in awe of them.”

Twenty years later, I grew up with the next generation of those cousins by marriage. I adored them, and they welcomed me as one of the gang. Their family structure and culture were so different from my own. I was growing up basically an only child in a huge farmhouse, my siblings grown, my mom working, and my dad farming. They were six kids, all close in age, living in town with a mom who stayed home and a dad who worked at a factory. They had meals together, walked to the pool, played baseball, went camping, and shared one bathroom and a few small bedrooms. And they fought. Fascinating!

We agreed that this step-family was a real gift to us. The Floto family gave us a sense of family right in Geneseo, the small Illinois town where we were raised.

* * *

Today Paul, who still lives in Geneseo, hardly goes to nearby Kewanee without bumping into a relative. “We’re far apart, but we know each other well enough. They know probably more about my artsy stuff than most anybody else does,” he said, because they stay in touch with the artist community in historic Bishop Hill, where Paul carves and markets his work.

For Norma and me, cousin relationships exist primarily in cyberspace. To me, these connections feel far more intimate than what we’ve had before. I can empathize with a cousin’s parenting frustrations, celebrate another’s musical accomplishments, see family resemblance in video footage and photos of children I have not even met, and pray for young couples expecting yet another generation of our brood.

Norma agreed, remembering following our cousin John Floto’s updates in the midst of massive snowfall this winder. “That’s my cousin,” she said, “I’m glad to know he’s safe. If not for Facebook, I wouldn’t have even given him a thought. But with Facebook, there is this connectedness. That keeps us tied, even though we don’t have the geographic closeness of those who still live around home.”

While my own poem has an edge of sadness that my “real” family isn’t close enough to share physical space on Sundays, I do find joy in the way digital communication is knitting my extended family together in a new way. And in Norma’s poem, I love the vivid imagery … the well-protected elephant, the withered branches, the sprouting pasture … such wonderful, child-like images for the adult cousins we have become.

And, as Paul said, cousins share our context. “Whenever we do get together, there’s no need to reintroduce yourself. You can pick up and move on. It’s not starting over, just moving on.”

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