As a girl, I spent many of my best summer days with my Uncle Howard and my cousin Cathy. Hanging out with them was deliciously entertaining and engaging. Our adventures involving being chased by dogs, walking over railroad trestles and playing practical jokes on unsuspecting strangers. Howard entertained us with stories – the plots of hit movies from the 40s or tall tales in which Cathy and I had starring roles. We affected accents. We acted like spies, or mannequins or vampires. We worked in the garden, helped hang laundry on the clothesline and swept the barn. Cathy even helped Howard clean out the septic tank. Anything to be at Grandmother’s house.
You see, Cathy had six siblings. And my theory about why she spent so much time at Grandmother’s is that – as the oldest of her sisters and brothers – she was able to sneak away and enjoy the peace and freedom of being just one kid rather than one of seven kids. As a result, I was close with Cathy, but I barely knew her sibs. I rarely saw them and, when I did, the one who was my age was a BOY and we all know how uninteresting BOYS are to a 10-year-old girl.
But things changed when I was a teenager. Boys suddenly grabbed my attention and pretty soon thinking about boys became my favorite secret pastime. It was a secret because I never got to actually talk with boys my age. As far as I could tell, I didn’t exist for them. I could only imagine what it would be like to be friends with them.
I don’t recall how it came to be, but as a junior in high school, I spent a late winter weekend at Grandmother’s with my dad. Grandmother and her daughter, my Aunt Blanch, were there. Cathy wasn’t there because she was in college. Howard wasn’t there because he was in northern Virginia teaching. It was just me and Daddy. And – surprise! – my cousin Charles.
Charles – never Charlie or Chuck – was Cathy’s younger brother and one of the cousins I didn’t know. In fact, I had blatantly ignored him for 17 years. Charles? Charles who? But that all instantly changed that weekend. I saw him as if for the first time ever. I regarded him through my teenage-girl, non-cousin eyes. I saw him as an especially attractive young man who I didn’t know but who was in the same grade as me.
I got an instant crush on my cousin Charles!
He was tall, handsome and slender, with blue eyes, blondish hair and an easy smile. Like a young Steve McQueen. Calm and gentlemanly but not to be underestimated. I knew that Charles was a football player – one of the best at his school. I think that maybe he was wearing his letterman jacket that weekend. I guessed that he was popular at his school, and that he probably had a girlfriend or two. I noticed his angular hands. I can still remember his voice.
But he wasn’t like the boys at my school. He was nice to me! He talked to me and asked me questions, and he listened to me when I asked him questions. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I think it ran the gamut from the albums we liked (the Allman Brothers? Deep Purple? Johnny Winter? Yes? Jesus Christ Superstar?) to what sort of partying we liked (both of us trying to act like we were cool) to the books we liked (because we both were “good” students and were actually interested in the life of the mind).
We hung out together that whole weekend. We stayed up way past our bedtimes watching old movies and talking. We went for a walk down the old road near Grandmother’s house. It was breezy and fun and such a complete contrast to the anxiousness of my day-to-day life in high school. This was a small miracle for me and it did much to boost my feelings of self worth. It also restored my faith in the male half of the population. Maybe, I thought to myself, there are other boys besides my cousin Charles who are nice boys who have something interesting to say and who might find me interesting.
It was safe because we were cousins. (Although it was – honestly – a little disappointing that we were cousins and lived six hours away from each other.) We never interacted much after that. I think we exchanged a couple of letters and Charles sent me one of those miniature souvenir footballs they throw into the stands at halftime, but we didn’t see each other after that except at a family event now and again. We both graduated from high school and went on to college and got on with the rest of our lives. There was no ongoing friendship or correspondence.
But I have and will always have a sweet spot in my heart for him. Charles gave me hope about my future and it was a gift to spend two happy days in his company. He was a noble soul and I’m sad he is gone. I regret not knowing him better and I regret not ever telling him what he meant to me.
“Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
I lead writing and mindfulness workshops throughout the Bay Area. My approach is adaptable in many settings — from helping groups honor an important life event to assisting a business team in articulating a shared vision. Contact me to learn more. For information on my San Francisco real estate practice, visit my real estate blog, RealEstateTherapy.org or my business website, KindredSFhomes.com.