Keeping Long-Distance Cousins Close

Family Matters on 12.01.11
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Photo: jk_too/Creative Commons


Second Cousin, First Friend
Before boarding my flight home after a week at my parents' place over Thanksgiving, I received this text from my cousin:

Loved seeing u this week. There is nothing like family! Love u

Michelle is six weeks older than I am. We grew up together. We kept her mother imprisoned while we performed the world's most boring, nonsensical variety shows (but to us, of course, they were critically acclaimed representations of our overflowing talent*). We were freshman roommates at Michigan State, where she organized her jeans by color and introduced me to the culinary delight that is microwave ramen, I attempted to expand her musical repertoire beyond "Rhythm Is a Dancer" by Snap!, and we had only one argument that found its way to us during the very last week of school. She has known me my entire life, and it drives me bananas that she had six weeks without me just because she got here first.

Now we live almost 700 miles away from each other: She's in the Detroit suburbs and I'm in New York. She has three children, I have one, and this Thanksgiving was the first time they all got together to play. They don't know each other. Yet.

Far Away, So Close
I also have one sister, Jennifer, who lives in Chicago. She has a daughter seven months younger than my son.

I have another sister, Stephanie, who lives in Boston. She has a 3-year-old son and a newborn daughter.

I have a third sister, Lauren, who lives in Detroit. She is pregnant with her first, a daughter, due in March.

Since moving to New York in 1998, I was aware that I'd be living my life away from my family. When my son, Stefen, was born last year, it drove home what that truly means. It's easy to take for granted that your family — should you be on speaking terms — will be in your life no matter where you live. But then there's the reality of what the lack of exposure to your siblings' and cousins' children actually feels like. I want Stefen to know his cousins, even if he doesn't go to camp with them or decorate his dorm room with them, and that's not going to happen without putting in an awful lot of effort and airport time.

During Thanksgiving (when, incidentally, I also saw my cousin Steven for the first time since 1997 because he grew up in California, and he's a man now and he's so cool!), the big thing was getting Stefen together with Chicago Jennifer's daughter, Lila. Stefen and Lila were still larvae when they saw each other last, and this time they were old enough to play, such as it was. There was a lot of stealing toys from each other's hands, a lot of shrieking in each other's general direction, and during a very active bathtime, it may have been said they were "two butt cracks passing in the night."

While the children will have no memory of their week together, we'll all have what none of us had when we were that age: video. Jen and I held our cameras at attention the entire week, for better or for worse, and all those memories were recorded. The videos mean nothing to the kids now, of course, but I hope that as they get older, seeing time spent rolling in a pile of baby will give them a tie, maybe fill a fraction of the gap left by distance.

Changing Vacations
Before we had children, my sisters and I talked about annual girl trips, where we'd all converge on a location for the weekend. Until Lauren, Stephanie and I went to Chicago to meet a newborn Lila, we'd never done it. Life had gotten in the way, some of us had financial issues, some of us had work issues, some of us just had issues. It's hard to get four women together for coffee, never mind a getaway.

When I think about those hypothetical getaways now, I always picture us including our children. When money is tight, vacations are ruled out but trips to see family are always in the running for the budget. If I want Stefen to have a Michelle — or, at the rate my family is populating the Earth, several Michelles — those family trips are going to have to happen more frequently than even a budget may allow.

I'm at the point in my life where I'm willing to give up things I need to make room for those trips. I need those trips, and my son needs those trips.

Fitting Into Your Genes
Here's the thing about cousins: They need each other because they need to talk about their lives with people who know them in a way their friends don't, and in a way they may not be able to share with their siblings. Cousins kind of look like each other but not exactly, so there's a safe space that isn't too close for comfort but is close enough to really feel related. Cousins understand the crazy — from any distance. Cousins don't have to explain much to each other, but they can keep secrets close to their chests too, if they want to.

For a child, the world is an unfathomable place. Their world is at home or at school because life beyond those walls is just too enormous and confounding to wrap their developing brains around. And bit by bit, it becomes more comfortable and exciting, but until they truly become of the world, they need to know that when their cousins live in other places, they're still accessible, they can still play in their own way, they can still create memories of their own. To take the miles between these kids and attach them to something so close to home and heart is the best way to generate closeness: Your family cannot be too far away because you're still being a family. Skype has changed how families stay in touch, and it also allows kids to see their cousins' houses, a slice of their worlds. My sister Stephanie is responsible for 98 percent of the photos on Facebook because she's diligent about posting pictures of her children: It's how we're watching our nephew and niece grow up. I hope that someday it will be how all these kids watch each other grow up.

None of this is to say the cousins will definitely like each other, or want to know each other, or understand each other. But if they do, they'll have a long-distance Michelle, and I think a Michelle from any distance is a gift. How lucky is that?

(*Note: Here are two samples of skits from Michelle and my variety shows:

In one, a commercial for Hidden Valley Ranch, I walk in on Michelle while she's naked [she wasn't really naked]. She screeches and trills, "Ack! I'm dressing!"

 In another, which was actually recorded on tape and then mercifully lost, I sing the most syrupy of love ballads, which, naturally, I made up as I went along. Said ballad was 11 minutes long. After minute 6, you can hear Michelle in the background saying, "Are you almost done?" Cousins.)


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