So far, my kids have five blood* cousins, all on my side of the family. My mother's eight grandchildren range in age from 13 (my sister's eldest) to 3 months (baby J). It's one of my deepest wishes that these first cousins will be a Kennedyesque clan -- a generation of friends and confidants that will always be united. Unfortunately, my siblings and I don't have a real model for fostering this sort of cousinly closeness.
We only have six first cousins -- three maternal and three paternal. Our mother's sister's children all live in Venezuela, while our father's brother's kids are in Colombia. Six years ago today, our oldest cousin Monica, who would've been 45 this year, died in a horrific accident on her way to visit her younger sister Martha at the hospital. Martha had just had her second baby girl, and Monica was driving her seven-year-old to meet the new baby. Monica never made it to the hospital. She was killed while trying to fix her tire on the highway's shoulder. A speeding commercial truck rammed into her, and she died instantly. Her daughter was asleep in the car and was by the grace of God not injured in the accident.
After our cousin died, I was sad but not despondent. I held my first baby, only four months old at the time, and tried to imagine what my cousin Martha, a new mother of two, must've felt knowing her beloved older sister had died on the very same day of her daughters' shared birthday (she had two scheduled C-sections on the same day, exactly two years apart). I cried for Martha. I cried for my aunt, because no parent should have to outlive their child and for Monica's daughter, who had lost her mother so prematurely. I cried for Martha's brother Frank, who had also lost a sister. But to be brutally honest, I did not cry for myself. I hardly knew my cousin. She lived in another country, and I heard about her only from my mother or during my aunt's or Martha's occasional visits to the States. I couldn't even remember the last time I had seen or spoken to her.
On that June afternoon in 2002, I came to grips with an awful truth: that I could only grieve for Monica's survivors and for the idea of her as my oldest cousin, a contemporary of my siblings. But she just wasn't part of my life. That distant, vague sense of family connection is not what I want for my children. I want them to think of their cousins as extended siblings, not just individuals with common ancestors.
Of course there are no guarantees that they will be the best of friends. For one thing, there is the question of age. The first four all in a row: 13, nearly 12, nearly 11, and 10. Then there's E four years younger than the first wave. Then D , who is almost exactly two years older than her cousin Bella, who is in turn 16 months older than baby J. And if my my brother and his wife have another baby in the next two years, there will basically be two sets of four with E floating in the middle. That's a potential 15-year span between oldest and youngest cousins. And while two of us live in Central Florida, I live in DC, and my oldest brother lives in NYC.
So what are adult siblings to do to encourage their children to be close? We have to make a real effort to see each other more often, to let the kids interact more than just on every other holiday. We have to try to plan vacations together and encourage the older kids to email and call each other, share iPod lists, add each other to Facebook when the time comes, etc. And most important, I think, we have to get to know our nieces and nephews ourselves and foster individual relationships with each of them. They have to be more than a sister's son or a brother's daughter.
If we do our best, then I'm sure the next generation of cousins will know each other so much more than we know ours.
*I used the word blood, because our kids also have a non-biological cousin -- the son of our former stepsister, who is still an important part of our lives.