In the year 2000, while most of the country lit tree lights or candles for the winter holidays, our family anticipated the radiant arrival of a new baby. My sister Kim and brother-in-law Tim's infant had been taking his sweet time to appear, but as the New Year ball hung in the balance, he arrived on December 31. With carrot-hued hair, little Eli added a whole new color to our season, in fact our lives. He was the first nephew for my wife and me. The first cousin for our son Benjamin.
With all the excitement, we called Benjamin from the hospital as we watched Eli get bathed in the hospital nursery by Tim, who had regained consciousness to reveal the perpetual grin of a first-time father. On the phone, we told Benjamin, "You have a boy cousin!" To which our two-and-a-half year old egotist said, "A boy? But I wanted a girl!" Despite our explanation that Eli would still be a lot of fun, Benjamin continued to cry his protest -- so we hung up on him. Well, not really, but we realized only time would fix Benjamin's misconception that he could control everything from weather patterns to baby gender.
The next day, I took Benjamin to the hospital, after he had fully bought into the idea of having a boy cousin. His eyes widened when he saw the baby held in Auntie Kimmy's arms. "That's my cousin," he giggled. Benjamin's voice rose in excitement with all kinds of questions, "How much does he weigh? Can I hold him? When's he going to talk?" When his giddiness had him dangerously pinballing between the baby and me, I took him into the hall for a respite.
Out in the corridor, Benjamin remained excited. "You're going to show Eli how to do a lot of things," I told my son. "Yeah," he said, "I'm gonna teach him how to run -- like this!" Benjamin then ran up and down the hall, displaying his perfect sprinter's form, oblivious to the fact that Eli hadn't exactly come out of the womb ready for a track meet.
Sticking to the job description
In the last three years, Benjamin has indeed given Eli pointers on running and a few others things. He's played the role of older cousin with relish and has learned more about patience and sharing because of this relationship. It also did wonders to prepare him to assume big brother status, once little Jacob arrived less than a year after Eli.
Having cousins around so close in age is a privilege I didn't grow up with. All four of my first cousins lived across the country and were 10 to 23 years younger than me. Because of the distance, my sister and I lacked real relationships with cousins, those people who share your genetics and understand family peculiarities. I envied my friends who had cousins to sit with at the Thanksgiving "children's table" or to fill out softball teams for July 4th. Cousins are the ones who make family vacations rowdier and funerals a tad easier because they share your history and serve as human scrapbooks.
For these reasons and more, my family recognizes the rare advantage of proximity. In day care three days a week, Jacob makes a beeline for cousin Eli. And at the grandparents', all three boys run rampant, jeopardizing fine china, filling bubble baths, and reading books on the same bed. Because of all this shared time, Eli sees Benjamin as a role model, often copying his words and gestures, and trying to engage him with requests like, "Want to play tennis, Benjamin?" (though he may be holding a football). Likewise, Jacob looks up to Eli, mimicking his cousin, when he isn't trying to steal his crayons. Still working on his consonants, Jacob chants, "Eeyii, Eeyii, Eeyii!" whenever his cousin is near but out of sight. Each older boy sometimes grows annoyed with the younger ones, but the bonding is secure.
One evening, we attended a family-oriented musical performance with my sister's family. Benjamin had had enough of us "borwing" adults (he still doesn't quite pronounce his "Rs") and headed for the auditorium aisle, where other kids sought a better look at the singers. Eli then wandered off to be with his big cousin, and Jacob escaped to join them. When Benjamin saw Eli, he put his arm around him. In turn, Eli patted Jacob. We parents got misty. This connection our sons had for each other was something to treasure. Since that December 31 day, each holiday season reminds me of this amazing privilege we have of extended family. My sons now have a second cousin, Philip, the intrepid one-year-old son of my wife's sister and brother-in-law. And this year, my sister is once again due to give birth. While her expected second son won't arrive until after the New Year, the imminent birth will make our extended family more of a winter wonderland than ever before.
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