Geneva’s reference to Cousin Jean was the last thing Ellen wanted to hear. Her cousin had been a frequent presence in Ellen’s young life. Once Ellen was old enough to dread her friends’ criticism, she cringed when her mother championed Cousin Jean at family events, making it clear Cousin Jean was dear to her heart. A masculine-appearing woman, Cousin Jean wore dark tailored suits with brown oxfords and beige cotton stockings when society demanded at weddings, funerals, and christenings. Otherwise, she caroused with her young cousins clad in overalls, men’s shirts, and brogans. Though her own girls were beautifully dressed, Geneva made no reference to Cousin Jean’s unusual wardrobe.
As a young child, Ellen, along with her mother and sisters, spent wonderful times at the farm where Cousin Jean had raised Geneva after she was orphaned. They fished, did chores, and worked on the farm, right along with Cousin Jean, who farmed as well as any man. They spent long summer days playing outdoors and balmy summer nights sleeping on her screened back porch. As Ellen approached puberty, she felt embarrassed confusion at Cousin Jean’s differences in the company of her friends, while being torn for her love for her “odd” cousin. She felt so free in her love for Cousin Jean in Jean’s territory, the farm. It was only when she saw Jean through the eyes of her friends that her affection waivered. She loved and wanted to be a part of Cousin Jean’s life at the farm, was miserable at seeing Jean through her friends’ eyes. Why couldn’t Cousin Jean just try to be more like everyone else? When questioned about Cousin Jean, Geneva excused her with “That’s just Jean. She’s the only mother I never knew. I won’t hear a word against her. Don’t ever forget that!”
Ellen resented her mother’s excusing Cousin Jean’s eccentricity while diligently pushing her daughters conform to society’s expectations, never realizing her mother must have struggled with the same issues until she eavesdropped on a conversation and learned her mother had rebuked a friend who’d spoken snidely to Cousin Jean.
“I could have slapped her face for that. There’s no need to be so hateful!” Geneva spewed.
“Geneva, I learned a long time ago not to waste time on small people. I can’t change who I am for anybody. If you and the girls love me, that’s enough. Some people go through their whole lives with nobody. Don’t concern yourself on my account.”
From this, young Ellen knew Cousin Jean knew how “odd” she was, and resolved to love her, but felt Jean could fit in if she tried a bit harder. I would have made life so much easier for everyone.
As an adult, she’d conveniently catalogued Cousin Jean as an eccentric, and was genuinely glad to see her on the rare occasions their paths crossed. She was much more comfortable not seeing her on a regular basis.