Cousins and gifts and a different sort of beauty

‘This is how you do it, she said, and she put some water in the sink and got some soap and took it all in her hands and showed me how to wash my shirt in the sink.

The shirt was short-sleeved and striped blue and white, horizontally, and the sink was in the attic quarters that my father had fixed up, and, while I can’t remember this part for sure, the shirt was likely a gift from her, my cousin, because we genuinely liked each other and once in a while she would give me this sort of thing.

We were there, put together just the two of us, not quite teens yet, none of our siblings around, for a week or two during that summer some decades ago.

She could show me things like how to wash a shirt by hand and I could show her how to pick peas in the garden. And we could enjoy each other because we were going to be married, after all, yes, we had it all figured out because my cousin was adopted and there would be nothing wrong with any of it.

Now it’s many years later, on Sunday, and my cousin and I never did marry. We know this because I am sitting beside my wife and my cousin is sitting beside her husband, the four of us together for breakfast, and we all know with clarity exactly who is married to who.

It’s an impromptu breakfast arranged because the evening previous my wife and I were in the area for a wedding in which, interestingly, plenty of cousins on my wife’s side brought her own memories back like when all the cousins would be at grandma’s house playing hide and seek.

Grandma’s house, my wife explains, was as tiny as a shoebox, but somehow all the cousins fit, even for the grand meals that grandma put together, when every table in sight – the dining table, the sewing table, the card table – would be pulled out and put together to make it possible.

But now, today, it’s not only Sunday but it’s my birthday and while my cousin has not had any need to give me any sort of birthday gift for all these years, I’ve now unwrapped this gift. It’s a framed photo — my cousin is a wonderful photographer — that she recently shot in Cuba. She talks about simplicity and service and why this photo means something to her. And I know it’s perfect, but I don’t know quite why and I look at it for some time.

It’s a photo of a simple tap and a sink, not much of a tap and sink, put into a hard concrete wall, all of it not really centred or perfectly shaped, and all in not in much of a kitchen – a splash of uneven blue paint is on the wall and concrete counter – because it’s from a poor family’s home, the sort you’d only find in places where there is a different sort of beauty, a beauty of the spirit.

My cousin shares more about the family in this Cuban home, a home that, unlike many in Cuba, even has running water. And when you’re a guest of honour, you will go and wash your hands in that sink before anyone else. She had actually gone to the home to photograph something different, but instead this is what she found, this simple tap and sink in which many hands and other things have been washed, and I don’t even think of it.

No, I don’t even think about that summer day when my cousin showed me how to wash my own clothes in a little bathroom sink. I don’t think of it until later. And I’m glad that I do. And I am reminded that this is what it can be, to have cousins.

Last week, for the first time, my own children hosted one of their cousins. It was for several nights, all new and exciting to be together like this to be sure. There will be more of it as time goes by. And in one way or another, they will all have their own gifts to give to each other.  Maybe even decades later.

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