God made us cousins because He knew our moms couldn’t handle us as sisters.
~ Author Unknown
I grew up out in the boonies on the outskirts of a small town in Oklahoma. One of the best things about my childhood was growing up with my adult cousin’s children, Tera Nae and Clifford. Our extended family is very close, so our little “neighborhood” was made up mostly of family. Across the street from my house was my dad’s sister (Aunt Shirley) and her husband (Uncle Don). Behind them lived their middle daughter and her husband (Pam and Neldon – Tera Nae and Clifford’s parents), and then on the other side of my aunt and uncle lived my oldest brother with his wife and family. Each house had a revolving door and all of the adults kept an eye on all of us little kids. There was absolutely nothing any one of us could do without our parents finding out. If we misbehaved and our parents didn’t “take care of it,” it was because one of the other adult family members had “handled” it. You can read more about how discipline in our family was handled by following this link to a previous blog entitled, It Takes a Village. For now, suffice it to say that discipline was dealt by whichever adult happened to be closest to the culprits committing the crime at the moment the crime was committed.
At any rate, we cousins were always running around together and we were constantly in trouble. Tera Nae is a year younger than I am and we grew up more like sisters than second cousins. And summers were the best! As soon as the sun would pop up in the sky, one or the other of us was always knocking on the front door of the other’s house or, if it was too early to wake the whole house, then you might find one of us throwing pebbles at the other’s window as early as 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning with “plans” for the day and an announcement that we had to get started early or we wouldn’t have enough time to get it all done.
We were always full of scatterbrained ideas! Like the time we ordered a pizza and talked our much older teenage cousin (who was babysitting Nae and her brother) into driving “into town” to pick it up and pay for it. Since we lived so far out in the boonies, there was no pizza delivery for us…and we had no money.
Another time we spent an entire afternoon in Nae’s parents’ back bedroom calling random strangers out of the phone book and asking, “Is your refrigerator running?” This provided hours of entertainment for two pre-teen girls until one time our phone calls were interrupted by the telephone operator who gave us a very stern lecture about the illegality of using the phone for prank-calling purposes. She scared the daylights out of us, and then made it worse by disconnecting the line for the next several hours! I didn’t even know that could be done! Imagine our complete fear at the idea of Nae’s parents having to call the phone company to restore their service, only to find out that the line had been disconnected because two bored little girls were prank-calling strangers! We were terrified! To our great relief, the lines were reopened several hours later and – thankfully – before Nae’s parents got home.
Not to be outdone, our younger brothers got into their fair share of trouble as well. One day they thought it would be fun to use their BB guns to shoot out the windows of the old Co-op building next to our houses that was no longer in use. This might’ve been a really great idea for a couple of bored little boys, except that – being the only boys in the neighborhood with BB guns – the Co-op operators (who knew our family well) would know without much doubt who the culprits were. But, boys are boys; and bored little boys are the worst! Frankly, they just might’ve gotten away with this little act if the County Sheriff’s Department hadn’t brought their canine unit out by our houses to do some routine training. The two boys just knew they’d been caught! We’d all learned the hard way too many times: it was always best to admit our transgressions to Mom and Dad before someone else rats you out because the penalties were always far worse if they found out from someone else rather than straight from us! Remembering this, the two boys ran home to tell our dads what they’d done, only to find out later that the Sheriff’s Department knew nothing at all about the newly “decorated” Co-op windows! They had simply chosen that day – only a couple of hours after the boys had shot out the windows – to train their dogs. From this experience, we all learned to watch and wait for a bit before fessing-up. We learned to assess the full situation and – if it was clear we were doomed – then race in to tell the folks before someone else got the drop on us! To this day, though, I have to wonder what our parents were thinking by giving BB guns to 8 or 9 year old boys! Seriously? I have an almost 8 year old boy and that child will be lucky to even make it to his 8th birthday, much less be given a BB gun! Hmmm…maybe there was a method to their madness…
Probably my favorite memory, though, was one involving myself, Nae and a whole bunch of stolen chewing tobacco. No, you didn’t read that wrong. I said “stolen chewing tobacco.” A whole bunch of it.
Nae’s father and my middle (grown) brother were both occasional tobacco chewers and both of them had stashes that were easy for two little girls with sticky fingers to lift. If the men noticed their bags of chew missing, they might suspect our brothers; but they would never suspect two sweet little girls. Okay, so we weren’t sweet. But who would suspect two little girls?
