The arrival of the Billy Elliot tour at the Kennedy Center has provided a number of opportunities for reunions for the boy and some of his fellow cast members from the Broadway company. First, Neil and Ruby came down and spent some time with their former cast mate, taking a backstage tour after the show. Then, more than 100 students and teachers from Metropolitan Fine Arts Center came to see Ben as Michael and show their support.
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Every time I see them all together, usually only two to three times a year, I wonder where the time has gone.
“Them,” in this case, are the six Cook/McFarland first cousins — two boys bookending four girls in the middle. Nicholas, who I brought with me into the McFarland family, is the oldest at 21, followed by Elisabeth, the daughter of Michael and Jennifer who is 14 months younger.
The remaining four — Kate, Margaret, Emma, and Ben — were born within a 11½-month period from December 1996 to December 1997, a fact that still boggles the mind and no doubt caused their grandparents a great deal of heartburn.
Both of Jill’s parents have passed away — Betty in May 2005 and Bob last January. My dad died in 2007, and Elisabeth and Margaret also have lost their maternal grandfather. The links to generations past rest with my mom and the McFarland girls’ grandmother, who lives near the family.
The kids are lucky that they have grown up relatively close to each other. My sister, Julie, and her five children live close to my mom in Texas, and proximity/time/resources have meant the cousins have seen each other only a handful of times growing up.
In many ways, the last part of that statement mirrors my childhood. I only had two first cousins and saw them only on the odd occasions. It’s only since my dad’s death that I’ve reconnected with one of them, Melissa, and that remains sporadic. In many ways, both because of choice and circumstance, I feel like I’ve missed out on something.
And that’s never more apparent than when I see our kids and their cousins together.
As the family’s de facto photographer through the years, I’ve tried to gather all of the cousins together for pictures. Group photos are a bear under the best of circumstances because — depending on the group’s size — you literally have to take 20 or 30 shots to get one or two in all eyes are open and everyone is looking at you in a pleasant manner.
Last weekend, we drove down to Elon to hear Nicholas perform with his a cappella group, Vital Signs. Usually, because of the other kids’ obligations and timing, I make the 580-mile round trip by myself or perhaps with one child in tow. But this time, we all made the commitment to see the oldest perform.
We haven’t seen the McFarlands since Christmas — no surprise given the horrid winter and the coordination it requires to get 10 people together under the best circumstances — and my four sibs had not seen each other since February. But on this night, we were all there to cheer Nick on.
After the show, we all went to eat dinner. Nicholas brought his girlfriend, Katherine, and Margaret’s boyfriend came along as well. The kids and adults caught up, visited, and slid back into the familiar familial rhythms. It was if no time had passed at all.
One of my great regrets is that I was never able to get a strong posed shot of the six first cousins while Jill’s mom, Betty, was alive. Lord knows Betty and I tried, but I ultimately did not get a good group picture of the six until the Thanksgiving following her death. (Fortunately, after my dad died, my mom recognized how tough it would be to get all nine of her grandkids together, and had a formal family portrait taken that hangs in her house today.)
Now with the kids in their teens and early 20s, the Cook/McFarland cousins understand that the opportunities for these photos are rare. So even though they occasionally grumble, or make an ill-timed run for the bathroom to primp, they largely comply with my requests.
After the dinner, we rushed outside to the underlit parking lot. I put on the flash, focused with my fingers crossed and fired several times. Fortunately, of the five shots I took, one came out perfectly.
I posted the most recent group shot and was struck by how lovely these kids — now teens and young adults — have turned out. Unable to sleep, I went back through photos of the kids through the years and watched them grow up again.
Today, Ben and Emma are high school sophomores, as is Margaret. Kate is a junior. Nicholas is a junior in college, and Elisabeth is a sophomore. Sooner rather than later, the kids will no longer be part of our day-to-day lives, even though they never will be far from us.
That’s something every parent must confront, and with so much of our identities wrapped up in being parents/professional schleppers of our all-too-special foursome, it can be scary to think of what the transition may bring. But in many respects, I’m looking forward to it, both for us and for them.
In reality, it’s already occurring. Kate has driven for more than a year; Emma got her license in March and hasn’t looked back. We are now a three-car family with four drivers and another on the way, something that I haven’t had to deal with since I was a teenager myself.
The freedom afforded you when your children drive is amazing, and an odd way to prepare you for the next chapter. It’s much like first-time parents experience in the latter stages of pregnancy’s third trimester, when no one can sleep and everyone is overjoyed, scared, and persistently nervous at the same time.
Jill and I are fortunate, and I know it. Our kids are largely studious, respectful, and want to be the best they can at what they do. They spend too much time staring into the depths of their iPhones and questioning most (or at least many) decisions we make. But they truly are good kids, and I’ll miss having them around when that time comes.
And it will be all too soon.