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The Cousin Confessions
My aunt and uncle were hesitant at first to let me watch their daughter when the both of us were so young. I was only about eight years old when Lauren Iris was born. Coming for a visit to my parents’ house could be their break from work and parenting. If only there was someone else to take care of their daughter while they propped their legs up and enjoyed a few hours of relaxation… Soon enough, they came to the realization that if I watched Lauren, they didn’t have to. I was perfectly happy with this arrangement, and frankly, I think my little brother was glad that I would have another subject on which to test my hand at my mother’s makeup, dress in her clothing, and expel my childhood desire to play Mommy.
There is a picture of me when I was about two years old walking through the rocks and sand on York Beach off the coast of Maine looking for crabs to point out to my father so that he would pick them up for me. I was too afraid of being pinched at the time to do so myself, but it was funny if they pinched my dad.
This photo hangs on one of the walls in my parents’ house to this day, but as soon as Lauren reached the age of two, if the picture hadn’t been hanging in my house, no one would have been able to tell which one of us was actually in the image. Lauren had my same short blonde hair, sturdy build, blue eyes, and probably some very similar hot pink swimsuits with green fringe and a skirt. Like me, she was shy, bashful, and ever afraid of making a statement that might reflect badly on her in any way. Of course, this was bound to happen at some point since we were both extremely curious, always full of questions. Why did this character do that in the movie? How does this work? What does that mean? Why is everyone laughing at what Uncle Doug said? I’m actually very grateful that she didn’t understand most of the things my father had to say. Now I just have to find a way un-hear them.
She was bright, insightful, and if I do say so myself, incredibly talented. I started playing the piano when I was in the first grade. She began playing even earlier than that. Her ear was exceptional, her sight-reading skills far surpassed those I possessed at her age, and she was especially meticulous. I remember listening to her plunk out a tune she’d heard on the wooden piano in my parents’ living room once, and every time she made a mistake, she’d start the whole song all over again, making sure that she played every single note perfectly before allowing herself to continue. I remember the look in her eyes when she finally got it right, that look of being transported to a whole other world where the music and fate are one in the same, dictating the things that happen and the way people feel about them. It’s like getting to play God, and for just a few minutes, no one can touch you.
As the years passed, I began to see Lauren’s shyness fade, just as mine had. My parents began to ask her to give piano performances for the family whenever she visited, everyone vigorously applauding as soon as she finished a tune, regardless of what the song was or how well it had been played. I remember the look on her face as she tried to hide her smile of pride. Her parents let their own smiles show for the whole world to see.
Some of the only pictures consisting solely of my father and myself are of him standing with his arm wrapped around my shoulders after one of my elementary school piano recitals. I remember beaming because I could feel just how proud he was of me. My mom took as many pictures of me in my little floral dress and ringlets as she could, but my dad just grinned from ear to ear. I haven’t done anything to make him grin like that in a long time.
It was the birth of Lauren’s sister that changed things, for everyone, of course, but especially between Lauren and me. Lauren’s younger sibling was named Meredith Rose (Mere for short). To say that she and Lauren were vastly different from one another would have truly been the understatement of the age. It’s literally like trying to compare a rose and an iris. Lauren, like me, was of a larger build, with straight, straw colored hair. She resembled her mother in every feature of her face, a small nose, white skin with a healthy amount of tan, and a pointed chin that somehow managed to portray the perfect balance of cuteness and elegance. The one feature that belonged only to Lauren and myself was the color of our eyes, a deep, thoughtful blue.
Meredith, however, was small, slender, delicate. Her hair was nearly the same color as that of Lauren’s, except for its outrageous amount of curl and hints of red, making it look more like strawberry cream than fresh hay. Meredith resembled her father more than anyone else I’ve ever witnessed, including his brothers and parents. They shared the same rounded chin, large eyes, high cheekbones, and a sharp, pointed nose. They also shared the same eye color, a far brighter shade of blue than that of Lauren’s. Mere’s looks aside, she was also a direct opposite of her sister in manner and action. Where Lauren was thoughtful and wary of the power words possessed, there was no filter over Mere’s mouth. She was loud, proud, and unafraid to show either. She knew she was cute, and she was smart enough to know that when used properly, cute can be an extremely useful tool.
