Cousin Time

Jason’s brother Adam and his wife, Christine, were married a year after we were. Grace is the first of our kids. Casey was born about a year later. Another year, then Kali, and ten months after that came Charlie. Four cousins: girl, boy, girl, boy, each a year apart. We live in DC, and they live in Massachusetts. It doesn’t matter. These cousins – they have this closeness that doesn’t balk at distances. We usually only see them a couple of times a year – for an intense week jam-packed with cousin time at Christmas, another week or so of the same in the summer– but with days at the ocean instead of in the snow.

From the time they were really little, Grace and Casey were completely inseparable. They spent hours playing video games in the basement. Legos. Outdoor Rambo commando sessions. And playing with Casey’s “guys,” little army men they’d line up in elaborate battle formation, and trade, and zip line down the stairs. Charlie used to tag along behind them. But then, when Charlie and Kali were about 5 and 6, something between the two of them clicked, and they became as close as the other two.

One summer when they were young, we rented a house for a week on the North Shore, close to where Jason’s family lives. It was a huge, almost haunted looking place that turned out to have bats (or, okay, maybe just one bat…) When we arrived at the house, Christine took a look around, and saw the drop down from the cliffs to the rocky inlet, the sharp corners everywhere and the random spiky pipes poking out of the ground, she sat the kids down on the stoop to have a talk about The Rules. The kids seemed to listen for a while. But when Grace saw her aunt take a pause for breath, she said, “Um. Aunt Christine? I know you want us to be safe. We promise we will be very, very, very careful. But would it be okay if we just had some cousin-time now? You know, with no adults?” Christine is a great storyteller, so I got it verbatim when she came in the door, laughing.

Throughout the years since we first saw these incredible relationships cement themselves, my sense of wonder at what these four kids have together hasn’t diminished. Not at all. They never get tired of each other. I never get tired of watching.

We took the boys this summer for most of a week, while their dad was working and their mom recuperating from hip surgery. We called it Camp Kowal. Like we often do, we went for long hikes in the woods, to the quarry, on the beach, to play “Breakout!” The premise is that the kids have been wrongly imprisoned, and must make their escape past the guard (Jason), and then, as we hike, to complete tasks (for example, Jason will say, “Charlie is hurt. You all have to take turns carrying him from here to that big piece of driftwood on the other end of the beach” or “You’re hungry, and there’s food up in that tree. Each of you has to hit that knot in the tree with a rock to get it down.”)

Honestly, having four kids was easier than having two. I swear. No one fought. No one needed to be entertained. Everyone was happy and at the end of the day, everyone was exhausted. Jason and I got to live out our little fantasy of what life would be like with a brood of four. Watching them conspiring to plan their next covert rule-breaking, their heads bent toward each other, sent my heart soaring.

A couple summers ago, Christine had all four kids with her in the car, she was taking our girls for a sleepover at the cousins’ house. I’ve promised not to embarrass any of them with the details of this story, but suffice to say that driving past a woman nursing her baby sparked The Most Amazing Conversation Ever between the kids. When she needed to, Christine moderated, but mostly she just stayed out of the way and let things unfold organically. Topics they covered, over the course of several hours, included pregnancy, sex, puberty, and sexual orientation. Their personalities dictated their roles in this discussion: Grace the understanding educator, Casey the reluctant but dying-to-know inquirer, Kali the teasing wise-beyond-her-years commenter from the peanut gallery. And Charlie, quietly sitting there taking it all in with a gigantic grin on his face, as if he could not believe his luck in getting to listen to all of this.

It struck me, not long ago, that their cousin lives together would be utterly different had Grace never had access to spoken language. The likelihood of Grace’s cousins ever learning to become fluent, or even proficient, in sign language is small. A gigantic hole in the lives of these children (and, let’s be honest, for all of us in the family who get to partake in their closeness), creeps into my imagination when I picture how it might all be different. I picture Kali having to take on the role of interpreter. Or Grace just sticking by my side every Christmas, every summer, instead of disappearing for entire days to spend Every Waking Hour with her cousins.

I cannot imagine that the complete ease and comfort these kids feel around each other could ever exist in the alternate reality without CIs. Nothing would have been this easy, they would not have been able to make this kind of magic. There never would have been that conversation-you-dream-of between cousins about the birds and the bees. The endless hours of playing, whispering, planning, laughing – it’s hard to imagine any of that in a world where Grace lives always in silence.