Are You A ‘Kissing Cousin’?

My maternal grandparents were first cousins. Ever since I learned this bit of notable family history, when I was a kid, I’ve heard the relationship defined as ‘incestuous’ and ‘illegal,’ and that it could have produced genetic disorders in my grandparents’ children (my mother, May, and her brother, Norman).

Fortunately, there were no genetic disorders, but my mother and her brother, along with their spouses (namely, my dad and my aunt through marriage) consciously decided to become neighbors when they bought their first houses in 1950. Called semi-detached homes, these modest structures had separate entrances, backyards and side yards, but shared a center wall. So my sisters and I grew up right next door to our one girl and two boy cousins. There is a 10-year gap between my youngest sister (now 61) and my oldest cousin (now 71).

Physical and chronological proximity aside, we were anything but “kissing cousins.” Our families never shared meals in one another’s homes, not even holiday repasts; we never vacationed together; we never went to the movies together, dined out together or celebrated graduations together. Except for attending my cousins’ weddings, and they ours, we might as well have grown up on different planets. We’d come a long way from our marrying cousins, a.k.a. our grandparents. We didn’t dislike our cousins, but our parents didn’t promote camaraderie and we didn’t take the initiative to get together on our own.

Whenever I heard about my friends’ “cousins club” get-togethers, I’d be secretly overjoyed I never had to attend one.

These “clubs” were big in the 50s and 60s, offshoots of clubs originally formed in the early part of the 18th century to serve large European immigrant families struggling to make it in America while trying to care for those in the ‘old country’ who hadn’t made the trip. Cousins clubs transcended ethnicity. Poles, Italians and Jews all benefitted from family closeness and generosity.

No wonder my grandparents’ generation was so cousin-centric. But even though my parents and uncles and aunts didn’t have to rely on extended family to support them in any way, why would so many of them not even lift a finger to promote friendship among their children? Especially when we lived practically cheek-to-jowl.

My two children have only four first cousins, but none of them are close either. Like our parents, my sisters and I haven’t done much to promote friendship between our children. We can throw around excuses, such as not living near one another, different lifestyles and vastly different demands on our time. But those are empty excuses. We just didn’t do it.

Besides, just because you grew up under the same roof as your siblings, doesn’t mean you’re all going to be best friends, or even friends at all. So who says your kids have to even recognize each other when they pass in the street?

Your thoughts?

P.S. Nine well-known people who married their first cousins: Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Andre Gide, Igor Stravinsky, Jesse James, Rachmaninoff, and Wernher von Braun.

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Does A Man Define You?

My mother was 66 when my dad died in 1988, at 69. He was the love of her life and although financial hardship, and then his cancer, defined the last years they had together, she weathered through them like a soldier. After mom sold their house in Queens, she moved to Manhattan and joined the 92nd Street Y, which offered a rich program for FOF women and men (I refuse to use the S word!)

I wonder why some women need men, even less-than-desirable men, to help “define” them.

At first, she dated two men she met at the Y, but reported that they were always kvetching (chronic, whining complaining) about one thing or another. “I took care of your father when he was sick and I have no intention of taking care of another man now,” I remember her declaring (mom was a declarer; she didn’t voice her opinions meekly).

Once she dismissed the two complainers, mom was perfectly content to play bridge and mahjong, attend Shakespeare and other classes, coordinate the Y holiday parties and go out with assorted lady friends for dinner, the movies, jaunts to Atlantic City for a day of gambling and buffets, museums and countless other excursions.

Mom didn’t need a man to be happy. She spent the next two decades with her Y family, her blood family and with herself. She’d be satisfied to return home after a full day, put on the TV and relax, an old photo of her and my dad always at her side.

I know many FOF women today who are just like mom. Their husbands died in their primes, and they never craved the full-time company of new men. They’re smart, attractive, self sufficient and lead fulfilling lives. Who needs a man if he isn’t going to bring something to the table (humor, culture, caring, money, sex!), they say. I wonder why some women need men, even less-than-desirable men, to help “define” them.

One FOF friend is the polar opposite. She has a boyfriend whom she sees often. He helps her out a bit, financially, and takes her to dinner and away for many weekends. Even though he’s still legally married, my friend cares most about having his companionship. She just doesn’t feel whole without a man.

When they’re asked to describe themselves, they start out by saying, “I’m married…” Marriage is a state of being between two people. When the union dissolves, does that mean you do, too?

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