I imagine my experience with cousins is probably similar to yours – there are cousins with which I grew up and saw frequently, and there are cousins with which I didn’t grow up and saw infrequently. But they all share the “cousin” title, as if the title itself indicates a specific closeness or distance.
Even though I grew up seeing certain cousins often, we reached a point in our lives where we started seeing each other less and less, and eventually our salutations would become: “See you at the next wedding or funeral.” This started as a joke, but it has proven to be pretty accurate, thus as of late, we’ve been putting in a collective effort to sway the trend of estrangement.
But even then, there would be times I would greet even the closest of my cousins with, “Hey! How have you been doing…?! …for the past… uh… four or five years?” And suddenly the familiarity of kinship fades into the reality that before me may as well be a complete stranger that shares a peculiarly large number of traits with someone in my past.
But family is family, and cousins are family, so we carry on through our mutual ignorance of each others’ situations and enjoy being of the same family, whatever that means (blood? descent? culture?). I must admit, even through the estrangement, I enjoy spending time with my cousins now more than ever before, perhaps because we’ve all finally reached adulthood (it damn well took me long enough).
I recently had the fortune of meeting some cousins of mine for the first time. It wasn’t actually the first time, but it may as well have been because I had only met them once before when they were no older than five or so (I’m 20 years older than the youngest). It was such that, if I had been their waiter at a restaurant, neither of us would have recognized the other.
How do you greet family you’ve basically never met before? Do you extend a hand and say, “Hello, my name is Quack. Nice to meet you, I’m your cousin.”? Or do you hug them and say, “Hi! It’s been so long! What have you been up to since pooping in a diaper?”
I can’t help but flash back to when my own parents would bring over random adults that I theoretically knew but had no familiarity with, and the discomfort their excitement brought me as they proclaimed how much I’d grown while also confusing me with my brother. Am I really destined to perpetuate that cycle?
But my cousins claimed to have remembered me. Against all truth or reason, they had felt that, even though they hadn’t seen me in a long time, they had always known me, as if I was a part of their eternity. To them, it wasn’t just that we had met once, it was that we had met at least once, and probably many other times that add up to some unquantifiable forever.
It’s disconcerting for me to think that everything in my life has happened a definite amount of times. I’ve had a very specific number of birthdays and a specific number of Christmases. I have also only seen my cousins, even the close ones, a very specific number of times, and probably many fewer than I would have thought. But all of these events, traditional or otherwise, seem like they’ve existed in some eternal space – that even though I seldom celebrate my birthday now, birthday parties have happened in my past probably around an infinite number of times.
I’m afraid to wonder about things I’ve done only once or twice, but remember doing them all the time as a kid. Did our family camping trips happen once? Or did they happen constantly as I remember them? What about our ski trips? Or deli sandwich days? Was that ten times or a hundred thousand times?
What’s even more alarming to me is the idea that everything I’ve done in life had to have happened for the first time at some point. There’s some comfort in knowing that your family traditions have always been – that they sprung out of the dark blackness of continuity and still continue today. But nothing extends back to forever ago. There was a Day 1, and Day 1 frightens me. Perhaps it’s that the idea of forever provides a structure, or something concrete that you can hang your familial hat on and trust. If there’s a Day 1, that implies a Day 0, and suddenly tradition becomes cheap and memory becomes deceptive. Day 0 is a vacuum with no familiarity.
But alas, I digress. I know it is my responsibility to perpetuate the illusion of an eternal past – it is through this eternal past that family somehow derives much of its strength.
But seriously, cousins: at once stranger and sibling. How does this even make sense?