My son and I took six kids/grandkids to California’s redwoods over spring break — a 10-year-old, two elevens, two fifteens and a sixteen; four boys and two girls. His wife had to work, so it was the two of us, two cars and the six kids — brothers, sisters, cousins.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with uncles, aunts and cousins. In Minnesota, I was the first nephew on my father’s side and thus the oldest as new cousins and siblings came along. That meant special treatment: a “money tree” at Itasca State Park, carefully primed by the uncles so that when I shook it pennies and dimes fell to the ground; three weeks with Uncle Al, without parents, at his “Hideout” resort on Island Lake, where I learned to thread a minnow on a hook and caught my first walleye; and from a new uncle, a baseball autographed by Marty Marion, then shortstop of the St. Louis Cardinals. As siblings and cousins came along, I had to learn to share the stage.
But I was oldest and king of the Sunday picnic and Christmas Eve get-togethers until we moved to California, where maternal uncles had kids my age. I went from king to compatriot, as we older cousins put salt in the sugar bowl for the younger ones, and eight siblings/cousins traveled together in two station wagons with four parents pulling two travel trailers through Yellowstone and the Black Hills on the way to Minnesota roots.
The four of us in my nuclear family each got a summer month in Minnesota with Uncle Al. I was 15, and they gave me the keys to an old Buick to get me and a small aluminum boat to the lake — little Lengby had no police force, and careful families entrusted kids my age to drive in town.
Uncle Al is gone. I have not seen most of the cousins for years. I get regular Minnesota Christmas messages and wedding invitations from Al’s kids, keeping me involved, however minimally, in the family. But I remember.
Remember something special about these relationships. You don’t have to have a 4.0 gpa, be a super jock, sign up or pay an entry fee to be a cousin or a nephew. Uncles, aunts and cousins just are. And they are yours. You might grumble that one cousin is mean or that another pays you no mind, but you have to work it out. Parents and grandparents insist on the visits, so you learn to negotiate, forgive or forget — or just to get along.
I thought about this as the eight of us made our way from Portland to Crescent City and then Eureka and the Valley of Giants. We stopped to measure ourselves against the trees — even cool teenagers can be impressed by the old monsters — to eat clam chowder and sushi, find starfish in tide-pools, swim in a very cold ocean (kids can do that) and visit the Oregon Caves. And at night we crammed into a couple of motel rooms and sat in the hot tub, swam and played in the pool.
I think that we, as a society, have not learned to live in small families. It’s only been a couple of generations. I am not advocating six and eight kids per family, but we need to think about what we’ve lost and make it up in other ways.
Two adults and six kids in two cars is easier than one adult and two kids in one car. Siblings and cousins fight and rearrange alliances, but generally work their way through things without adult refereeing. And because they know that they’ll still be cousins tomorrow, there is not as much posturing and the competition and the grudges are short-lived.
When there is a gaggle of kids in a house, you learn to negotiate, and when siblings are a pain, there might be a cousin to commiserate with. Cousins — especially those just a little older — are good at teaching a new dance or making sure you know the right music. Cousins teach you that you don’t have to be best friends or lovers to get along. And cousinhood is safe territory, with limits — unlike smartphones, texting, face-timing and porn videos — to learn to negotiate gender. Finally, right or wrong, the six of you have to get along or a parent or older cousin will set you straight — not much room for “child entitlement” and helicopter parenting with aunts, uncles and cousins.
But maybe the most important lesson of cousinhood is that not everything in life is a choice, especially not your choice, you lonely only child with no cousins. Sleep on that one.
Columnist Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph.