Katie is six. Her hair is white-blonde, and she's missing four front teeth. I barely know the child; after all, I've only been in the house three minutes, and this is only the second time I've seen my cousin's daughter. But I know already that I'm about to be delighted.
"Let me show you my Christmas gifts," Katie says. "First, I got this great Snoopy shirt," she says, holding out the hem of her dog-adorned shirt to help me get a better look. "And this Dora-the-Explorer doll ... and this puzzle book. It looks hard, but I think I can do it." She then gestures Vanna-style toward an impressive Barbie pool, where the stiff girl and her friends are lounging awkwardly.
Katie then comes closer. "You have to see this," she says, holding out her tiny arm so I can see the silver charm bracelet around her wrist. "It's from my Auntie," she explains. And then she cautions me. "Be very careful--it already lost a horse. Don't make it lose another."
She gives the room another glance, and when her eyes spy the tip of a plastic pink cell phone peeking out from beneath a magazine, those eyes widen and she draws in her breath. "And this!" She yanks the cell phone out with a flourish, holds it before my face, and announces, "This is my most favorite thing. You can actually call people, but they won't answer."
I must have given the appropriate gasps at the appropriate moments. I must have expressed just the right amount of enthusiasm at the properly spaced intervals, because Katie decides to bless me with a hug. Arms extended wide, she walks her wispy-haired, tooth-gapped self toward me, but just before she enfolds me in a waifish, six-year old hug, she stops short.
"Wait ... are you part of the family?"
I remember her mother, Larri, when she was Katie's age, and I was a four-year old pest. I remember following Larri through our grandmother's house, wanting to talk like Larri, walk like Larri, flounce my hair back with that exact Larri-panache. I remember climbing trees with Katie's mother, and talking about boys, and creating a haunted house together on Grandma's front porch. I remember visiting her in California, and spending the entire day in her bedroom listening to David Cassidy's "I Think I Love You" over and over again, falling in puppy love while Larri sat in her schoolroom watching the clock and wishing her day was over. And I wonder anew how so much time could have passed so quickly, and so much space could have grown where there had once been a closeness.
"Yes, Katie ... I'm part of the family."
At that, she gives a happy little cheer and puts those slender arms around me. I'm accepted.
A few minutes later, when Larri comes downstairs and joins us in the living room, Katie brings her up-to-speed.
"Mom, I love your new cousin."