A long time ago, in the black and white world of the Fifties, in a little town in the northwest corner of Minnesota, I lived among my cousins. My parents both came from large families so I had very many cousins. In the constellated snapshot of that time, it is Sunday afternoon, the aunts are beautiful in their Fifties hairstyles produced by rubber curlers and bobby pins, their cotton dresses pressed against their legs by the prairie breeze; the uncles in fedoras and white shirts with the sleeves rolled up; a baby or two propped on the hood of a car or on a daddy’s shoulders, and a small tribe of children in front. Everything was ahead of us then.
Our grandparents’ farm was the gathering place for my mother’s side of the family and we cousins played there often. We swung from the thick hemp ropes in the hayloft or high into the leafy green sky on the board swing tied to a cottonwood tree. We ran wild in the fields, prowled the dusty attic with its discarded wonders, or lounged in the canvas hammock slung between two box elders. We drank apricot nectar and ate bowls of glorified rice and many slices of dense, sugary apple pie, made with only three apples by our parsimonious grandmother. Without cousins, the farm was boring and lonely; with cousins, it became a playground, a place to explore.
But eventually we were pulled apart. The world called us away and we saw each other less and less. Now many years have passed, our grown-ups are mostly gone, and we are the grandparents.
We meet every now and then – a reunion, a funeral, a milestone birthday. At my mother’s 80th birthday, after the old folks settled in for the night, a group of us went down to the local bar and over whisky and beer, started talking. Tongues were loosened and things revealed that made us all have a new appreciation for each other. Who knew that about Uncle Woody or Aunt Pearl or, oh my goodness, Uncle Johnny did what? He did? She didn’t! That was so much fun, we’ve wanted to do it again, but because we’re so far apart geographically, it just hasn’t happened.
Until this summer. I live in San Francisco, and when I heard my cousin Terry, who lives in Boston, was going to visit our cousin Nancy in Portland for a week, I butted in, and am so glad I did. I came back from that weekend all aglow, happy to have been in their company, to have had two whole days of talking and processing, bliss for women.
“I love my cousins,” I said to my husband that evening over dinner. I tried to put my finger on what it was that made it so pleasurable, besides the obvious. It was not only that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them and that we have so much in common, it was something more. They were people I was getting to know, but who already shared my background, who knew, without my telling them, about my Norwegian grandmother, her house on the prairie, her funny apple pies, the beat-up stool in the kitchen, the dresser in the bedroom with its pot of rouge and her hair combs. Who knew her as I did.
“Cousinage,” my husband said.
“Huh?” I said.
“Cousinage, the kinship of cousins.”
I’d never heard the word before and loved it immediately. Cousinage. Kinship. Yes.
It would be fun to live among my cousins again. We could have big parties and sit around and talk about the old days. We could discuss our aunts and uncles and grandparents and our genealogy and where we came from, and the things we know now that we didn’t know then. A cousin-friend is different from siblings because you haven’t lived together, but you still have the same blood, the same memories in many cases, and it’s always pleasantly surprising when they elaborate on one of your memories. They know the little town you grew up in and where you lived, your dad and mom, and even some of your secrets. Because cousins often have stories that you’ve never heard, the telling of them over a bottle of wine, is as fun an evening as you could ask for.
The three of us did just that. Nancy brought out boxes of old pictures we pored over. “Is that me?” We read from her mother’s diary, our aunt Ann, of her trip to Norway in the Seventies, and looked at the fading pictures she took of Gramma’s home on the Sognfjord, of Lars and Nils, her brothers. I gave them each a CD of an interview with Gramma my sister did that’d I’d transferred from tape and transcribed on paper. Some of Gramma’s story is there, but we regret that we didn’t pay more attention.
Terry, who married a Jew, told us that after her first child was born, Gramma asked my brother, who lived near her, to sneak in and kidnap the baby and have it baptized. “She didn’t!” Nancy and I exclaim. Terry nods and smiles. “She did.” And then quickly adds, “He didn’t, of course.”
We ponder why Gramma married Grampa, a Swede!, only six months after arriving in this country. I tell them what Uncle Arnold told me: Ingeborg’s father told her he’d rather see her dead than married to a Swede. I sit back and look at them. Did they know that? Actually, they did.
Well, Terry says, did we know that Gramma had a boyfriend who she promised to wait for but didn’t? Who followed her to this country but never found her? Who’s letters were intercepted by her sister Kristina? Who Gramma asked her daughters to find after Grandpa died? Oh lord, this gets us going. This is more grist for our hungry mills. But now we’re even more confused as to why she married Grandpa so soon after arriving.
Nancy’s mother was Gramma’s first-born and arrived a month early, premature we’ve always been told, but we wonder: did Gramma get knocked up? We fall back on the sofa in hard laughter as we try to imagine our stern Lutheran grandmother in the throes of passion. We agree Otto and Ingeborg did not have a happy marriage and Terry suggests that it was probably a marriage of convenience. We sip our drinks and stare at the floor.
“Did Gramma only make roast beef?” Terry muses. “We’re always eating chuck roast in my memories.”
“Did she have any hobbies, any activities outside of housework and Ladies Aid?” Nancy wonders. We can’t think of any. She didn’t sew, embroider or crochet. I don’t remember her making lefse or krumkake, or any Norwegian specialty except for rømmegrøt, we all remember that. Takk skatta ha, linkety blee, forty in and you can’t catch me. I recite this childhood rhyme mimicking the Norwegian we heard around the house and they recognize it at once. We commiserate with how frustrating it was not being able to understand her and of Gramma’s frustration when we incorrectly pretended we did.
Nancy drove us around Portland, showed us the sights, the bridges, the Saturday market, the Chinese Garden, Powell’s bookstore, lunch at a Swedish restaurant, and on Sunday, a stroll along the beautiful Willamette River in the cool of the morning. We picked blackberries and recalled how we had to pick berries when we were kids, of eating chokecherries at Lake Bronson, of canning and putting up preserves. There seems to be no end to the stories we can tell.
I could still see my old playmates in these women: Nancy at seven, yodeling on a country road after we’d seen the movie Heidi at the drive-in, and Terry with her mosquito-bitten tanned little legs, running after her little brothers on the farm. We asked someone to take our picture, and as a thank-you to Nancy, I juxtaposed that picture with one taken of us on the farm when we were around ten, in our short shorts and skinny legs. It’s perfect with the river behind us, wide and deep and flowing out to sea.