I grew up as one of a baker’s dozen of cousins. They were my go to family when I was growing up and for the most part we stayed incredibly close to one another even after we moved out into the world and began our own families. Sometimes months or even years would pass before we actually saw each other in person but our bond was so strong that we were able to pick up conversations as though we had talked with one another the day before. I never once recall feeling distant or uncomfortable with any of my cousins. We have always been one great big happy and sometimes crazy group.
Laughter and mischievousness tend to mark our gatherings which have centered around special birthdays, anniversaries and deaths of family members in recent times. In the beginning we were the second generation of an immigrant family. All of our parents were born in the United States over a period of thirteen years after our grandparents arrived from the area of Europe now known as Slovakia around 1913. The first generation American siblings stuck together like glue both as children and adults so my most faithful and long lasting playmates were my cousins. In many ways I always felt more like I had ten brothers and two sisters instead of just the two boys born to my mother and father.
Leonard is the eldest of the cousins and the undisputed leader of our clan. He is more than a decade older than I am so when I was a little girl he was mysterious to me with his teenage ways. He seemed to be more akin to my mother who was the youngest among my seven aunts and uncles. I vividly recall attending his wedding when I was no more than seven or eight years old. I thought he was stunningly handsome and that his bride was a princess. As I matured over time the gap between our ages seemed to narrow and I learned that Leonard was as fun loving and likely to play jokes as the younger cousins had always been.
Leonard’s brother, Delbert, was also considerably older than I was. I remember spying him being a typical teenager when I visited my aunt’s house with my mother. He was rather handsome and I often bragged about him to my friends. I would later have serious and intellectual conversations with him in which he would tell me what my grandfather was like and how my father had influenced him.
Alan, Ingrid and Paul were the next cousins who were all born in the same year which was only one year before I came into the world. Jack was born a few months after I was. These cousins were always part of my life. My mother took photos of them sitting near me in their strollers, scampering about as toddlers, learning how to ride bicycles and attending our first days of school. I could talk with them about anything. I always felt safe and loved with them even when our jokes poked fun at each other.
Andy, my brother Mike and Rick came next. They were the little brothers who joined our games and made us older ones become a bit more responsible as we looked after them. In short order my brother, Pat, and Sandra the only other female cousin, came along to almost complete our close knit group. In a late surprise we were joined by Bill whom we fondly called “Little Bill” to differentiate him from his father and mark him as the youngest of our group.
I cannot imagine growing up without my cousins. They saved me from falling into the depths of depression when my father died. I saw them virtually every week of my young life mostly at my grandmothers’ but sometimes at family gatherings at the beach on Sundays. I can’t watch certain television shows without thinking of them because they were so often present when I viewed those programs. I laugh when I think of the games we invented together and the family newspapers that we created when it was too cold to play outside. Our shenanigans were legendary. Not even Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn had more fun than we did.
Eventually our family became more and more extended as we set out on our own, married and had children who then had more children. Leonard hosted several reunions and we celebrated the milestones of our aging parents. The old Christmas and Easter traditions that brought us together in my grandmother’s tiny home died with her. We went our separate ways but always found time to check on each other and gather again in both difficult and celebratory times. Then the funerals for our generation began. The first to go was Sandra, then Jack followed by Delbert. Just this past week Paul died as well.
It’s difficult to watch our baker’s dozen become smaller bit by bit, but with each passing we remember how close we all have been through every single phase of our lives. The love we have had for one another has been palatable even when we did not always think alike. I am who I am because of them. A bit of each of them defines me. We will always be a baker’s dozen somewhat alike but a tiny bit different and always with a deep love for each other that is never to be denied.