Our family can be best described as the introvert Brady bunch, if the Brady’s had been first cousins instead of a blended set of siblings. Together, the six of us learned about life, love and the pursuits of nerds from our maternal (and in one case paternal) branch of the family, spending most of our free time stuck at grandma’s. Divided by a six year age gap, the two sets of brats were captained by me and my sister who had to coax information out of each smaller clique set and trade secrets to keep the peace and ensure fairness. As kind and compassionate as the adults were to everyone else in the world, it never felt us kids got the same courtesies extended, and we always has to manage expectations among ourselves to remain sane. We operated like a commonwealth of sovereign island countries 🏝 in the middle of a vast and mysterious sea. Each one of us marched to the beat of a very distinct drum.
I was sandwiched in between the only two males of the brood until we were blessed with the company of another sister in arms, their sibling. Two years later my sister arrived to keep her company. Overnight, my relationship with the only person that had ever sought my undivided attention on the planet changed; there was a new playmate in town. I was caught between two worlds, and odd girl out – a very squeaky fifth wheel. My luck and outlook changed when my cousin Simba (not her real name) was born.
Thirteen years my junior, this kid became a favorite right from the start. We bonded over a Simba plush toy that I picked from an end cap at Toys R Us as a first Christmas gift. She took him EVERYWHERE! I kept her company while my sister and cousins played. Watched her learn to walk and talk, to laugh at our lame teeange jokes. When I got my driver’s license, her parents entrusted me with picking her up from school. I sardonically laughed at those who raised their eyebrows and incorrectly assumed I had a daughter. Little did I know she’d be the last baby I’d helped raise, as I haven’t been cursed with spawn of my own (some dark humor for ya). My uncle raised me, so taking care of their beloved miracle baby was the least I could offer to return the favor.
Knowing my 18th birthday would sneak up on all of us in a jiffy, I crammed as much time as I could with the little lioness. My mom reminded me that I was planning adventures that she most likely wouldn’t remember, therefore it was how she felt rather than what she experienced that mattered. With this in mind, I did my best to find organic convergence points in our journey. We’d listen to age inappropriate music (she learned to sing Sex on the Beach). We watched G rated Disney Channel shows (she’d double check the ratings on the TV Guide). I’d let her hold the refillable movie popcorn tub knowing she’d spill it all over the floor, histerically rocking back and forth giggling at whatever piqued her fancy on screen. My sister and cousin would occasionally tag along, rounding up our quirky little fellowship. On Friday’s we’d pick up $1 menu chicken nuggets from the Wendy’s drive thru, giving grandma a break from the stove. Come Monday, we’d do it all over again!
Legend has it that I once locked her inside the car, with the engine and A/C running, in the middle of an avenue, halfway between grandma’s and my uncle’s, during rush hour, because I’d gotten out to check on a Toyota I had gently tapped on the bumper. Oops! 😱 I calmy begged the hostage to let me back in but she refused. A police officer had scolded both of us for allowing her to escape her restraints and traipse around the car the day before, and she wasn’t willing to risk punishment so soon after. I borrowed a cellphone and dialed the one person I knew could quickly bring me the spare key… Ironically, grandpa Layo got lost on the way there and aborted the mission. A “gruero” passing by managed to open the door 30 mins into the ordeal, at the same time S jumped out of her car seat to grab a lollipop she had accidentally dropped on the floor. 🤦♀️🤷♂️ Her parents laughed so hard they cried when we recounted the story later that evening.
It’s still one of the most memorable highlights of our time together.
Our graduations from Kindergarten and High School were bittersweet. There be no more school pick ups. No more food runs. No more sleep overs. Soon, she’d have a whole new group of friends to play with, new people in her life that would quickly fill the void created by my departure. I’d still come by and visit during the weekends, whenever tests and projects gave me time off to commute back to the mothership. Fortunately, she was always happy to see me, suggesting new activities to add to our repertoire like eating Ben and Jerry’s, and going to Fuddrucker’s, our favorite burger joint. I did my best to keep in touch and stay relevant in her circles of trust with the limited technology. It wasn’t an easy long distance relationship but we worked it out.
Just as we were getting used to this new normal, came the biggest test to our relationship – my departure to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a career in engineering. My uncle promised me they’d come visit as soon as they could, and less than a year later they had made good on their word. I traveled back to the island a few days in the summer and winter to keep up with weddings, births and funerals. We settled on a routine that included talking on the phone and video chatting during birthdays and holidays. She hit her growth spurt and started talking about college. I couldn’t believe how much we’d grown together, even though we were physically apart, during all those years. In a couple more years she’d be a grad again, her whole adult life ahead of her.
Two young women taking the world by the lapels.
It didn’t surprise me to learn she was class Valedictorian; the apple didn’t fall far from the overarching branch of the family tree. In many ways she was an honorary baby sister, and I often wish I had been there to brag about her. 🏅🏆🍾🥂 To have made up for leaving her during a time she would have benefitted most from my experiences, and I would’ve been able to live vicariously through her, in a healthy way. She always brought great joy into my life, with her ‘tude, wit, and tantrums. The only child trapped in a world where everyone was older, wiser and totally charmed by her cuteness. She was brought up in a world full of “Yes”, of wonderful possibilities. The privilege was not wasted on her. 🥰
Now 20something, Simba hopes for a future that is bright, spirited, and full of international trips. The semester abroad in Italy during her college years proof that she’s made of the same courageous material as the rest of her paternal family – all but one of the kids in my generational group lived abroad. (We are working on that.) Introverted and shy, the wisdom of our conversations still baflles me. I always get the kick in the butt I need to keep moving from her wry sarcastic observations. For someone that doesn’t say much, that’s an amazing accomplishment in and of itself. I bet she is mentally editing my work, thanks to her Literature BA, but humors me anyway. She loves reading me as much as I love writing about and to those I love. It is thanks to her overt support and measured encouragement that these posts exist.
Thank you for being a friend!