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Kissin’ Cousins

By Diane DeVaughn Stokes

Yes, the highlight of growing up was being with cousins.

My grandmother, we called her Nana, was one of eleven children growing up in Pittston, Pennsylvania, a coal mining county. Born in 1903, she was the oldest sibling and helped her parents raise and care for all that followed. They were very poor in wealth, but very rich in love. Nana married my wonderful grandfather from Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1922. Even though they were both very close with their respective families, they chose to move to Newark, New Jersey, to find employment. At that time, the only jobs that existed in Pennsylvania paying a decent wage were in the treacherous conditions of the coal mines. Both my grandparents had lost loved ones in the underground blackness and knew there had to be a better life. Yet leaving their parents and siblings behind was very difficult for both of them, and they promised to keep in contact and visit often.

Let’s fast-forward thirty-five years when I was about seven years old. Nana and Papa would take my mom and me back to their former homes to visit cousins at least twice a year. It was always a love-fest, and for me, having grown up in the city, this was quite an adventure, heading to the “rural-ness” of country life where there were rabbits, and chickens, gardens of veggies, butterflies and fireflies, fruit trees, and blackberries to pick in a nearby cemetery. Devilish cousin Regina said eating blueberries from the cemetery, which frightened me, connected us to the dead in a really good way. I did not buy it! Like most kids today, I had no idea where food really came from other than the grocery store, so this was a thrill as well as a real education. I was shocked to see a string bean on the vine when my cousins showed me how to pluck and eat one raw. There was even an outhouse in the backyard that literally scared the crap out of me as it had spider webs and dead bugs hanging from the rafters, and an old wooden seat that gave you butt splinters if you made a wrong move.

My cousin Sandy in New Jersey was my favorite babysitter. Okay, I wasn’t a baby at the time, but too young to stay home by myself. She was always so much fun. I remember going to see her on stage in the production of Guys and Dolls and being totally absorbed by the theatrics of the whole thing. When it was over, I told her I wanted to do that play someday. She asked me if I wanted to be “Sister Sara” who worked for the Salvation Army in the show, but I knew I’d be a much better “Adelaide” due to the outrageousness of that character. Lucky for me, I have played that role twice, ten years apart, at the Theatre of the Republic opposite my husband as Nathan Detroit!

But her passion for theatre fueled my own. It was Cousin Darwin who gave me my very first feeling of puppy love at age five. Whenever his parents brought him to visit, I was infatuated with him, battling for his attention with my live-in cousin, Elaine, who was four months younger than me. Hours before one of Darwin’s visits, my grandfather’s dog Trixie had puppies, and I remember trying to explain to him how these puppies came into the world, and he was as shocked as I was!I guess you could call that “double puppy love.”

Speaking of Elaine, I saved her until last because we have a very special bond. Elaine’s mom and mine were sisters and both were divorced from our fathers. We all lived happily but tightly in my grandparent’s two-bedroom apartment. We fought like cats and dogs but we learned so much from each other about life and survival. We call one another “sister-cousins.” And even though over the years we have gained other half siblings that we love, our bond is like no other. Our memories of our shaken world as a result of divorced parents brought us closer than anyone could imagine in many, many ways. Yes, the highlight of growing up was being with cousins. These kinfolk looked like me, shared the same faith, and treasured a family bond that still exists among us all today. No doubt about it. How do I know? Well, let me fill you in.

Twenty years ago in 2000, I planned a Kissin’ Cousin Reunion here in Myrtle Beach.

My parents were transferred to South Carolina in 1966 so that was the last time I had spent any time with my cousins, except at the funeral of my beloved grandfather in 1978. However, we stayed in touch through phone calls, sometimes only once or twice a year. Christmas cards were part of the connecting ritual too. So when I announced a welcome to my hometown in Myrtle Beach for a three-day gathering, I was overwhelmed when 28 showed up. It was magical to see and feel the love and bond we all had, sharing not only blood but heart, as we flipped through black and white, slightly faded photos in dilapidated albums holding memories of ancestors we all share.

And even though each returned home with warm, fuzzy family feelings, agreeing to get together more often, it did not happen, not that I did not try to re-organize the group. As you know, jobs, life commitments, health issues, children and grandchildren kept us from getting back together until this year.

Another Kissin’ Cousin three night reunion was planned here in Myrtle Beach for the last weekend in March. They would have come from Seattle, Houston, California, New Jersey, and of course Pennsylvania. But as you have probably already guessed we agreed to cancel the big gathering due to the corona virus, especially since more than half of the cousins are over sixty. It was tremendously sad, but the right thing to do.

However, everyone insisted we reschedule the event for the first weekend in November, hoping the pandemic will be under control. We could have been the elbow bumping or fist pumping cousins instead of the Kissin’ Cousins, but we decided we would rather be Kissin’ in November! I can only hope by sharing my reunion info with you that I have inspired you to organize one of your own when it’s safe once again to do so. Remember, it’s never too late to re-connect with your roots and the ones you love. Don’t delay. Life is short. You’ll be amazed by the joy of planning it and watching the magic happen.

Time apart means nothing when it comes to family, because after all family is EVERYTHING!

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2 responses to “Kissin’ Cousins

  1. Our family reunion was an eye opener as we recognized our late grandma in one another.

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