My cousin Mike died last week. He was just 68, which seems so young these days. Mike was the youngest of eight siblings, my only cousins on my father’s side of the family. His death leaves just two of the eight still living, and although he and I were not exactly close, I find myself feeling melancholy and a little lonesome without him.
Families are complex organisms — multilayered, dynamic and unpredictable. Full of assumptions and contradictions. It’s dangerous to generalize, but the families I know seem to fall into two broad categories: those whose members stay in close contact, see each other often and know each other well; and ones like mine, where the generations drift apart, the siblings branch away in different directions and individuals drop out of contact with each other for months and even years at a time. Still, there remains a deep and undeniable connection, and love abides.
I last saw Mike and his wife, Pam, almost 20 years ago, when I took my two young sons to Iowa for a visit with my father’s family in his home town of Muscatine, on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s hard to realize that it was really that long ago, and that I’ve been so out of touch since then.
My connection to Muscatine has always been a little tenuous. My father died when I was just six and my mother, a Bostonian, remarried shortly afterward and settled in Virginia. Although she and my father came from very different backgrounds, she had great affection for his midwest family and made a good effort to keep in touch with them over the years.
When my brother and I were growing up, we made several trips to Muscatine to visit Grandma and Aunt Dorothy, our father’s widowed sister. Dorothy’s kids — Ed, Roger, Dave, Bill, Sylvia, Rick, Jerry, and Mike — were all older than we were, but Mike was closest to our age and we saw more of him than of the others.
Somehow, although these visits were few and far between, I always felt completely at home in Muscatine, and I connected deeply and immediately to that part of my family whenever I was there.
With the passage of time, though, we lost touch. Most of Dorothy’s children moved away from Muscatine when they grew up. My grandmother died, and, sadly, several of my cousins, too, at ages that strike me now as shockingly young. After I married, my husband and I brought our very little boys out for a visit once, and I took them again one summer when they were about 10 and 11 years old.
I am grateful they remember that last visit vividly: the town stacked up above the banks of the big, brown river, the loaded barges waiting to pass through the locks on their way to the Twin Cities, the sticky-sweet smell of the ethanol plant nearby.
We went swimming at the public pool in leafy Weed Park, where our family had picnicked when I was child. They remember that my cousin Dave, who owned a junk shop down on the highway, took them fishing for catfish, and that Mike, an environmental engineer, was an avid collector of American Indian artifacts.
On the last day of our visit, Aunt Dorothy revealed she was planning a treat for our supper — a beef heart she’d been keeping in the freezer in the basement for just this kind of special occasion. Reluctantly, she allowed us to take her out for Chinese food instead.
I share those memories with my now-adult sons, and hold them dear. I regret that I didn’t keep in touch after that visit; it wasn’t a decision I made, it’s just what happened. Dorothy died a few years later, but I did not go out for her service. After that, David, always the rolling stone, moved down to Alabama, where he died in 2004 at the age of 66. Just Mike and Pam stayed on in Muscatine, along with one of Roger’s sons. Everyone else has died or moved away, and now Mike is gone, too.
My sons and I understand that, with Mike’s death, our slender connection to Muscatine, and to that whole part of our family and its history, has all but vanished. I’m not beating myself up, but I do wish, now and not for the first time, that I had cultivated stronger adult relationships with these important people. Despite the separation of the miles and the years, they will always be among the dearest to my heart.