Fotoula or “Toula” Portokalos, a Greek American woman, and a non-greek, Ian Miller are on their first date. They’ve just finished dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant and decide to take a romantic walk across a fairytale-like pedestrian bridge. Ian starts to gently nudge the conversation in a direction Toula is slightly uncomfortable discussing. He wants to know what it was like for her growing up.
After weighing her options and knowing the importance of building relationships through intimate conversation, she says to Ian, “I’m Greek, right?” She goes on to explain that she has 27 first cousins and that her whole family is big and loud and always in everybody’s business. She discusses holidays and how her uncles fight over lamb brains and her Aunt Voula chases her around with a forked eyeball insisting she eat it because it will make her smart. It's an exchange in dialogue that has stayed with me for years. The point being...the large families of yesterday aren't large families today, at least in quantity.
The number of women giving birth compared to 50 years ago is quite different. Fertility in the U.S. has been on decline since the post World War II baby boom. In the mid-1970s, 40% of mothers that had reached the end of child-bearing years, had four or more children. Today, the same percentage of mothers at the end of their child-bearing years, has only two children. Fewer children, fewer cousins.
In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, Toula, played by Nia Vardolas has 27 first cousins; I have 20 first cousins. Everytime I watch this movie I think of the first date scene when Toula says she has 27 first cousins. Today, that number is unheard of. I have yet to meet many people if any my age or younger that have such a large number of first cousins.
There are so many fond memories of my childhood that were built around special times with my cousins. Remembering the large family gatherings at my grandmother Davis’ house, puts a smile on my face. My sweet grandmother was a Christian first and a southern-style home cook second.
At the dinner table there was always fried-crispy okra, purple hull peas, butter beans, cornbread, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese (made from ‘free’ government cheese the neighbor used to share), mouthwatering yeast rolls, and the biggest, fattest, sweetest, home grown tomatoes ever. All of these wonderful fresh vegetables came from the garden she had outback her house along with the rows and rows of peach trees.
After saying ‘the blessing,’ we would load our plates full of food until they were overflowing. While the kids were still on their first plate, we would watch our uncles go back for seconds and thirds. After dinner, the uncles would retire to the front room to watch television with grandpa, and the aunts would clean the kitchen to later sit around the dinner table for a scoop of fresh, peach cobbler. And we, the kids, would either go outside and play in the cotton field right next to our grandparents house or go back to grandma’s bedroom to get out the jar full of colorful buttons and tell stories about things going on in our lives.
On my dad’s side of the family, we would get together at our grandparents house in Memphis Tennessee where there was always plenty to do. Most of the time when we visited, the kids would go outside and play in my grandparent’s big fenced-in backyard. There was a basketball goal and a tree swing. We would play wiffle ball, football, anything that had to do with a ball. The Burnett’s were big ball players, very competitive. If there wasn’t a ball to be tossed around, we were playing music.
As the cousins got older, we stayed in touch as best we could. We’re all spread out from the tip of Indiana to Florida and on over to Houston, Texas. There are so many stories to be told. The first time I ever sang karaoke, and the last, was with the twins.
Karaoke was a big draw at their country club and one evening while visiting them in Mississippi, they invited me to the country club bar. I believe they knew what they had planned for me. In order to take part in their weekly sing-a-long, I had to have a few shots of liquid courage. Once I started singing, I never wanted to stop, though I know the rest of the room was very ready for me to pass the mic along to someone else. We shut the place down that night.
My 20 first cousins are quite diverse and it’s true, you don’t stay mad at your cousins. It’s not like getting upset with your husband or your wife, your mom or your dad, your brother or your sister, cousins are very different. I ran across several really nice quotes about cousins. “Cousins are friends that will love you forever.” “Time passes and we may be apart, but cousins always stay close to your heart.” “In my cousin, I find a second self.”