I remember one instance in which I was pushing Meredith on the swing set in her parents’ back yard, and she wanted me to push her higher than was safe. I refused to do so. So, she climbed off of the swing set, lay front side down on the ground, and began to “cry” while pounding her fists into the dirt. For a moment I just stared at her, not knowing how to respond. Finally, my father shouted to me from a lawn chair where he sat with my mother, and Lauren and Mere’s parents, “Get her, Becca”, to which I responded, “How?”
“Get down with her”, he said.
Now take note: my father was making a joke. I highly doubt that he ever would have expected me to fulfill his request, but seeing as I really had no other option, I took his advice. I laid down on the ground, at which point, Mere only started to wail louder and my father began to laugh hysterically. I couldn’t help myself; the giggles began to pour out of me until I was clutching my stomach in an attempt to control my own laughter. Of course, upon realizing that her plan of action was, in fact, not working, Mere sat up, looked down at me, all semblance of a tear absent from her features, and barked, “Don’t laugh”. I laughed harder.
At this, Meredith stood and marched over to an unoccupied corner of the yard, plopped herself down in a squat, arms crossed over her chest, her lower lip extended in an exaggerated pout, and pretended that she wasn’t looking at us, waiting for one of her parents to take notice, walk over, and pick her up, all the while shushing her tears and telling her “it’s okay”. The adults paid her no mind. So I shrugged and went over to join them. My last memory of that day is of Meredith’s jaw gaping at our insolence, not that she knew what that word meant at the time, but I’m sure it’s the only thing she could have been thinking with all of us laughing at her so uncontrollably.
I remember talking with my uncle at one point. I was about to graduate from high school and I was nervous as a sinner in church. My uncle is in no way an unkind man, make no mistake, but he likes people with a great deal of common sense. In every aspect of his life, he likes efficiency, people who ask as few questions of him as possible about any request he should make, and people who can handle any situation on their own. And so, growing up, I always felt that I could never amount to his expectations. I couldn’t grow up fast enough. But I was eighteen when this conversation took place, and I remember hoping so badly that I wouldn’t fumble my words or say something unintelligent, anything that might reveal the fact that I was still a teenager. I hadn’t made any serious mistakes when Lauren came up to us to ask her father if she could go to the park down the street. My uncle turned to her, and began lecturing her on how rude it is to interrupt peoples’ conversations. I watched as the light left Lauren’s eyes and her smile faded at her father’s disapproval. But she just stood there and took his criticism, as if this were an occurrence she faced on a regular basis. Meredith then burst from behind her, and practically shouted Lauren’s same question, to which my uncle only laughed. He turned to me and said, “With Mere, we don’t even try”.
I actually felt sorry for Mere almost as much as I did for Lauren at these times. Lauren would always carry the heavier load, but Meredith would never carry enough of a load to be taken seriously. And this little girl was gifted. It was always plain to see that Mere was born to be an artist, always drawing and painting, her pictures littering the tables, countertops, and refrigerator doors of her family’s home. Whenever Lauren played on the piano, Mere would improvise her own lyrics and sing like she’d become mute in the next minute. I can remember when my aunt and uncle sent us a copy of Mere’s first short story to our house. Her imagination shone through her fist-grade limitations. She even illustrated it herself. I knew the real and harsh world of an artist would hit Meredith like a sledgehammer falling from a ten-story building. Her parents had nurtured her gifts to the best of their ability, but pedestals don’t exist beyond the glass walls of youth, especially when parents act as the most ferocious of guards.
Amazingly enough, even despite the differences in the treatment they received from their parents, the two sisters obviously adored one another from the very beginning. Sibling relationships run strong in our family. Beyond the unavoidable squabbles, we are each other’s biggest supporters, and even best friends. My brother is my confidante. I know I can tell him anything. Literally. And I know that feeling is returned. There’s no way he talks to other people the way he talks to me. Granted, sometimes that’s not such a flattering thing.
