I am not sure if I ever mentioned it here, but I am an only child. I never had any brothers or sisters, and didn’t really have to learn how to grow up in a close-knit family. I’m not complaining about that. I benefited from the undivided attention of my Mum, and I was the beneficiary of all the available money that could be spent on children. I had a comfortable childhood as a result, and being the only one was never an issue for me.
In fact, looking at some families over the years, with the constant battling between siblings, years of not talking, and internal arguments within some larger families, I feel lucky to have escaped. I didn’t have to look after younger brothers or sisters, have them tag along during play or outings. No need to share my sweets, toys, comics, or pocket money either. They were all mine. I was never lonely, as I had imagination. I could easily amuse myself with reading, or playing with my toy soldiers and cars.
What I did have, (and still do) were lots of cousins. Both my parents had many brothers and sisters, providing me with lots of aunts and uncles, who were all very nice. They had children too, which gave me a large number of cousins, on both sides of our family. There were other cousins. They were the cousins of my parents, and they also had children; more cousins for me. I suppose they should really be called second and third cousins, perhaps once or twice removed. I have never been sure of the correct terms for these, but to me, they are all just cousins. I don’t differentiate.
Throughout my life, my cousins have always been special. More than friends, without the intimate contact of siblings, they fill the gap perfectly. They were playmates in my youth, and became companions and confidantes as I got older. They have always been important in my life, and I feel as close to them all now, as I ever did. Living in a very close community in South London during the 1950s and 60s, most of the family lived within walking distance of each other. Although my Dad’s family were a reasonable drive away, we sorted that out by all meeting at my Nan’s house. Both sides of the family knew each other well. We went on holiday together, and celebrated Christmas and birthdays as a group. For a while, we lived in the same house as my Mum’s sister, so I became close to my slightly older cousin, who is still the nearest thing I have ever had to a sister. And a sister that I actually like.
As we all got older, some moved away, and we began to mostly meet at weddings and funerals. After my parents divorced, I lost touch with many cousins on Dad’s side, something that I always felt as a loss. When I rediscovered this section of the family, after 2000, I later found out that one of my cousins had been living in Spain, and had been murdered by intruders, his body dumped in a ditch, and undiscovered for some time. I thought about that a lot. Many of them had also had their own children, and to them I was a stranger. I could hear them asking about me at functions, unaware of my close family connection. On Mum’s side, things were very different. We lived next door to Mum’s younger sister for a few years. When my parents moved us away to Kent, I would often stay over with this aunt, and developed a great relationship with her three children too. I would also visit my Mum’s younger brother, as he lived opposite the gates of the school that I attended. I got on really well with him and his wife, and watched his three children grow, to add to my group of cousins.
In fact, my uncle was not that much older than me, so as I got to my teenage years, we would often go out, together with another great cousin, who was always laughing and joking, and their small group of male friends. They took me to pubs and clubs, and I felt very grown up, arriving in a group of men, wearing overcoats and trilby hats. We had parties at their houses afterwards, all laughter and dancing; young women with beehive hairdos, men sitting on crates of bottled beer. They were some of my happiest times.
My cousins have had a variety of jobs and careers, but they have always worked. One runs a successful business, providing art direction for magazines. Two others work for the same company, in the high-pressure world of tax accounting and big-business finance. Some are tradesmen, others have served in the Police, and the Armed Forces. One cousin was in the Marines for many years, before joining the police in Sussex, and later London. Another is soon to retire as a Sergeant, after a life of working for the British Transport Police. When I moved to Camden in 2000, we got back in touch, both single, and at a loose end. We would dine out in the best restaurants in London, sharply dressed, money no object. We were confident and comfortable in the company of those who earned ten times more, and enjoyed the high life on occasion. Alternatively, we would crash at my flat, watch films on DVD, and eat our own weight in cheese on toast, washed down with expensive red wines, chain-smoking our way through packets of American cigarettes. Putting the world to rights all night, then up for bacon sandwiches the next morning. Happy days indeed. His brother has recently retired. Once a policeman in Scotland, he later joined the Army, then the RAF, where he served with distinction for many years. Another now lives in the countryside, where she enjoys her dogs, chickens, bees, and two lovely grown-up children. I like to think of all their children as my younger cousins, though sometimes, they call me ‘Uncle Pete’. When you are older than their parents, it must be hard for them to assume that you are anything else.
On part of my Dad’s side, I am sorry to say that I am still catching up. One cousin has moved to Canada, and I know something of his life there. I have his address too, so can keep in touch. His sister is living a comfortable life in Kent, with a police detective. She also has two very nice children, though I am not sure what they know of me.
The contact begins to break down, as I get to the younger cousins, or those I was separated from for too long. I have lost addresses, moved a long way off myself, and try as I might, it is impossible to keep up with them all. On the positive side, I have been fortunate to reconnect with some of my Mum’s family. They are now grown men, with children of their own. They like to learn of the history of our family, to peruse old photos, and learn something of the younger days their parents, who both sadly died far too soon. We met up this summer, here in Norfolk, and had a memorable day together.
That is the joy of a family of cousins. You might lose touch with some, but others reappear, as if by magic, and the cycle continues.