In the Company of Cousins

It is a waste of time to fantasize about the perfect plan for a weekend vacation for my family. Should we take a horizon-broadening trip to big-city museums and stores or escape to a woodland cottage near a lake? Camping builds character, teaches skills, plus it's quiet. But an event-filled weekend (hot-air balloon rally, renaissance fair) provides immediate memories to talk about.

I already know what my sons want to do more than anything in the world: visit their cousins. And whether they see them at my sister's house in central Illinois, at our house in southern Wisconsin, in between, or anywhere else in the world does not matter to them.

My sons love to be with their cousins. Why is a mystery to me. My sister's two boys constantly quarrel with each other and fuss for things they can't have. When they do cooperate, it usually involves activities such as climbing onto the garage roof or purchasing illegal fireworks. They remind me too much of my sister and me, only we argued over clothes and space in the bedroom we shared. Yet her two sons appear to adore mine, and vice versa.

What is it about cousins that is so much fun? Mainly that they are not our brothers and sisters, against whom we seem to maintain a list of daily resentments. And, although cousins are like us in many ways, their parents are not our parents - which makes them exotic indeed.

My sister and I do well handling all four cousins. We both take them to movies. We both feed them, but I order out; she grills anything they want up until about 11 p.m. I am more likely to opt for a day at the water park, while she will take them fishing. I do museum tours; she covers the roller rink.

We have taken the kids on trips together to Chicago and St. Louis. They are in heaven when they get their own room next to ours (and so are we). And we take them to the Illinois State Fair every summer, just as we went with our cousins every year when we were children.

This year we are taking them to Tucson, Ariz., for a week. We will stay at our older sister's vacation home, and have plans to explore dusty ghost towns, the Biosphere, the desert museum, hike Sabino Canyon, and climb Mount Lemon.

Yet we know this agenda is too ambitious for boys who will probably beg to stay at the condo to swim or share earphones to listen to their latest CDs. They could be just as happy examining the cactus in my sister's front yard and making jokes about the ancient Omega stalled in her driveway.

It doesn't take much to entertain these cousins. They love going to our annual fishing expo or car rallies, the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee, or the Mall of America. But the truth is, they are content simply walking two blocks to the old shopping center down the street from my sister's house and buying gum and a candy bar. It's the same place my sister and I used to bike to almost every day after school to do the same thing.

Mostly the boys talk, whether hiking down big-city streets or sitting on grassy banks waiting for a fish to interrupt. They explode with laughter about things they did not seem the slightest bit amused by at the time (like when my younger son dropped two pickles in the older one's milkshake). They share their fears in a way I have not heard them do with theirfriends.

My nephews and my sons allow my sister and I to fit together in a way we never discovered growing up. She was an irritating thorn in my side at a time I was wanting to bloom in my own way. The thought of being cooped up with her in a car for a week or sharing a bed at night when we were on family vacations was dreadful. Yet through fostering cousinhood, we have attained sisterhood. We are good traveling companions, making up for each other's weaknesses and pooling our strengths to overcome any obstacles to fun.

In an age of shrinking families, expanding responsibilities, and a wealth of weekend choices, I advise you to take your kids to see their cousins. They're cheaper than any other form of entertainment, they offer real-life experiences with no waiting in line, and they last a whole lifetime.

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