But even the best of friends are capable of hurting one another, even when they don’t intend to do so. Lauren was strong, and Meredith wasn’t. So one day, they began to play a little too rough. Lauren picked Meredith up and dropped her on the ground. Mere had to wear a full leg brace for six months. And this wasn’t the first time Lauren had endangered her sister because of their difference in size. When Meredith was first born, my aunt set her on their kitchen table in one of those portable cradles. Lauren wanted to see her sister; she was still a mystery to be solved, so she reached up and pulled the cradle off of the counter. All I know of that day is that Mere was rushed to the hospital, and that no serious damage came to her head. It’s difficult to be a bigger and stronger kid than those around you. I got lucky that my younger brother didn’t stay much smaller than me for very long. I used to try to pull him out of his high chair… the one that he was strapped and buckled into. I got soap in his eyes while trying to wash his hair. There was even one instance when I went through my “I want to be a hairdresser” phase, when I went after him with a pair of scissors. I had planned to hold him down to limit his struggling so I could take a massive, old metal pair of seamstress scissors to his head so I could cut his hair. My mom caught me before I could catch him. Lesson number one in the life of a big kid: know your own strength, and use it with caution.
Lauren had to learn this lesson far too early in life, and for the longest time, I was afraid she would be timid forever because of it. So I’ve always tried to encourage her. I remember a time when the three of us, Lauren, Mere, and myself, were all playing that Battle Ship board game. Well, technically Lauren and Meredith were playing, but since Mere was about six and Lauren was nine, I was sitting on Mere’s side acting as her “navigator”. Of course, Mere didn’t quite grasp the concept of guessing where Lauren’s battle ships were located on the map. So she walked over to Lauren’s side of the coffee table to find where her ships were. Lauren then shielded her ships from Mere’s gaze, and promptly told her sister, “No, Mere, that’s cheating”.
Meredith then ran over to me, and started crying, wailing that Lauren had “hurt her feelings”. I told her, “Mere, there’s no point crying over spilled milk”, (I’d felt the phrase made me sound infinitely cooler than I actually was at the time) and then I turned back to the game to make sure Meredith knew there would be no arguing with me. So, she ran up the stairs to where her parents were having coffee with mine to find someone who would console her. My uncle did, of course, though I think it was just because he wanted her to stop crying while my parents were around. Mere got what she was looking for, but at least Lauren knew that her sister wasn’t capable of getting what she wanted out of everybody, that there were some people who would take her side first.
That’s always been the hardest thing about seeing myself in Lauren. Many of the things we have in common are things I wouldn’t wish on my little cousin, or on anybody for that matter. When I looked at Lauren, I saw the friends she would make, who would then betray her in order to earn the right to the title of a popular kid. I saw every little boy, and girl, who would make them feel like her size somehow made her less of a worthy human being, only to bite their tongues when fat turned into voluptuous, and when the damage had already been made irreparable. I saw every time her parents would be disappointed in her because she didn’t do well on a math test because she didn’t understand the material, and tell her that she should have worked harder. I saw every single person who would ever call her a teacher’s pet when she said hello to them when she walked past in the morning, because her mother had always taught her that sometimes, that hint of kindness was enough to get people through the day. I saw the faces of every person who would trash her behind her back because she was so absolutely brilliant, and they needed some way to feel better about the fact that they weren’t doing well in school, or their parents were getting divorced, or their house had caught fire. For every hardship faced by the people around her, she would become the target of their anger and heartache. And she would almost never stick up for herself because she would be too afraid that fighting back would only make things worse. She would keep everything bottled inside until others would finally learn what was happening and intervene. No matter how many times she told herself that she was smart and beautiful and creative and saw the good and the wonder in the world that others either missed or chose to overlook, she would only ever be considered “different”.
So I saw it as my job to ensure that the only qualities she shared with me were the ones that would propel her forward, make life better for her and those around her. Every time someone tried to undermine her own confidence or that of someone she knew, they would get their own words thrown right back in their faces like notes folded into paper airplanes tied to bricks with string. She would be strong enough to know that anyone who spent their time trying to make others feel worse about themselves had to be riding pretty low to the ground, themselves. She would smile and say hello to every person walking alone in the hallway, even if she had no idea who they were. She would always be willing to listen to people who just needed someone to know they were hurting, and if she saw someone with tears in their eyes, she would always stop whatever she was doing for long enough to hold them and let them know that everything would be alright. And she would never apologize for being smart, or kind, or different, ever. I just wish I had had someone to teach me that.
I think that’s what made this job so impossible. Whenever the girls came to visit, I was given the chance to do for Lauren, and for Meredith, too, what wasn’t done for me. I’m the oldest cousin, and the oldest sibling. I didn’t have someone from my own generation to go to for advice on how to get through life in the modern day. I’m in college now. The family visits I am able to attend have dwindled to nothing. I just hope that the time I had with the girls was enough. After all, history does have a nasty habit of repeating itself.