When I was little no trip to grandma's was complete without going to see some old person I was related to in some incomprehensibly complex way and usually generalized as a "cousin".
Often there were sweets of some kind involved, so I didn't mind so much. I used my best manners as I had been warned to do, ate as many of the yummy treats as I could discreetly get into my mouth, and listened while the adults talked.
The conversation always began with an explanation of who I was. ("This is Bobbie's Daughter." "Eh?" "BOBBIE'S DAUGHTER". ) The "cousin", wrinkled and stooped with age would "Ooo", and "Ahhh" over me, which made me feel very important.
Then the conversation would sharply turn away from me and on to various ailments, marriages, births and other family news to be shared. Old pictures were inevitably pulled out and poured over, all the time pointing out who had Papa's smile or Aunt Nettie's brow. Sounds like boring stuff for a kid, but still I didn't mind. I liked looking at the pictures and hearing the talk. I liked hearing the stories from long ago childhoods when the ancient person in front of me was like me -- still a child with all the world in front of them.
I'm sorry to say I don't remember those stories or even the names and most certainly not the relationship beyond "Cousin". But somewhere deep in my memory a vague idea was planted that wove itself into the fiber of my being.
I understood that the story of me did not begin with me.
I was a collection of parts tumbling through time, space, and generations, combining and separating again and again until finally coming to a scattering halt in me. Certainly I was unique, but the parts that made me were as ancient as human life itself.
There was something reassuring about it to me. I could almost sense those people from the pictures looking up at me, smiling and proud. It made me lift my chin an little higher.
This last week I took my 9 year old daughter on our annual visit to see Grandma and Grandpa in North Carolina -- a trip we look forward to every year. My Mom mentioned that Mary Laura wanted to see me. Mary Laura is my Mother's Mother's Grandfather's Son's.....she's a cousin.
I distinctly remember Mary Laura from my childhood. She was gracious and poised, warm and always smiling. She was the kind of person that everyone loved, and I was no exception. So it seemed natural to take my daughter and niece to visit their "cousin" Mary Laura.
She greeted us with a smile that has not diminished with age one whit and wasted no time setting out treats for us all. We properly introduced my daughter and niece, swapped our family news, and poured over family pictures.
When my mother saw the picture of a 9 year old Mary Laura she suddenly gasped. "Look at that! Who does that look like?" she pointed out. And there, staring out at me from a photograph over 50 years old was an expression so like my daughter's I had to gasp too. The brow, the smile....parts and pieces donated to my daughter. I never noticed it before.
When I was young I understood the story of me did not begin with me, but now I understand the story of me does not end with me. I will go on tumbling through ages as this tradition, this odd little tradition, works itself into the next generation.