Cousinly Love

By Joan Leotta

On summer Saturday nights in Pittsburgh, in the years before air-conditioning, we often ate dinner at Aunt Mary’s house on Callowhill Street. I always chose to sit next to my cousin Diane. Older than me by four years she was my idol – smart, beautiful and, well, my idol. She was my best friend. She taught me how to blow bubbles with Double-Bubble gum, how to make doll-clothing from scraps, and how to create doll furniture from old shoe boxes. Where she went, I tagged along.

“When Diane becomes a teenager,” my Mom warned me, she might not want you tagging along everywhere. She will not want you around her friends.” The summer I turned nine, my mother’s prediction seemed to come true.

After each of those Friday dinners, as soon as we finished clearing the table and washing and drying the dishes, Diane and I played outside. On the first Friday night of that summer, Diane ran out into the backyard, slamming the screen behind her. Six or seven of her neighborhood pals were waiting and an after-supper softball game began. I stood on the back stoop waiting to be invited to play.

Diane shouted, “Just stay out of the way on the stoop. You’re too little to play.”

I sat down on the steps willing the tears not to flow, willing my cheeks not to redden from the sting of rejection. Only the summer before I had been welcomed into my cousin’s groups as a mascot. They let me take a turn at bat, even to pitch a ball or two.

This year it seemed they were in the throes of teen-dom. They were living the horrors of braces and the delight of discovering perms, and giggling over boys. They ignored me. After all, I was a pig-tailed, sticker-obsessed nine-year old, firmly mired in the childhood they were leaving behind.

So, I simply sat and watched as the older girls demonstrated their athletic prowess, wishing to be included. Then the older brother of one of the girls came and told her she had to go home. Now there was a vacant place by the chain link fence that marked off the outfield. Backyards on Callowhill were, and still are, fenced-off bits of land, sloping down, overlooking an alley canyon whose depth lay far below, a world of garages and garbage cans. A cascade of cement steps loosely connects both places. The “team” needed an outfielder to keep the ball in the yard.

“Hey, Diane, how about your little cousin over there?”

I stood up, stepped off of the stoop onto the grass. Diane walked over to me. She pointed to the far end of the yard. “Stand over there. Don’t let any balls go over the fence.”

I trotted out onto the soft grass and squinted back toward my cousin, the pitcher, who heaved a ball toward the next batter.

I heard the crack of the bat as it met leather. I could barely see the ball in twilight’s shadows. That wicked sphere buzzed over my head, over the chain link boundary, and plunged to the alley below.

Diane shouted. “Go get it!”

I could feel her glare as I unlocked the gate to descend into the world of the alley. Fifty-four cement steps down. Same up. My cousin was waiting by the gate to grab the ball and head back to the pitcher’s place when I reached the top again. I heard her sigh to her friends as she walked away from me, “She does hold up the game!”

Diane wound up her arm. Again, her ball was clipped by the opposing team and found its way into the sky. I backed up, my eyes searching that ever-dimming twilight sky. I jumped as high as I could, but once again, the ball flew over the fence.

Fifty-four steps down. Fifty-four steps up. Diane grabbed the ball again but this time also shook her finger in my face. She put her hand on the gate latch. “I know it’s getting dark, but pay closer attention. One more miss and I’ll lock the gate behind you when you go down for the ball. You’ll have to stay in the alley all night.” Playing softball with the big girls was not quite as much fun as I had hoped.

For the third time, an opposing batter connected and once again the ball sailed toward me, oh so high! However, I had not grown taller or more skilled, so the inevitable occurred. My cousin pointed at me. “Go down to the alley and get it.” There was just enough light for me to discern the disgust on the faces of Diane and her friends.

It was quite hard to find the ball in the alley this time. Shadows from the houses joined together to make the alley even darker than it had been before. There were no lights. After a few minutes, however, the moon appeared from behind some clouds, and thanks to its light I finally discovered the white leather softball nestled in a patch of weeds behind a neighbor’s garbage cans.

Ball clutched in one sweaty hand, the other grasping the iron pipe railing as a support, I began the long ascent. As I climbed, I counted the steps again. When I stood at the top, on that fifty-fourth step, the full moon revealed an empty yard. My cousin and her friends were gone. I remembered my cousin’s threat.

Moonlight gleamed on the gate latch. I touched it. Relief. My cousin had been merciful. She had not locked the gate. Despite my repeated sin of being too small, too young and too un-athletic, I had been shown cousinly mercy.

I stepped back into the house. The grown-ups had left the dining room to enjoy coffee and conversation on the side porch. I walked through the dining room and hall into the living room where Diane was alone, on the couch, watching Wagon Train on television. I sat down on the floor next to the couch.

Diane patted the couch cushion next to her. “Sit up here.”

I climbed up beside her. She held out a bowl of popcorn and together we watched the winning of the west. She never said anything about the game or her threat, but I had received the message – no more tagging along when her friends were around. But my mother had underestimated Diane.The teen years had made her more involved with her peers, less interested in me when her “pals” were around, but adolescence had not entirely erased our cousinly bond. I was glad to know that she still loved me even though I might have to wait until her teen years finished before we would be seen together in public again.

Postscript: My cousin Diane and I did grow close and in adulthood, it did again become ok to be seen with me in public. The only distance between us now is miles, since I live in North Carolina, and she is still in Pittsburgh.

About this writer

  • Joan Leotta

    Joan Leotta

    Joan Leotta of Calabash, North Carolina, has been playing with words since childhood. She is a journalist, playwright, short story writer and author of several mysteries and romances as well as a poet. She also performs folklore and one-woman shows on historic figures.

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4 Responses to “Cousinly Love”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Your story stirred old memories. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Rose Ann says:

    Felt like I was climbing those stairs with you, Joan! Great nostalgic essay!

  3. Lynn Darby says:

    Your descriptive choice of words brought me to those steps, the moonlight shadows, and that backyard game. Thanks for the memorable portrayal.

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