We were delighted, then, when the blizzard of the Saturday-before-Thanksgiving came the day after Johnny's arrival, bending the air sideways and turning it white. My three sons who flank Johnny in age would have otherwise not been caught dead out in the blowing cold. But infected by their cousin's enthusiasm, they bundled up and stood out at the curb, hulking frozen forms nearly six-feet tall, scuffing the toes of their shoes across the ice forming on the street.
Inside, I warmed vegetable soup and cocoa, relishing the winter ritual of providing warmth.
This will be the last time, I told myself as I poured the steaming cocoa into fat mugs. This will be the last time.
I've been telling myself this for the past two years, as my boys and my sister's sons, Johnny and Teddy, have grown to adulthood and near adulthood. They are 17, 17, 18, 19 and 21 now -- young men on the verge of flying the coop for good.
Though we have never lived closer than 1,100 miles to each other, our families have traded sons (and a daughter) at least twice a year for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it seems as if the boys are as close to their cousins as they are to their own brothers. They are a pack of five who always reunite instantly -- as if no time has passed since they were last together.
Many summers, I have sent my oldest son -- quiet, intense and unpredictable -- to Galveston to be with his older cousin -- quiet, intense and responsible. They share dark hair, the same name and a love of the water. When they're together, they take off in the cousin's boat before sunrise, then again before sunset, and return home smeared with sweat, grease and fish slime. My son is a prodigy in the eyes of his cousin and his uncle -- a landlubber who can find and hook a fish with the ease of an old salty.
One year, when he was a petite 10-year-old, his cousin photographed my son laid out on the dock with his day's catch spread out around him -- snapper and red fish as long as his arms. His face is flushed from sun and wind burn. His smile is so big it squeezes his eyes shut. The photo remains one of his proudest trophies.
I didn't have a close cousin connection when I was growing up, even though my mother's large family provided me with 20 first cousins scattered across the country. We saw each other when they passed through on family vacations and crowded our bedrooms. We knew their names and faces, but that's about all. Our closest cousin, Maurice, who lived just down the road in Clarksville, and who we saw almost every Sunday over a number of years, was closest to us and remains the one we know best, although his cerebral palsy always set him distinctly apart.
My sister and I marvel every year over the cousin connection -- grateful that it has flourished and lasted, that we can exchange sons when we feel that the other's family can give one of our kids what he needs. Mainly, we are grateful for every chance we have to bring them together, one more time, in one of our homes.
This will be the last time, we have both told ourselves for the past few years. They'll go off to college or out into the world and that will be that...
This Christmas, I'm hauling my boys down to Texas for a week at the beach with the cousins. My daughter will join us from New York to complete the cousin connection one more time. We'll eat together and read magazines and take naps and stare at the sea. The boys will jump into a cousin's pick-up truck and drive to town to flirt with girls or play guitar or watch a movie with their cousin and his friends. The cousins with the same name will escape onto the bay where they'll bob and float and come home stained with fish.
We'll all wonder whether one of the boys will possibly end up in Iraq next year, and whether the love of this family will bolster him enough.
From the sidelines, my sister and I will watch the cousins play one more time. This will be the last time, we will warn ourselves, hoping that next year we'll be thinking the same thing again, just one more time.