I have always considered it most strange that sociologists and psychologists, who are obsessed with studying every aspect of sibling relationships, universally neglect relationships with almost equal potency – cousins. My cousins (and I had 36 of them) were among the most enduring and powerful influences in my life. From them I learned most of the really important things in life. Everything from where babies come from (and how they got there) to how to thrive, as a kid, in an adult- dominated world. They were the “pack” in which I learned submission and domination, how to conform to rules; how follow and how to lead (and the dangers that accompany either role). You can choose your friends, and they come and go; but cousins, like siblings, are non-negotiable and permanent. You are family, and you have to learn to understand and get-along with each other; there is no alternative. In these fixed relationships, you learn valuable skills of negotiation, compromise, and survival.
Sibling relationships are fixed by birth order. You are the “oldest” or the “baby” or the “middle child,” and you learn to occupy that niche. With cousins, your role is more fluid, and you get to play multiple parts. If you are lucky, you have a turn at being the “baby,” at being the “big kid,” and even at being “in-between.” You play multiple characters and learn from each experience. You learn humility and confidence; fear and courage. To borrow from the Bard, I recall four stages in cousinship development: the “coveted baby,” the “rejected tag-along,” the “initiate,” and the “boss kid”.
The Coveted Baby
When a new baby is introduced into the family, cousins compete for access to the little one, quarrelling over who can hold it, who can rock it, who can feed it, which one it likes best. As the baby progresses to crawling and toddling, it retains its attraction, and the cousins take turns lugging it around and playing with it. I remember the shaking, bouncing, thudding of being carried on the hip of a running big cousin. Grownups carried you, but they never ran with you. I have a vivid memory of sitting high on a big cousin’s shoulders, gripping his neck with my legs, my hands entangled in his hair, and shouting “gittie-up, gettie-up” as we ran through the fields. Actually, as I learned with later babies, I was the “handicap” that the oldest cousin carried while racing the younger cousins. My parents would have died if they had witnessed this contest, but it was exciting beyond belief.
The primary lesson I learned during my “baby” phase was self-control. Specifically I learned not to cry, piss, or shit because any one of these ended my fun, and resulted in my immediate return to my mother’s care. My mother always assumed that my early “potty” training was the result of her superior parenting skills, never appreciating the critical role my cousins played.
But like all good things, my term as “coveted baby” was brought to a close by two events. New babies were born, and I learned to talk. As the glories of total acceptance yielded to absolute rejection, I suffered greatly.
My older cousins didn’t want me around anymore. They had secrets that a blabbermouth child couldn’t keep, and games to play that didn’t include me. I cried to go with them, and only when the adults vehemently insisted was I allowed to tag-along. Of course, as soon as the adults were out of sight and ear-shot, I suffered the consequences. The main thing I learned during this period was to take my lumps without whining or tattling.
This was how I began to learn the “rules” of “kidhood.” Rule #1 -- Adults are the natural enemies of kids. Under the guise of protecting us, adults attempt to oversee and control us. The goals of “kidhood” are freedom and adventure. The battle lines were clearly drawn – it was them against us. Acceptance by my cousins was entirely dependent on my understanding this rule and inculcating it into my very being.
Once this percept was clearly implanted in my mind, I was elevated to the lowest rung of cousinhood. I was allowed to go along on a gradually expanding set of “adventures,” but I must: 1) never cry or run to an adult with any injury suffered during our adventures; 2) hide any blood, scrapes, cuts, bruises or other signs of injury (and if I couldn’t hide these, I was to lie about how they occurred); 3) never complain to any adult about anything the older cousins did to me; 4) always follow the orders of my older cousins without objections; and most importantly 5) never, ever tell any adult the truth about our escapades, plans, or other secrets.
To toughen us up and ensure we could keep these rules, the older cousins put us through rigorous training. These training procedures were educationally enhancing exercises, primarily giving us first-hand experiences with Newton’s laws, including his Universal Law of Gravitation and all three of his Laws of Motion.
Among other trials, we were required to jump from the roof of the old barn, and if we hesitated, we had to do it again. I remember this one because I have a fear of heights, and had to do it several times before my bravery was successfully demonstrated.
