Happy birthday Maretta!

Incredible! Today, my oh-so-much-older-than-me cousin celebrates reaching the official age for retirement.

Is this that awesome, much older, wiser, cuter and artistic cousin who came to stay for a few days to help my mom with her passel of five kids by ironing the basket of clothes that never seemed to be empty? In those days before an abundance of wash and wear, mom had to dampen the clothes dried on the line and then iron them to look neat for church, school and trips to town. Even though Mom did not insist on a new outfit every time we got a speck of dirt on us, with five little ones, she had a perpetual pile of wrinkled laundry to flatten.
And that’s where Cousin Maretta entered the scene. She would come over to stay with us for a few days, to hang out and to iron – and iron. The seven-and a half year gap between us, prohibited deep conversations. She was a teenager and I had barely entered grade school.

At her house, I played with her little sister, Joyce, who was in my grade at school. Mostly big sister Maretta, from her superior age and experience ignored us. Or, more comfortable with someone our own size and age, maybe we ignored her – except for that one summer afternoon. That day we watched as Maretta and the between sister Donna pulled out swim suits, books, sun glasses and blankets. They arranged their collection in the back yard and settled down to work on a tan.

Little copy cats, we joined them in this obviously important ritual.
When my parents arrived to pick me up that evening, my cute cousin sported a toasty tan – and I glowed like a boiled lobster.

By the time my mom preserved me with a thorough dousing of vinegar, I had danced my howling reaction to its sting and smelled like a pickle. Emotionally scarred for life – but no skin damage, not even a blister, I nevertheless, never again purposefully exposed my skin to long periods of time in the sun.
Before I knew it, Maretta hurried off to get married and raise a family. With that she moved beyond my childish level of comprehension.
She settled down in Indiana where my husband and I initially lived after we married. Although only a couple hours apart, we only crossed paths once – both too busy caring for our growing families.

Last year, with our families grown and having their own children, we reconnected when I called to inform her of my father’s passing. Having lost her own mother not that long ago, she reached across the miles to comfort the family.

Since then she has entertained me with e-mails loaded with collections of pictures she has gathered from the Internet: Weird tree formations, a variety of electronic signatures, unusual buildings around the country, sand creations and many, many more. Via e-mail I caught a glimpse of her creative floral arrangements.

Even more importantly, she has scanned and attached pictures of our parents, aunts, uncles and cousins from years long gone including a picture from the summer she came to iron and a story of the summer my mother went to her parent’s home to recuperate from “milk leg” – a strange, rare illness that follows weeks after the birth of a child. I had never heard of the illness or that my mother suffered from it. I just remember her being gone. Now I know ‘why.’

So today on Maretta’s birthday, I celebrate again the wonder and privilege of having a oh-so-much-older-than-me cousin with a grand sense of humor, an artistic touch and memories I can only wish I had.
(Still the younger cousin, Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times. E-mail her at joanh@everybody.org.)