Nae and I made plans and then one morning met at the crack of dawn, each with a package of Red Man Chewing Tobacco we had stolen from our respective families. We weren’t sure entirely how this stuff was supposed to work, but we’d seen grown men shove a plug into their cheeks and then spit occasionally. What we didn’t realize at the time is that the act of spitting wasn’t just to look cool. It is actually a very essential part of the whole process. Oh how I wish either of us had fully understood that back then!
Nae and I were so proud of our duplicity. As the day wore on and nobody seemed to notice (or care) that our mouths were packed with that vile chew, we became less and less worried about getting caught, until we were finally at the point where – since nobody else seemed to care – we quit trying to hide what we were doing. The very fact that nobody seemed to care really ought to’ve been our first clue. But we were about 7 or 8 years old and so proud of how grown up we were!
At one point in the early afternoon, I remember sitting at my Aunt Shirley’s kitchen table. She clearly had noticed the big wads of tobacco in our cheeks, but she said not a single word. My Uncle Don came through at one point, took one look at us, shook his head and did his unique little chuckle before walking away. Again, all without saying a word.
Not long after that, Nae’s mom (Aunt Shirley’s daughter) came in and clearly noticed what we were doing. In retrospect, I realize she was about to say something to us when Aunt Shirley must’ve given her some type of secret signal indicating to say nothing. I do recall, however, overhearing bits and pieces of a furiously whispered conversation between the two as they moved into the other room. I remember hearing my Aunt Shirley say, “Trust me on this and leave it be.” To me, this was further sign that it was perfectly fine. She was telling Nae’s own mom to leave us alone! Nobody cared! Hurray for us!
As the day wore on, Nae and I started to not feel so well. Our skin began to take on a green hue and our stomaches were beginning to rebel.
“I don’t feel so good, Aunt Shirley,” I remember saying at one point. “Oh, sweetie…that’s too bad. I hope you’re not coming down with something,” she said and then immediately put the two of us to work doing something for her.
A few hours later, neither of us were any good to anyone. We both went our separate ways where we ended up, each in our respective homes, with our heads hanging over the toilets. I don’t know about Nae, but I have never ever been that sick. Not before and not in the 30+ years since! All night long, I hung my head over the side of the toilet, emptying every ounce of my stomach’s contents and – unlike the flu where you have some time to recuperate in between bouts of illness – there was virtually no recuperation time. I was so sick I could barely sit up, and I was all-but hallucinating. At one point I was sweating so profusely that my folks moved a set of home-rigged double-tiered box fans over toward me with both fans pointed straight at me on high. It didn’t help.
At some point during the evening, I overheard the phone ring and my mother having a conversation with my Aunt Shirley. It would seem that she’d called to check on me, and I remember my mom saying something like, “Well, Shirley! Isn’t that sweet of you to check on her! How’d you find out she’s sick? What…? What…? What…? And Tera Nae? She’s sick, too? Oh….I see….”
All day long, my aunt had watched us chew and swallow that vile tobacco and said not a word. We thought she was being “cool” and letting us show off how grown up we were. But she’s more devious than that. As she watched us, she realized we weren’t spitting, which – she further realized – would make us sick. In her infinite wisdom, she realized that the best “punishment” was the result of our own actions, and so her approach to punishing us on this occasion was to allow us to continue on the course we’d begun. To this day, I can’t stomach the smell of fresh tobacco in any form. Watching someone with a wad of chew in his cheek or gum makes me a bit dizzy and more than a little nauseated.
At a family gathering recently, several of the cousins were sitting around recounting our childhood memories and – specifically – the events of this horrendous escapade. I asked my aunt, “Aunt Shirley, why didn’t you stop us? Why did you just let us sit there and chew (and swallow!) that vile tobacco??” With a chuckle, she let me know that sometimes the best form of punishment is to ignore the situation and let the actions run their own course until the punishment is the result of those actions.
Nae and I are grown adults now with children of our own and, much to our children’s dismay, we learned a great deal about discipline from Aunt Shirley. My own children think I’m evil and that my punishments are unfairly “creative,” but you should hear some of the creative punishments Nae has come up with for her children over the years! She makes Aunt Shirley look like an amateur! As for myself, if I have any creative parenting, I owe it all to my Aunt Shirley for teaching me everything I know!