Betty Duffy

Monday, March 14, 2011

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 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.

(rerun 09)


Julia said...

I think we almost always learn most from those we don't choose. Perhaps that's because what we've done is accept them into our hearts simply because God has put them in our lives.

JMB said...

Great post. At first I thought you were reviewing the book "My Cousin Rachel" by Daphne DuMaurier. Close second to Rebecca.

bookworm said...

This is lovely. And you're blessed for having someone in your life who reminds you of that self who could stay up late and then get up at 5:30--we repudiate that self too quickly, I think, when we become mothers.