I have just returned from another of our annual pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Rehoboth. It was a two-week affair and at its frenzied height, we had thirty-two fellow travelers around the dinner tables, fifteen of whom were under the age of nine. Among that throng were various members of seven related families casting a wide net of cousins, most of whom got along extraordinarily well—most of the time.
We lost the matriarch of our clan, great-grandma Dar, in January. She was ninety-four. No one will ever take her place. Still, there were five grandparents among us this year to provide back-up support to the next generations of beach-goers and to ensure that the annual rituals and traditions of the beach are properly maintained. Even without Dar presiding from under her straw beach hat, I have no doubt that this year’s memories will be every bit as sweet as those of years past.
Is there chaos? Noise? Tears and tensions? An occasional meltdown? What do you think? Of course; but there is also an overwhelming abundance of love and laughter as families reconnect with each other in a place that has literally cradled some of the adults of the tribe every summer since Eisenhower was President. (Truman was my first President but then I’m a relative newcomer to the beach scene.)
The adults may nominally run the show, but let’s face it: it’s the kids—the riot of cousins—who call the tune. In fact, it may well be the youngest (currently Blake, age 2) who steals most of the scenes. Alas—or better yet, fortunately—this will be Blake’s last year in the spotlight. There’s another cousin on the way to set the pace next year, one more at the table, another cherished soul to practice the time-tested art of napping on the beach.
Cousins are people—in our case, often younger, littler people—whose closest common ancestor is a grandparent. When you think of it like that, it makes those of us who have reached grandparent status important links in the family chain. Without grandparents, there wouldn’t be any cousins, but of course these cousins don’t think like that. They only think about each other and how much fun it is to play in the surf or dig holes on a wide sandy beach, leaving us parents and grandparents to sit under umbrellas and worry about the next big wave that will come rolling in.
Cousins exist to create family confusion. They are not ancestors, descendants, siblings, aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews. They’re just cousins. They may be bound together by family ties, marriage, age, or geography. They may be first cousins, second-cousins, cousins-once-removed, paternal or maternal cousins, distant cousins or kissing cousins. This year, we had two second cousins (both four year-olds) who decided they would get married someday but time is on our side—I hope. We love each other, but not like that.
Watching this band of cousins, I couldn’t help but think of my own. With the exception of two who are far away FaceBook friends, I’ve lost touch with all of them. I miss them and the merriment that accompanied our annual family reunions at Uncle Dale’s house on Conneaut Lake in Pennsylvania. I learned to waterski with my cousins. I sipped my first beer with cousins. We raked huge piles of leaves in my cousins’ yard then exploded them by jumping in. In the morning, my cousins and I would come down to breakfast after a long night on the sleeping porch, following the sweet scent of pancakes and bacon. Aunt Bubbles made us all laugh when she would sing “I’m Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Those days may be long gone now, but in my mind, they’re still fresh and funny.
Anyway, cousins, in all their varieties, mayhem, and glory are a good thing and the beach is as good a place as any to celebrate them. And on some mornings, the house still smells of pancakes and bacon and the sounds of running feet and the shouts of little cousins still cascade down the stairs like a waterfall.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com