I come from a great big crazy immigrant family. My cousins and I may as well have been brothers and sisters. We literally grew up together. Every Friday night we were at my grandmother’s house without fail. We played all night long while our parents visited and competed with one another in card games and dominoes. In between we went to movies together, watched westerns on television and invented games. Our lives were almost idyllic, or so it appeared.
My first memories are of my cousins. They seemed to always have been in my life. One of my earliest recollections is playing on the seesaw with my cousin Jack at St. Peter’s Catholic Church while my brother was being baptized. I was about five and Jack was just barely five as well. He suddenly grew weary of going up and down and jumped off without warning. Without his weight to balance me I went flying into the air. I was angry with him because the fall took the breath out of my lungs. He was kind and came to my rescue. Even back then he was so very good.
My cousins became my lifeline when my father died. I was devastated and they rallied around to help our family through our tragedy. It seemed as though we spent ever more time with them after that. I particularly loved visiting Jack and his brother Andy. Their house was custom made for adventure. Their backyard overlooked a drainage ditch that became the site of untold hours of make believe. We were only allowed back there when it was bone dry but since that was most of the time it was our private playground.
Jack and Andy’s home had a floored in attic with stairs leading to a playroom unlike any other that I have ever seen. We played hide and seek up there and once Jack created an altar and we pretended to attend Mass with him as the priest of course. We frolicked for hours and I rarely wanted to leave when it became late. The best times were those when my mother agreed to spend the night. It meant that we had a few more precious hours to spend together.
My Aunt Polly worked for the Trail Drive In and she often invited us to come to work with her. That meant that we got to watch all of the entertainment with our cousins while she was busy at the box office. I remember one occasion when we were in the snack bar and one of the patrons spilled boiling hot coffee on Jack’s legs. He was in so much pain that I was in tears. The employees did their best to comfort him but he was badly burned.
When hurricane Carla came to Houston we spent several days at Jack and Andy’s house. My mother was afraid to stay alone and so we turned the event into a kind of hurricane party. My cousin Ingrid and her mother joined us as well. I suppose that we drove the adults insane playing chopsticks on the piano over and over. They finally warned us that we were not to touch those keys again. We went upstairs and found plenty to do. When the winds began to pick up Jack went outside and climbed a tree in the backyard. He squealed with delight as the branches rocked him back and forth. I was just about to try the ride when we all got in trouble for being outside in the middle of the storm.
The years went by and we continued doing so many things together. Once several of us took ballroom dance lessons together. I had a crush on a particular boy in the class and when it came time to partner up I hoped that he would choose me. When I was left standing alone cousin Jack gallantly came to my rescue and asked me to dance with him. I wasn’t as polite as he had been and noted that being with him was better than nothing. He teased me about that for the rest of our lives.
Many of us ended up attending the University of Houston at the same time. We began meeting together on weekends to play cards and just converse. We celebrated New Year’s Eve with each other and took turns hosting that event. We gave each other wedding and baby showers as we one by one married and had children. Our lives were intertwined for so long but as we became busy with our children and our jobs we saw less and less of each other. We usually met up on special occasions or at funerals. Still the love that we had for one another was always there never to be broken.
When my mother lay dying in the hospital my brothers and I tried desperately to contact her sisters and get them to come say their goodbyes to her. We called and called and finally contacted them late in the afternoon. They indicated that they would have to come the next day because they were unable to drive at night. I knew that my mom would not hold on that long and I was greatly saddened. Out of the blue they arrived. My cousin Jack had driven from Westbury to FM 1960 to the Medical Center, a considerable distance in heavy Houston traffic. My aunts and my mother were able to be together one final time. Mama died later that night. I often wondered if Jack knew how much she had appreciated his efforts to get his mother and her twin sister to the hospital.
Jack suffered from heart disease for sixteen years. This past June his doctors told him that there was nothing more that they might do for him. His heart was worn out. He had congestive heart failure. Through it all he kept his faith in God and his trademark sense of humor. He had a way of making people laugh. It was difficult not to feel good around him even when he knew that his time on this earth was becoming more and more limited. It was as though he was determined to help us through the grief that we were feeling.
Jack belonged to the Knights of Columbus, a group of Catholic men who do charitable works of mercy. It was so fitting for him to want to do such things. That is the way he lived his life. He worked for the United Postal Service and even became a Postmaster. He was brilliant and beautiful with his blonde hair and blue eyes. He was the father of three gorgeous and sweet daughters who seemed to be made in his image. He had grandchildren who were as precious as he had always been. He faithfully attended family events and made all of us smile with his presence.
Jack’s ninety five year old mother is still alive. She is needless to say devastated. Losing a child is the ultimate blow regardless of age. His wife and children are left to remember his almost childlike spirit and the love that he showered on them. Their grief cannot be measured. Those of us who are his cousins feel as though we have lost a part of our very souls. He was our brother, someone who knew us just as we are and still loved every inch of us. We will miss him terribly.
We imagine Jack having a large welcoming committee in heaven. His father was there for sure. All of my uncles were not far behind. My grandmother must surely have been holding a cup of coffee for him. He finally gets to meet our grandfather who died before we were born. Of course my mother, his godmother is there. She loved him so. Surely they are planning a big card party for this weekend. They’ve welcomed him to their corps of angels. Now he will watch over us until we meet again.