My cousin Margaret gave Franny and I the pillow in the photo at a lovely gathering Franny hosted to honor Mom after Mom died earlier this month. That cutie with the Shirley Temple locks is me and the jump-suited kiddo is my little brother Chuck. Mom is proudly and happily showing us off to somebody. Margaret found the photo (a bit of a miracle in that) and made two pillows like this in just days. Margaret loves me. I love Margaret. Sometimes I think it borders on worship. Both ways. I was one of those lucky people who found lots of cousin love in my life.
Margaret Ellen takes center stage in the number of wonderful cousin relationships I've had. Mom's sister lived in Independence Missouri and Aunt Bonnie and her family vacationed at our house or nearby each summer until they eventually moved out here. Margaret Ellen had about 4 years on me. I still don't know or care about the exact difference in our age. I do know that her birthday is the day after the 4th of July and I never forget that, but I rarely get her contacted on time. She never forgets me.
When Margaret Ellen and her two big brothers visited each year my world turned upside down and all around. Though I was a constant part of a neighborhood tribe of kids who went to my school, Margaret Ellen and her big brothers were more adult, funnier, and sarcastic. They made me laugh in ways I didn't know were possible. I laughed over things they said like I laughed when I read certain books or overheard certain adult conversations. They were teaching me satire (bless their hearts) and teaching me how to deal with all the slings and arrows growing up was going to hand me.
They taught me practical things as well. Rog taught me the power of a smirk. He also taught me that the easiest money in the world for a kid was babysitting if you just liked the kids a little bit and paid attention a little bit. He was, to this day, one of the best babysitters I ever knew. Franny was better, but she even lesson-planned and helped one girl improve her reading skills.
Margaret Ellen was the champ though. She taught me how to be a teenage girl and how to deal with troubles. My mom wanted me to grow up looking and acting like June Allison in the movies at that time. Annette Funicello was my goal. Margaret Ellen was Sandra Dee and so full of laughter and joy and love that she would take time after school to hang out with me in her garage and teach me several of the most practical things I've ever learned.
Margaret knew that cards and playing solitaire were ways to occupy lonely times and keep bad thoughts away by simply looking at cards rather than thoughts. She was almost explicit about this. She told me I would need to know about cards and solitaire and the sooner the better. She started with shuffling. I still shuffle cards the way she taught me. I still play the games of solitaire she taught me when I actually play solitaire. I can''t imagine playing solitaire on a machine. Without detailing the instances, there have been small and large disillusionments for me that shuffling cards and simply playing solitaire have helped heal. Distraction is a good thing sometimes.
Margaret knew that there are hair and nail things I would need to learn. If she had worn lots of make-up, she would have helped me there too. She didn't wear much make-up that I remember. My memory of her in this late-50's and early 60's is a sense of Sandra Dee laughter and innocence mixed with something really sultry and sexy that I certainly couldn't identify back then. I thought she might have been sneaky. Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was sexy and isn't that a little bit sneaky anyway?
I learned how to roll my hair in curlers. I learned what happened to your hair if you used these weird pink things called "Spoolies" and what happened if you used rollers the size of orange juice cans. I learned how many darn coats of nail polish it took to make your nails look decent and that mine would never look decent if I kept biting my nails. I stopped biting my nails. I learned that I wished I could pick my own clothes and shoes like Margaret Ellen did. I learned to be a bit of a rebel. A closet rebel, but a rebel still.
I learned how to dance. She and I danced and danced in her garage. It was the only exposure in my life to music other than Frank Sinatra or Steve and Edie or Mom's classical piano practicing (believe me it was great, but I was a kid and Chopin's etudes were way beyond my piano skills in playing ability or appreciation at that time). Margaret Ellen's music danced by itself. I would later be a star in Martha Graham's Ballroom Dance Class. I credit Margaret Ellen.
I am sure there were more lessons then, but those I remember. When I headed to college, Margaret Ellen became Maggie and a new life with a Rock and Roll manager would take over a life that didn't work out as hoped with a first husband. Maggie was still my beloved cousin though and when I started living in Denver after my four years in Fort Collins, we became friends. We went out drinking and I learned about taking risks and being silly as a grown-up. I have never been able to be quite as silly as I can with Margaret or in front of classroom full of students. Strangely I am not that silly in real life, but give me a room full of sophomores and I can tap dance or melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. I would do it for my cousin too.
After a goodly round of risk-taking lessons and lessons about dealing with the hazards of life you cannot control, you find me now. I have watched and loved Maggie become Margaret now with a happy life that shows in the comfort in her soul. Margaret has faced more difficulties than anyone I know and she has never wallowed in anything. She deals with things. She practices mercy more than anyone I know. She laughs. She moves on. It is rare to find someone with these abilities.
The last years watching Mom become somebody she was not and not really knowing what to do with this, I let Margaret be my inner guide. You just keep trying. You laugh. You have mercy. Mercy always. Margaret is a church-goer and has been off and on her whole life. She embodies the kind of Christianity I believe in when I do believe. Mostly I believe in people rather than any particular religious dogma. I believe people are good and that they laugh at you and with you and love you more often than not.
Margaret is a huge part in my belief that almost all disillusionment can be conquered with a deck of cards, some perfect nail polish, and some dancing. With laughter and mercy, too, I can always move on.
Cousins are a treasure and I have been blessed. Justin Mitchell was and is another guide to my life. The Mitchell cousins I played with in Aunt June's big and scary house full of secret passages and everything Victorian still fill me with joyful memories that have lasted throughout my life. Stormy, Connie, Kathleen--they were teachers too. I have a new cousin Jan on the Mitchell side too. How I wish I had known her long ago.
I feel badly for Franny. Her brothers were older and had packs of cousins their own ages. Franny grew up when her cousins were too young or too old or too far away. She tried to play the loving cousin to my brother's kids, but her joyful lessons about wearing sweatshirts untucked and the fun of going down alpine slides at WinterPark didn't ever quite play out as planned. Franny knew she was missing something. One of the joys of my life is that our grandkids have cousins and plenty of them.
Last week we watched Chris's kids at his house. We met Franny and the girls at the Wildlife Experience near Parker. We were walking to the entry and Willa started running towards us with her arms wide open towards us. It reminded me of Breck shampoo commercials in the 60's--I mean this was perfect. Here was our grand girl running as fast as she could towards us with her arms open for us to catch her. She went right by us. It was Brooklyn she was happy to see. Cousin love. Happy.