On this ranch, keeping it in the family turns these cousins into best friends
He comes padding down the hallway in the dim morning light. He’s barely awake, but the default look on his face is still a sliver of a smile as he rubs his eyes and closes the hallway door behind him. He is skinny in his long johns. His hair is light and curly. He walks with a precision uncommon for a two year old. He is not my son.
I put them to bed last night, my son and his cousin, in the same double bed next to each other. They are three months apart in age, the older almost three, and they play every day. Amazingly, they went right to sleep after I read them a few stories and closed the door. Checking on them in the dark of night and seeing them asleep and breathing softly, their heads nearly touching, it was easy to pretend I was them. Easy to remember being the kid with his face in a pile of drool, sucking on his fingers, having a sleepover with his best friend. Easy to feel what he feels: waking up warm and sleepy awaiting a morning of cartoons and toys and french toast and friends.
“What are you doing, Uncle Mike?” my nephew asks as I come in from the porch carrying a load of firewood. “I’m getting wood for the fire buddy,” I tell him. I set him on the couch, cover him with a blanket and let him watch PBS Kids on my iPad while I start fires in both fireplaces to get the house warmed up.
Having a little boy is sublime. My son loves to run. To jump on me. To ride his bike. To explore the ranch we live on. He abounds in aimless silliness. His best friend is his cousin, my sister’s boy, who is different. My nephew is quieter, more personal, private and meek with an equal penchant for the ridiculous. Together they are a whole. Everyone comments on how different they are. One will be happy, when the other throws a tantrum. One is hungry, when the other is full. One sleeps while the other races the dump truck down the hall. But they get along. And everyone comments on how well they fit together. At dinner they assess the spiciness of the food. One says it’s good. The other says it’s too spicy. Soon they agree, and not another bite is taken.
The two have spent almost every week day together since they were nine months old. First at a great little in-home daycare where they learned to crawl, and then to walk. They were the little kids, then the big kids. Now they spend the day with my parents, going to swim lessons, gymnastics, story time at the library, being chased around their grandparents’ house by their Papi, and making home-made playdough sculptures with Nani. Looking at a framed snapshot in my mom’s office, I noticed today that my son looks just like my sister at the same age. That chubby face. That pouty expression: everything about these boys and what they do every day has a familiarity greater than the circumstance of having known them their whole lives.
“Please may I have a snack,” my nephew asks as I replace the fire grate and slap the wood chips off my hands and shirt.
“Sure,” I say. “What do you want?”
“Chex,” he says. Then adds, “with no milk.”
So I set him up at the table with his dry cereal and say, “What do you say to me buddy?”
“Yove you unka Mike,” he says coyly, knowing how it makes me feel from the look on my face. I taught him to say that when he was just learning to speak. I’d grab him up at daycare and tell him to say it while play wrestling with him. When he said it he’d get a bounce. A big swing up into the air from his arms. He loved it. And so did I. I remember the fun uncle or the family friend who was always happy to see me and always happy to throw me into the air again and again until we both could stand no more.
My nephew is just like my little sister: cute and cuddly, eager to smile, eager for me to make him laugh. He has a smile that makes you melt. He loves to see me. He loves to play, and slap me five, and be hugged, and wrestle on the floor. I get to be his uncle, and my son gets to be his friend.
He doesn’t ask for his mommy or daddy as he munches his cereal in the chilly morning, he just looks at me and smiles. And my boy does the same when the sleepovers go to the other side of town. They are comfortable with us. No one lets them get away without saying please and thank you. They don’t get away without a time out when their parents are out of sight. They don’t get away without a hug and a kiss.
We enjoy a few more minutes together in the quiet of a Sunday morning, sun streaming over the Virginia Range across the pasture below the house. Wood crackles in the fireplaces while my son and my wife linger a little longer in their beds. My nephew sits, watching the iPad. He looks at me and smiles his little cheeky smile with his doe-eyes that are warmer than the fires.
When I ask my own boy who his bestest buddy is, who is the silliest person he knows, or who farted, he doesn’t [always] point to me. He smiles and says his cousin’s name then gives me a hug and runs away to find his trains. The sounds of toys crashing on toys and little boys learning to have conversations with each other leaves me feeling just a little bit of envy for them both.