When our son was 4 or 5, he insisted each day that I use two of his little sister’s diaper pins to attach a small towel to the shoulders of his shirt. It was his “Superman” cape. Superman was his hero.
Little children have their heroes: a loving big brother or sister, a savvy and sympathetic teacher, the quarterback of the school football team, the leader of the Boy Scout troop, a pretty and popular teenaged aunt who’s queen at the homecoming game.
Often, time and distance erase these attachments, to be replaced by others or not at all in the wake of growing sophistication. Some people are simply too grown-up to have a hero.
But I never outgrew mine, and, could a towel hanging from diaper pins on my shoulders have indicated my undying allegiance, I would have been wearing one last week at her funeral.
My hero was my first cousin, Carrie Wellborn Oden, 11 years older than I, and focus of my admiration from the time I can remember. She was a beautiful person: tall and slender, fair of face, charming, smart, funny, kind, high on life and more than willing to lavish generous affection and empathy on a younger cousin.
Carrie was somewhere in the middle of a generation of 18 first cousins on my father‘s nine-sibling side of the family, and while I loved and vastly admired all of them, she was the one who possessed the qualities that made an acolyte of me — for life.
The physical problems that go along with the process of growing old are minor compared to the ache of losing one who knew you from almost the first moment of life, who helped you take your first steps, who rode in the shotgun seat as you learned to drive a car — “plowing through all of the ditches alongside the roads of east Texas” was the way she described my early motoring skills.
She was the first cousin to embrace my husband as a member of our extended family, one of the first to fondle our children. Her own youngest daughter and my daughter are the same age.
With Carrie’s passing comes another terrible truth: I am now the oldest of our generation of cousins who spent part of childhood in the tiny Texas town that most of us called home for a time at least. At family gatherings to come, I will be the matriarch. I know it sounds kind of grand, but it will be an uncomfortable seat given at least one of the implications.
Our cousin-of-honor, Bess Wellborn, Carrie’s sister-in-law, is five years older, and still in town along with two daughters and a nephew who belong to our numerous second generation of cousins. Others have homes in the countryside nearby and in larger towns alongside I-20. Still more pursue careers in the big city of Dallas and as far away as New York and Chicago.
I got to thinking today that I once read that the hardest part of growing old is having to live among strangers. But, although those of my generation are passing on, how could anyone feel lonely and unloved with 35 beautiful and handsome cousins of the second and third generations?
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.