Betty Duffy

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Cousin Rachel: Doesn't Everybody Have One?

My cousin Rachel is more like my sister than a cousin. We’re the same age and equally obnoxious, hence we were often thrown together, growing up, and sent off to play so that everyone else could get some peace. We made up dances. We dressed up like floozies. We snuck into my grandmother’s make-up drawer. Then we would appear before the crowd of grown-ups ready to perform, or annoy.

We received the same presents for Christmas every year, which made me mad—because I was six months older than she, and twice as snotty, and I always wanted to prove my superiority. Plus, she was allowed to wear halter tops and Dr Scholls sandals, and I was not. (“Bitch”—a term of endearment for us.) Never mind that her Dr. Scholls somehow made their way into my suitcase after a visit to her house in Texas--just accidentally packed them with my things.

We planned out what our weddings would look like, around the fifth grade—essentially a model of the kissing scene (right around 4:40) in the movie “A Room with a View”—lots of Edwardian lace, linen, flowers, and over-the-top romanticism. My own wedding didn’t quite match my fifth grade vision—mostly because my tastes, by then, had changed. Rachel’s wedding, well, it hasn’t happened yet.

And so we find ourselves ensconced in our thirties, on very different life paths, while remaining invariably enmeshed. She now lives nearby, and most Sundays she comes for dinner; the Maiden Aunt, endowed with the authority to discipline my kids, love them, and go home when she gets sick of them. When I want to complain about duty to children and spouse, she can put my thoughts in perspective with a note on her empty womb. She would love to get married and have her own family.

Last night, Rachel called me with an urgent request. She’s had her house on the market, trying to move back to Texas after spending a number of years here in the Midwest. To date, she has not had a single showing, and so she let the housework slip. But her realtor called, and let her know that someone wanted to see her place early this morning. She needed help cleaning—and could I get away?

I was annoyed by her request. She’s responsible for cleaning up after one person after all, while I trail after seven. How hard can it be for her? And is she going to baby-sit my kids Friday night in return? I groaned into the phone, and Rachel said, “Well don’t come if you’re just going to whine the whole time.”

Now she’s calling me a whiner? I wanted to say, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” but I had not yet committed my helping hand. I was racing through my catalog of excuses: it’s late, I’m tired, it’s Monday. And let’s not forget that I am the weak and frazzled mother in need of assistance, not the strong single woman capable of providing it. But a little voice in my head said: “Why not?” Why not just go over there after the kids are in bed and help her clean?

So I went, not a cheerful giver in the least, but my body was en route to help. I wonder if this is what it’s like to go to Confession with only a partially contrite soul. I’ve heard that God will honor your attempt at contrition and provide the grace to pull you to complete contrition. By the time I arrived at Rachel’s house, I was ready to get to work—not quite smiling—but free of expectation that she might return the favor.

She put on some crybaby music—our old favorites—when we couldn’t survive a day without listening to The Cure and The Smiths. We dried dishes to “Girlfriend in a Coma,” swept the floor to “Pictures of You.” Went through her closet and found a pair of Wranglers she’d worn when we first turned 18 and made a bee-line to Billy Bobs in Fort Worth. The jeans were so tight then, we hooked a hangar on the zipper to pull them up—“Any reason you’re keeping these?” I asked.

“I’m going to fit into them again and then we’re going Two-stepping,” she said. Back in the day, we danced and swung with each other until the cowboys cut in.

Har Har—not very likely—I thought, folding them and putting them on her shelf. But there it was again: my default position—always “No.” Her default position—always optimistic.

“I refuse to grow up,” she said. “I don’t care if I’m old and I look stupid. I’m not going to quit dancing.” And again, in my head, charity fails me, “Well you haven’t had to grow up, have you?” But I know how the sight of my family and children has twisted like a knife in her gut. She has told me as much, how she has resented me with each subsequent pregnancy, and my occasional failure to muster early enthusiasm for the cultivation of new life in me. Everyone around her is doing what she longs to be doing, but can’t. Her friends have all married, so she must draw from a pool of younger single comrades in arms. One must stay young. One must remain optimistic, or one gets very, very sad.

