The Halloween Project Day 13: 21 Cousins
This one is dedicated to all my cousins. There actually were 21 of us.
Family get-togethers were biblical. Dozens of participants reveled in the sunny Sunday afternoons at one house or another. Barbecue kept rotating on the grill, but mostly we ate the burgers and dogs. Our parents, eight siblings, four girls, four boys, now grown to adulthood, with grandma and grandpa presiding, chatted and lifted cocktails and beers. Irish Catholic to the core they knew how to pray and they knew how to party. The priests arrived well into the festivities and then the poker broke out. Clerical collars and jackets were doffed as they shot Irish whiskey and told stories while we hovered nearby to hear the fantastic tales. Somewhere accompanying the drinks along the day an uncle or a Father would rise up and recite a poem. In an era before slam down or sit down, the another would arise, raise a glass and Yeats or Heaney or Oscar Wilde would pour out across the yard. Inevitably, someone would begin an Irish song. They would all stand, proud and defiant, and sing with a bellow in their throats.
The cousins ranged across a decade and a half of various ages. There were just turned 20’s, a slice of teenagers, then a slew of us, me included, middle school and a bit younger, and then the babies. We didn’t care, we all played with our respective mates, yard games enthralled us. Tag was monumental, red light-green light a traditional favorite, we laughed and ran and sweat ourselves silly, drinking Cokes and downing potato chips.
One day a small group of my teenage girl cousins approached me and my closest age mate, cousin Frankie.
“Can we talk with you, Joey? Just for a minute?” Terry asked.
“Sure, what’s up?” I asked. My slightly older girl cousins had always amazed and stupefied my 11 year old mind. They were all of 16 and 17. They had real life boyfriends and one had a license. They looked incredible with their perfect hair and were cooler than I ever hoped to be, living my life as a dutiful Boy Scout, altar boy and obedient student.
“Come on over here for a minute and sit down,” Fiona asked, the cousin who had a license and sometimes would show up with a boyfriend.
“Can Frankie come?” I was a little scared by their invitation to intimacy.
”Sure, come on Frankie,” they suggested. And he did. We sat in a small, tight circle crossed legged as if we were all together at Boy Scout camp, a strange thought since they were all girls.
“So, Joey, we heard that your mom is pregnant, and that’s kind of great,” Mary said, who was, of course, named after our grandmother.
“But, there’s a problem,” Fiona added.
“Yeah, a serious problem,” Mary added.
I looked at Frankie and he was as mystified as I was. He gave me that look. If we were older it meant, “What the fuck are they talking about?” but now simply, “I’m confused,” or “Isn’t Fiona really cute?” but I couldn’t tell which.
So I said, “A problem?”
And Fiona, Mary and Theresa, best known to us as Terry, gave us “the look”. Parents gave it to us daily, the nuns at Catholic school gave it to us hourly, the priests every Sunday, the neighbors every once in a while and the uncles almost never. The uncles just liked us and let us run around and act like crazy people which is exactly what we were.
“You know, Joey, there’s 21 cousins in this family,” Mary began, “Just on this side of the family, with our moms and dads all being brothers and sisters. They’ve grown up together. I know your mom is one of the youngest but, there’s 21 of us.”
“O.K.,” I agreed, because these were my older cousins, they were girls, they were smarter and a whole lot more worldly then I was. Plus I had heard that Fiona had made out with her boyfriend and although I wasn’t sure what making out was, it sounded like something really important.
They gave each other that look again. Now Mary spoke, her voice sounded as serious as Sister Euphrasia who berated us daily.
“We can’t have another cousin,” she said calmly, looking directly at me which made me kind of squirmy.
“We can’t?” I said, not only dumbfounded, but beyond confused. Frankie just looked at the cousins. He was little help.
“No! No.” Fiona added, “Not at all.”
“Why?” I asked, plaintively, my voice reverting from 11 years old to 5.
“Because of the curse,” Fiona said. Terry raised her hand to her mouth and coughed a bit, but I didn’t really notice.
“There’s an Irish curse. You probably don’t know it at all and never heard of it, but Irish families are never supposed to have more than 21 grandchildren. It’s unlucky. It’s truly a bad sign. Terrible, terrible things can happen.”
I just continued to sit there and look at them. Terry coughed again. I had nothing to say. There were no words at my command. My mom being pregnant was hard enough to figure out in the early 1960’s, never mind a curse. A minute went by, or maybe it was 10 seconds.
“A curse?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s got something to do with the number 21,” Mary said. “Seven is a lucky number and three, well you know three: Jesus, Mary and Joseph or the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So three times seven…” she waited.
“21” I said, gravity sinking me into the lawn.
“That’s the lucky number. 21. Not 22, 22 is bad, really, really bad. So, it’s up to you,” Mary said.
“Up to me?!” I said and looked at Frankie. He stood quickly and announced, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and took up across the lawn, past the poker table, past the horseshoes.
“Yes, it’s up to you,” Mary repeated. Terry kept coughing while Fiona slapped her on the back.
“What do you mean? It’s up to me?” I asked, in all earnest.
“You have to do something, I don’t know what, we don’t know what, but it’s up to you,” Mary continued.
“Why me?!” they could easily hear the panic rising in my voice.
“Because you’re the oldest,” she stated.
“I’m not the oldest! All of you are older than me. Anyway, Harry is the oldest. He’s the oldest of all you guys!”
“Joey, look,” Fiona continued, “You’re the oldest kid in your family. Your mom is pregnant. That makes 22 cousins. We don’t understand this any more than you do. But we know because we’re older. 21 is a magic number, a good number. 22 is not. Like we said, it’s bad. And you have to do something.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to say something to my mom but what could I say? I played different questions through my mind but none worked. The next day at school I couldn’t concentrate. I was so confused that Sister Miriam yelled at me and Sister Miriam never yells. This went on for a week. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. My mother thought I was sick but I never ran a fever so she sent me to school. I didn’t know what to do but my cousins words kept smacking through my conscience. “It’s up to you. You have to do something.”
On Saturday we made our weekly trip to the library; me, my younger sister, and my mom. We walked the three flights of stone steps up to the library entrance as if we were entering a church. I loved the library and enjoyed walking through the stalls and looking at all the books I might read one day. We’d all drop off a stack of books and pick up an entire new collection of imagination. We would always leave, arms piled high. This day I worried every minute. My mind couldn’t rest. Shelves blurred in my vision and I grabbed books barely reading their titles.
As we left the three of us approached the top of the long staircase. My mother led, I followed and my sister trailed behind. I looked up and without a thought, thrust forward, my books crashing into my mother’s back as she stood on the edge of the top step. It took a second before she completely lost her balance. A second that stays with me still. She rolled slowly forward, then toppled, then fell, gaining momentum as she crashed from granite step to granite step, reaching the first landing, tossing, books flying, through the second landing and down, down to land on the pavement far below.
We screamed and screamed. The passersby. The policemen. The ambulance.
Little Kenneth was born that evening, premature, but fine, none the worst for his circus roll down the library steps. Bruises faded, disappeared from my mother’s mind as well as her body.
That evening, my cousin Harry, all of 20, went out joyriding with his friends after a night of drinking. Driving home he crashed his car on old Route 17.
At the funeral Terry, Fiona and Mary never looked at me.