Hallelujah, Christmas is over, the new year is upon us, and for a while we don't have to buy stuff. Even the sales dwindle and finally we can go home and stay there at least until Valentine's Day when Hallmark nips at our heels. Another advantage to the new year is that Family, too, dwindles, finally goes home and stays there unless it finds a reason--and there is always a reason--to nip at our heels.
I have thought for a long time that Family is what grows you up; that is, Family keeps you safe and secure while you are young and unable to care for yourself. Then, when you are old enough and strong enough, it sends you off into the admittedly scary world where, Family hopes, you will flourish or at least survive. At this point, the Family pretty much shuts up.
Not so, apparently. Today Family is on the other end of the cellphone and, if you refuse to answer, there's always email. Not only that, if you're young and indigent, you can move back home. Family is there, sort of, for you. The result of all this is that you never have to grow up. Nice work if you can get it.
At seventy-three, I thought I was beyond all that. I thought that I had separated from my family, most of them dead anyway, and was living the Purposeful Life. But then comes Christmas and the Past and Memory which, I have found, becomes stronger with age. This year the past came in the form of my favorite cousin. He was the first love of my life, my introduction to live sex.
Bob moved into my life when I was eleven and he fourteen. In the summertime, his mother sent him to the lake where my grandmother ruled the roost from the kitchen of our grandfather's cottage. My mother sent me to the lake, too, to be looked after while she cared for the three younger children in our family. I'm sure Bob and I spent many summers at the lake before this one, but I have no memory of those. What I remember is the summer I fell in love. It was 1944.
Do girls get crushes anymore? All those years ago, a crush meant yearning for a boy who was unattainable, who would never adore you back but who remained the object of glorious fantasizing, like he would suddenly turn and see you as the beautiful and desirable girl you really were. Then, usually, the fantasy burst, for what would come next would be sex and no no no, crushes did not include actual sex, not even for thinking about real sex. Crushes were about being recognized and admired as a girl, something only a boy could do; with that, the crush had done its job.
That's what I hoped for from my cousin, Bob, the best-looking boy I had ever seen, not counting Randolph Scott who as a movie star was definitely unattainable. The summer of 1944 I followed Bob everywhere, uninvited, and joined him in his defiance of our grandmother and her eternal rules, such as Don't Go in the Water for an Hour after Eating; Come Home When You Hear My Whistle (she had one of those police whistles audible into the next county); and Don't Swim After Dark or When It's Lightning. Bob and I broke them all, we were allies against our grandmother's scoldings, her threats to send us home to our parents who couldn't manage us--rather Bob, for until him I had been a docile child--and who depended on our grandmother for a month of surcease. In the dark, we called our grandmother names: Old Witch, Old Bat, even Old Nazi, for this was World War II and such epithets were in vogue. We knew, the two of us, we were winning this war, and even when the enemy, our grandmother, caught us and admonished us for our bad manners and threatened imprisonment in our rooms, we giggled silently until we were sent to bed where we giggled aloud from only a wall away.
Actually, it was Bob who was winning the war. I had surrendered early on to his charm, his glamor, his grown-upness, and he knew it. Now remained only the final step: to lure me into his world of sex, probably as free of actual experience as mine but crowded with lurid details from graphic images of curvaceous girls being assaulted by strong and virile men and loving it, at least their mouths were open. Such drawings came on onion-skin paper, so thin it could be folded many times and hidden easily without making a bulge in pockets. Where did they come from? Other boys. And their origin? No one knew, no one cared. At twelve, I was ignorant of this, of course, only that my cousin was soooo darling and sooooooooo nice to me.
The bottom of our lake, the beach we called it, sloped down from our dock until out at the diving board it disappeared and the water was over our heads. In between, I could stand in water up to my shoulders; Bob, just a bit further out, could hide as much of himself as he wished. It was daytime. Our grandmother was elsewhere. From the shore, it looked as if we were talking and laughing and having a kids' good time. From where I stood, things were getting murky.
"What's down there?" asked Bob. He was not referring to the minnows swimming below us. "Can I touch it?"
"No," I said. I wasn't quite sure what was down there, only that it was not supposed to be touched, by anyone including me.
"Please," he continued.
He kept it up and kept it up and I said no and no and gradually I wanted him to. He was my romantic idol, and I was desperate to keep his friendship or whatever it was that made him give permission for me to drag along behind him, to keep him my ally in our war against the rules. Now here was a rule I had not known existed. Should I break it? I wanted to. The more he begged, the closer he came, the more I felt funny, sort of a tingle down there, the more I wanted him to touch it. What would be the harm? Nobody would know. Nobody would catch us.
"Just pull your bottom down." He meant the bottom of my two-part bathingsuit. "I'll just go underwater for a little bit; you won't even know I'm there."
But I would know. I was already knowing. Just the thought of his swimming into my nakedness with me standing there powerless to do anything but enjoy--suddenly, the enjoyment part went dead and the scared part took over. "No," I said, and dived beneath the water and headed for shore.
That was sixty-three years ago, and as you can see, never forgotten. Somewhere in those years I left off being embarrassed with myself and the feelings my cousin provoked and grateful that he initiated me into the possibilities of sex, for of all people he introduced me to the excitement of desire more safely than anyone else could have. For ever after he remained my favorite.
So now it is the end of 2006. Bob is seventy-six and he and his lovely wife are visiting their daughter and her family in a town not far away. How many more times would I have the opportunity of seeing my first love? Not many. And so I went.
Idly, I considered bringing up this memory; probably he would not recall anything about it but might be pleased to have earned a place in my memory as My First, My Best, My Favorite Cousin Bob.
But he was drunk. When he was not drunk, he was deep into contemplation of the time when he would be drunk; for him the hours until three in the afternoon did not pass quickly enough. The morning pick-me-up, a couple of little Mary Sunshines, did not last long enough and there were all those hours in between with nothing to do but fidget. And pick at his wife and scold his grandchildren so that in the end the rest of of us were as eager as he was for martini time to show its welcome face. The clear contours of his handsome face had disappeared into furrows of fat; his appreciation of me, and everybody else, had drowned in the lake of gin.
That's okay. It's the new year, 2007. Family has settled back where it belongs, thousands of miles from me, and I have what matters the most: the memory of when we were young and unspoiled and adventurous and eager to explore what happens if you break the rules. In the center of that memory is Bob, my first, my best, my favorite cousin. I love him now and always will. This is my valentine to him.
Jane Juska is the author of the bestselling, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance