Summer memories from my childhood are full of cousins. The families visited for cookouts and fish fries or occasional weekends at the lake. The grown-ups sat on the patio or the porch. The kids played endless twilight games of kick-the-can, hiding in the spirea bushes and the flowerbeds. My oldest boy-cousin picked me up and dusted me off when I fell and helped me catch the others when I was It. There were 13 of us on my father’s side; I was the fourth. I thought my cousins were the coolest people in the world.
Only the older ones remember the butcher shop and grocery store our Grandad and his sister owned. Cookies were kept in jars and bins, pickles in barrels. A pot-bellied stove held pride of place near the meat counter. My great uncle displayed his collection of stuffed birds of prey on the back wall. Beneath the store was the Pit, a primeval man-cave smelling of tobacco and beer, where the old men played card games, usually pitch but sometimes poker. One cousin recalls being sent there to fetch Grandad when it was time for supper.
We played in the concrete moat that surrounded the church across the street from our house. The boys loved it because it was full of toads. We held all-day wars with weapons improvised from cedar branches and cowboy gear. The cousins who threw rocks at the wasps’ nest were not as keen to play there afterwards. My father turned a packing crate into a playhouse and installed old-fashioned crank telephones in it, on our back porch and on a neighbor’s porch. The cousins played operator with the neighbor kids for hours.
We played tag with the German shepherds at my youngest aunt’s house in the country. Those cousins liked to lead the rest of us out into the fields and lose us temporarily. Their corn-on-the-cob was the best, and there always seemed to be new kittens. The wildest girl-cousin once asked her father if she could bring home a litter of feral kittens from the woods. He told her she could keep as many as she could catch. He was appalled when she came home with seven.
We played in my grandmother’s garden, hide-and-seek under the lilacs. She died before we were born, but we all felt close to her there. Years later, a cousin showed me a picture of her surrounded by flowers, her hair flying free. “She looks like a witch,” she told me. “You look like her.”
We get together rarely now, more often than not at funerals. Each time, we gather apart from other friends and relatives. Our memories are all different, even when they are shared, a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle we piece together, one point of view at a time. Things I’ve forgotten rise shining to my mind’s eye when a cousin describes them. We laugh a lot.
Last time we met, we lingered after the others left, telling over our memories one more time. While we talked, my nieces and nephew took their six offspring to a nearby park for lunch. The youngest girl, six months old, demonstrated the fierce tiger growl she had just learned. The oldest boy, at eight, is already looking out for his younger cousins. He checked on the girls on the swings and then followed his youngest sister, 22 months, as she made her determined way up a complicated ladder, rejecting all the lower slides until she reached the tallest one. From that pinnacle she slalomed down like an Olympian, landing on hands and knees. She picked herself up, brushed the wood chips off her fingers and started back up again.