I have a second or third cousin (can never figure out which) who grew up in California. She's about ten years older than me, and I idolized her as a little girl. She's always had these bright blue eyes and long eyelashes that form two stars in the middle of her perfectly-shaped face that is surrounded by shiny brown hair. She was funny and adorable, talented and sophisticated and always a superstar in my little world as a pudgy, brown-eyed, bespectacled kid with mousy hair growing up in Mississippi.
She grew up to be an artist who works for Disney. As a naive high schooler who toyed with the idea of channeling my limited talent into an art career, I wrote my cousin asking about her job. She promptly answered by sending me packages of her graphic design work, which was a thrilling experience for me. A package all the way from California from my glamorous cousin? I was beside myself. However, as usually happens with cousins (especially second and third ones), we grew up and stopped seeing each other. Years and years and more years passed with no contact at all except the occassional bit of news from the family back home in the South.
Eventually I moved to California for a couple of years, and when my grandmother (her aunt) came to visit me, we spent an afternoon at her house. It was a really nice time but she and my grandmother spent most of the time talking, so even then, I didn't spend much time with her. Her house was warm, inviting, comfortably loud with kids running around, and I remembered why I always liked her so much. But even then, when we lived only about 20 minutes from each other, we didn't see each other much.
Last week for our kids' spring break, we decided to escape hellish March in Oregon to find some sunshine in California. Road trip 2012. We hadn't been there in a couple of years, and we were excited about introducing Beti to friends in our old stomping grounds. We only had a week, so every day was quickly turning into a game of trying to squeeze in all the people we hoped to see, all while not spending the whole time on the freeway. My cousin and I started texting about trying to get together. With our schedule and her busy work deadlines, we weren't sure it was going to happen. We were lucky enough to find out she had taken an afternoon off work, so we drove her way and spend an amazing afternoon at her house.
This afternoon with my cousin was probably the highlight of my spring break this year. Her four kids welcomed our two with open arms, scooping them away to the play room where they'd emerge in new Star Wars costumes. The adults and older kids sat in the backyard in the bright warm sunshine eating treats and sharing memories. Before I knew it, I was crying as she told us her happy memories of her uncle, my grandaddy, the one who passed away in 2001. She explained that her time spent with my grandparents were some of the happiest of her childhood. In their house, she was accepted with no reservations. Messes were not a big deal. Burping was allowed. Silliness a must. I share the same memories of them and still regularly tear up when I remember the goofy things he'd do.
The talk I had with my beautiful cousin about family and about how to move forward in a life of joy despite our past hurt... we both cried. She looked me in the eye and kept thanking me for coming to visit them. Family is important. I felt regret for not having spent more time with her during the years we lived 20 minutes away.
She'd asked us what we planned on doing the rest of our week. Besides trips to the beach and visiting friends, Ted mentioned wanting to surprise our kids with a trip to "the happiest place on earth," but that a one-day entrance was going to be out of our price-range this time round (we'd be back). My cousin got a gleam in her eye and told us to wait. She came back a minute later thrusting two adult one-day passes at me. These passes were a gift from her friend for her own family. We argued about it. I brought up her own kids who should go, to which she replied, "Yes, but we are six and these are only two passes! Take them!" It went back and forth, back and forth. I tried to avoid her eyes. I'd look away and sigh, saying we couldn't take them.
Finally, like a missile that had locked onto its target, she looked me straight in the face, eye to eye, tears in hers and thanked us for coming to visit. She said that I had to take the passes, that she was so happy we'd come to see her and her family. So I took them. We hugged, and I again felt like crying.
Life is a beautiful thing, especially when you have tearful reunions with a favorite cousin who blesses your kids with passes to Disneyland.