Photo by Calihan Huntley
My mom is the youngest of nine siblings, meaning I’m the youngest of 43 cousins.
In elementary school, it was pure bliss. Looking back now, my older cousins weren’t doing anything too special. They played sports for their high schools, had boyfriends, and went on trips with their friends. To a five-year-old though, they were the epitome of cool. I would never be old enough to do those things.
They all knew how to make me feel special as well. Whether it was going on a little spy mission to steal cookies from the kitchen before they were served or always having a trash bag full of hand-me-downs for me.
When I was in the fifth grade, my aunt put together a new bag of clothes for me. My cousin, Norah, had just been to homecoming and snuck the heels she had worn into the bag for me. Norah knew I would never fit into them (and my mom would never let me wear them), but she remembered that her first pair of heels were from an older cousin, so she wanted to pass down the tradition.
They were purple and sparkly and every day when I got home from school I would drop my bag, run to my closet, and strap on the heels. They were far too big for me and although I tightened the straps forcefully around my small feet, the shoes still flopped around. My dad was obscenely worried the heels would cause me to injure an ankle and force me to sit out of soccer games, so after two weeks they ended up in the GoodWill pile. They did get an outstanding amount of use in those two weeks though, and I never did come close to twisting my ankle. I was also a gymnast after all, with impeccable balance.
For half my life I played this role as the youngest, being catered to by perfect cousins who always knew how to interact with me. But years start to go by and eventually my older cousins started having families of their own. In middle school my cousins got married, in high school they got pregnant, and now that I’m in college they are all toddler parents.
This progression seemed so natural for them. Going from being the older cousin to the parent. Becoming a parent always comes with immense anxieties, but they were already so accustomed to knowing what a young child wanted or needed and grew up oftentimes acting as a sort of pseudo-parent.
I haven’t found my transition to be as natural or prepared for. This family development means that now I am supposed to be the cool and amazing older role model for those babies. Without any prior knowledge or experience, I am holding the weight of knowing I cannot give their children the same quality of childhood they gave me.
With quarantine and being off at college, this realization didn’t really hit me until our family Christmas party. Although the toddlers are all around the age of three, I had only seen them one other time. It was last year, and nobody was allowed within 10 yards of the children due to possible diseases.
The world has cleaned up a lot since then, so the Huntley Christmas Party ran as scheduled this year. As I watched the three-year-olds running rampant around my house, playing with the same toys in our basement that I did at their age, I can no longer say the “Younger to Older Cousin Pipeline” hasn’t fully permeated my life.
I remember this Christmas party when I was about their age. We always play White Elephant, where you pass out numbers and open presents with the opportunity to steal other players’ presents. One year at five years old, I opened a pair of red, Dora pajamas that were most obviously for me. As a joke, my twenty-year-old cousin Tucker stole the pajamas from me, forcing me to open a new present that happened to be scratchers. Everyone, including my parents and myself, thought it was hilarious. At the end of the game, he asked if he could possibly trade the pajamas for my scratchers. It was truly the trade of a lifetime. I felt special, knowing that I was included in the joke that made my entire family laugh, even if I was somewhat the butt of the joke.
When we ate dinner, I would sit at the kid’s table with my brother and all of our teenage cousins. They always included us in the conversation, and they acted as if the sparkling grape juice we were drinking was real wine.
Now there’s a whole new generation here and I’m supposed to be the cool older cousin. In reality, I have no idea how to treat a child! I thought it was three years old when my cousins would take me downstairs to skateboard, but this small child who falls over when Jack springs out of the box would not last a minute on a moving platform. If she were to fall over and start crying… would my cousins ever speak to me again?
I want to give all of these first cousins once removed the same experiences I had. Once, Norah and her sister Stella picked me up early from elementary school to go to a hot-air balloon race. I can’t imagine taking one of these toddlers off by myself, even if it were just into another room to play with their new toys. I was a bit older when Norah and Stella picked me up that day, but I would have never gone with them if it weren’t for the relationship they instigated with me from a much younger age. If I don’t learn how to interact with this child now, those elementary school pickups will never happen.
My mom oftentimes reprimands me for referring to children under the age of 8 as, “it” instead of “he” or “she”. I suppose getting it into my mind that a child, no matter how useless they may seem, is still a human would be a good place to start in my journey of being a Cool Cousin.
The previous residents of the kid’s table are sitting in the dining room instead of the sunroom and I’m getting asked, “What are you going to do after graduation?” instead of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The cousin who would always sit next to me at dinners and help cut my meat is now doing the same for her own child who has taken up residence at the miniature, light, wood table with chairs so small I think they might break under my weight now.
I’m not yet old enough to sip wine and discuss my latest project at work like my brother, but I’m also not young enough to tap Sarah on the shoulder and ask her if she could actually cut my chicken too because I never learned how because I always had her sitting next to me.
This Christmas season in particular has been filled with a lot of this feeling of being stuck in the middle of two different time periods. When you’re the youngest sibling, it feels as though you have to grow up at the same speed as your older sibling even though you’re not ready. I still want to run downstairs and play ping pong on Christmas morning, but Caden is now too old, rendering me without an opponent, and therefore I’m also ‘too old’ in a sense.
Maybe it’s the natural ebb and flow of getting older than everyone experiences. When you come home from college for the first time in six months and you realize how much has changed, but also how much it hasn’t. I think I’m old enough to be my mother’s friend, but then I return home and get in trouble for not washing my dishes and once again I’m my mother’s daughter.
I think my increasing tendency to be alone is propelled by being the youngest as well. If I still want to do something the rest of my family has aged out of, I have to do it alone. When Caden brings home a girlfriend on Christmas for the first time this year, I have to be at peace sitting on the couch while they open presents together on the floor.
My strength when it comes to these toddlers is definitely not knowledge or experience, but maybe it can be something in this realm I seem to know all too well. That when their parents get tired of watching that little kid show or their older siblings decide they’re too old for a certain ritual, I can be the one to pick up the paddle on Christmas morning.
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