We also had to “ride” pine saplings. This game is an old one for country kids, and can best be accomplished by someone who weighs less than 60 pounds. Older cousins, too big to ride, assisted. A rope was attached near the top of a flexible young pine. The size of the child and the size of the pine had to be carefully matched. While older cousin(s) held the rope against the pull of the bent tree, the selected rider was mounted near the top, clinging tightly with arms and legs. At the signal, the rope was released, and the pine acted like a catapult, swinging upright and oscillating until equilibrium was reached. If the rider held on tightly, he could then shimmy down the tree, victorious. If the rider lost his grip, well, he would wind up with an even greater appreciation for Newtonian physics.
Sometimes lessons in animal husbandry and physics were combined. One skill I learned was goat riding. Well, actually, I learned to hang on to a running, bucking goat until I fell off. We learned bovine dzhigitovka. We had to stand on the broad back of Polly (the gentlest milk cow) while the older cousins held her head and fed her fallen pears. From that perch, we had to pick ripe pears from the higher tree limbs. If we were lucky, Polly cooperated. When she grew tired of the activity, we had to be prepared to leap free before she galloped off.
One favorite test of courage and agility was “taunt the gander.” My grandmother’s gander was vicious and hated all the grandchildren. Actually, he hated every living thing except my grandmother. He was wary of the bigger cousins, but had no fear of the smaller ones. The game was to send several of us into the chicken yard, to provoke and frustrate his attacks. To do the job well, we had to be part picadore, part matadore, part sprinter, and part gymnast. Now you have to understand that the gander was big and mean. His beak and wings were powerful weapons. My grandmother kept his wings clipped so he couldn’t fly (at least not often or high). He was the bull and we were the toreros. We kept him confused, but when he charged no “red flag” worked. The selected victim had to flee at top speed and vault to the top of the gate before being caught.
There were also psychological tests. I think the most horrendous trial I suffered was staying alone in a large, darkened, storage closet with a variety of stored furniture and a portrait of my great grandmother. I was told that if I was patient and brave my great grandmother would speak to me. With some tricky assistance from an older cousin, she did speak, and we had a long conversation. Today, that portrait hangs on my bedroom wall, and I never see it without recalling our haunting dialogue.
Without doubt, my favorite test was the ghost story ritual. The younger cousins were allowed to sit in the evening dark while the older cousins took turns telling the most fearsome ghost tales. I loved these, even the “got ‘ya” endings. Anyone who cried or ran to mother was dead meat.
When our bravery, fortitude, and loyalty had been fully tested, we were finally allowed full participation in adventure-filled cousinhood. Interestingly this wasn’t that much of a change. The hierarchy was established and we just benefited from fuller participation, and being allowed to share in “training” younger cousins. We had many adventures, including “stealing” watermelons and roasting ears from our grandparents’ fields, and slipping out of the house at night to feast on our ill-gotten gains. Describing the things we did would take too long for this post, and deserves to be published alone.
The time did come when the older cousins moved on to young adulthood. The day came when I was the “oldest,” the official “boss.” I confess I was initially rather drunk with my new power. It was only later that I realized the awesome responsibility that fell to me to continue to create new and more challenging adventures for the cousins. I confess to being overwhelmed. The opportunity to really establish my credentials came when all of the adults except my grandmother left the farm for an outing. I took the younger cousins exploring, what they might call in Australia, a walk-about. Indeed, we did explore. We ventured into the woods and through the swamp and into areas of the farm where we had never been. The younger cousins decided we were lost, and began to wail. I assured them that all we had to do was find the fence and follow it. This comforted them, but not me because I was not at all sure how to find a fence or where it might lead. I did manage not to show fear or doubt before the troops.
We found the fence, and it did lead us back to the house – several hours after the adults launched search parties. Our arrival was greeted with great celebration. All the children – except me – were hugged and petted. I was singled out as the perpetrator, the instigator, and the cause of the problem. I was punished, unjustly I felt, while the others were given food and pampering. When I protested that I had saved them by bringing us safely home, I got no takers. This was my first encounter with the dark-side of leadership. Something like, “the buck stops here” and “if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Being “boss” can be fun, but when things go wrong, you have to be ready to stand up and take the blame.
All-in-all the lessons I learned from my cousins have proven valuable throughout my life. I still love my cousins, mourn them when they are gone, and look forward to being with them at every opportunity.