Around one a.m. we completed our work, sat on her porch and smoked a cigarette. I was surprised to find that I had enjoyed myself, surprised that I still had energy. I remembered the nights when my husband and I were engaged, when we stayed up until one or two every night just to be in each other’s presence. I taught high school English then, and had to be up again at 5:30 to get to school on time. But I lived like that for over a year, on minute amounts of sleep. Before that, when I lived in Rhode Island, I used to drive home, a sixteen hour drive, in one night, fueled on caffeine, nicotine, and music. It’s not that I want to go back to those times, per say, but when did I become such a wimp? When did I become the one who is always in need, the one who never gives? When did my default position become “No?”

Kids figure into the picture, of course. Sleep is necessary and important. Receiving help sometimes is also necessary and important. But so is giving it.

I have taken this relationship with my cousin for granted. We didn’t choose each other after all—we are family. But look at this history we have: a shared life since we were babies, the freedom to slap each other around a bit and call each other out. We can eat at each other’s table without question or insecurity. I have been the hand that feeds her from time to time, but she has been my right hand since just about the beginning of time. And she’s keeping me young.

Here we are, thick in the 80's, way too young to be immitating Debbie Harry (I'm on the right):


Emily J. said...

What, are those red shoes again?

You belong on that Sexy People blog.

Good for you for going to help.

Betty Duffy said...

Red shoes, indeed, looks like I'm two for two.

What's the sexy people blog? They haven't called me yet.

Betty Duffy said...

Nevermind, with great trepidation, I googled "sexy people blog." I have been howling. I think we need to send in our "we're best friends" photo.

mrsdarwin said...

Lookin' good!

I was just introduced to the sexy people blog through my brother, who is up on these things. I spent way too much time last weekend weeping tears of laughter. Note: I think you have to send in posed studio portraits to be considered. The point is that these aren't just candid shots. They're what people thought looked good back in the day.

Emily J. said...

Mrs Darwin - I think it was through your web page that introduced me to Sexy People. We had just watched Back to the Future - good timing. Lovin' the mullets..

Anonymous said...

Nobody does it better though sometimes I wish I would. I can tell from the picture that y'all were "precocious".

I found myself thinking that you were right and that you shouldn't go over and "enable" your friend's laziness but then that's likely bcause I'm not as good a Christian as you.

Betty Duffy said...

I love this: I sent a note to Rachel to make sure it was ok to post this, she replied,

"If I inspire your writing, then so be it."

Betty Duffy said...

Another favorite quote from Rachel, "You're only a whore if you act like a whore."
We really were way more innocent than we looked. Dressing up like sluts was a favorite passtime, but acting like one was not.
And the cigarettes are actually paper rolled up and dipped in flour. Took us a long time to devise.

Kate said...

Just checked it out, but I don't think Sexy People is quite as funny as Awkward Family Photos.

Rachel said...


Interesting assumption that my need of help was a result of "laziness". Hmmmm...I guess that means you must not be lazy since you have never found yourself in a predicament for lack of PRIORITIZATION.

Cousins Emmy, Katie and Lizzy-
I went to the sexy people blog and laughed so hard I thought I was going to pee my pants. Or maybe I was just too lazy to walk to the bathroom. Elizabeth, will you come over and carry me to the john?

Sharon Kieffer Steele said...

I haven't been to the sexy people blog yet - but Rachel's comment has me laughing out loud already.

Another great post.

Anonymous said...

I think this guy looks a lot like Mike Mccormick, a "friend" of Megan's

Sharon Kieffer Steele said...

Just to clarify, the above comment was from Grant - referencing the sexy people blog.

Betty Duffy said...

I figured that was Grant. Now I want to know who Megan's "friend" is.