I was born last in my family, and I think I was pretty much a textbook youngest child. You know, perfect in every way, learning from the mistakes of the idiots who came before me, loved by all. But I was also four years younger than my brother and six years younger than my sister, which may not seem like a lot--and isn't now that we are adults--but it was just enough when I was little to make them seem unreachably older. Jane, as I've mentioned in the past, always seemed like an adult to me. This is a detail I actually remind myself of often when I see my own children look up to my 12-year-old niece as if she were an equal to me (God help us and save us). And my brother took his role of older protector and adviser so seriously that he didn't make much of a buddy. The only time I got to play with him was when I was sure to get hurt. He was Superman and I was the person about to die. "Don't worry, Mar, I'll catch you" (as I'm crashing down off some precarious perch he promised was totally safe). Or his favorite. "Get out of the room." I really, really hated Get Out Of the Room.
So there I was, kind of an only child in a family with three children. I had younger cousins, but I either didn't see them very often or didn't know them well, or both. And my mother was adamant I was It for her--I was told frequently, and I overheard often, that I was the last surprise my mother ever wanted. Therefore, when I was ten years old and my aunt and uncle had their first baby, I was destined to fall in love.
I'd never really seen a brand new baby, so seeing this one was a bit like visiting a zoo. An exotic creature right there in front of me, who I was sure I would never be able to touch. Imagine my surprise when we had been standing in my aunt's family room all of two minutes when my aunt turned to me--ME!--and asked, "Would you like to hold him?" Never mind that I almost fainted, my mother squawked, "MARY?!" She looked at me, eyes wide and smile huge. "Can you handle it?" she asked. My own grin was too big to allow speech, so I just nodded excitedly.
They set me in a wide chair, showing me how to rest my elbow on the arm so it wouldn't get tired. Then my aunt reached into the swing where my impossibly tiny new cousin was bundled so tightly he couldn't possibly move. His hair was jet black and his wrinkled skin was smooth and golden, and he reminded me of a little cartoon papoose. When he was placed in my arms I could hardly breathe. He stirred slightly, his head turning a bit from side to side as he found a comfortable position, and then his eyes opened. Only a little, but enough for me to see how beautifully blue they were, and for him to look right at me. I will never, ever forget that moment. It was the first time I ever really knew what it was to love a baby, someone smaller and more helpless than me. And I did love him, immediately and overwhelmingly.
"Talk to him," my aunt prompted gently.
I looked down at him and said, "Hello. I'm your big cousin Mary. And I'm gonna love you sooo much."
Somehow, as the men sat and watched football or some other such nonsense, and the women (my sister included) sat at the kitchen table chatting, I was forgotten. Minutes ticked by, I have no idea how many, but I know that my arm went numb resting there beneath that tiny, fuzzy head on the arm of the big chair, and that with each minute, it became sealed more and more that this baby was as close to mine as any would get. At least when I was ten.
It didn't matter to me that my brother and sister loved him as much as I did, and even my mom and dad. I had staked a claim on him that first day, and from then on, at all gatherings (which were pretty often back then) from the moment he arrived, I scooped my baby cousin into my arms and carried him everywhere I went. Somehow, this was okay with my aunt, even though I was only ten and eleven years old, which is kind of a miracle. And how else would I have trained to become such a good mom? I learned from my cousin all about how to be with small children, how to play with them, how to talk with them, not at them. I learned what to do when they cry (besides carry them, arms outstretched, to their mothers), and how to keep them occupied for long whiles with mundane things. Like collecting rocks at the beach, playing police with a cordless phone, and transforming Transformers back and forth five billion times. Looking back, I guess it was the best practice I could have had for the two little boys I ended up with.
As he grew and I grew, I actually got to babysit him officially. When he was three and four years old, he'd insist I cuddle him as he fell asleep, listening to his snuffly little breathing and smelling the stinky blanket he carried with him everywhere.
I love children, mainly because for a long time I assumed they were all as cool as this boy. Even after that, I had discovered that all children have something unique and magical to offer in their own ways, even the very worst ones (and there are some doozies). But there have been very few children, my own included of course, who have crawled up into my heart like this one did, to stay forever in a special place.
And so, in my way, I say Happy Birthday to you, Baby Cousin. You are OLD now, and I'm so glad to know the person you've become.