Middle school was tough – as middle school often is.
My parents had been divorced for a few years. I’d entered an awkward, chubby stage, and I was struggling in math and science.
Plus, there was this bus ride when I’d been brutally picked on for my clothes. I came off the bus in tears, but didn’t feel much like telling my Mom what happened, so I wrote my cousin Mary Ellen.
Technically speaking Mary Ellen was Bob’s (my “stepdad”) first-cousin. But given that Mary Ellen’s Dad was sixteen years younger than Bob’s Mom, Mary Ellen was closer in age to me (her cousin’s kid), than her actual cousin.
Even though Mary Ellen lived with her parents and siblings in upstate New York, she’d spend most summers with family in New England…mostly looking after her fist-cousins’ children…like my sisters and me.
I loved Mary Ellen from the first time I met her.
She let me try her makeup. Introduced me to Pearl Jam. And somehow made it feel okay to feel however I was feeling.
She let me talk about the Dad, that wasn’t her first-cousin, whenever I needed to, and at the same time never (ever) made me feel like anything else other than true, forever, and natural family.
So, I suppose it made sense that when I hopped off that bus covered in shame and soaked in tears, that Mary Ellen was the first place I turned.
After pouring out in a long and messy handwritten letter, I breathed easier and with the stamped envelope, simply let it go.
About a week later a big box arrived, addressed to me. It was stuffed with expertly folded brandname clothes. Polo. Gap. J. Crew. L.L. Bean. And a note from Mary:
“The labels don’t matter. You do. But in the meantime, just tell those kids that these came from your cousin in New York (just say New York). No need to mention that they’re hand-me-downs. Just tell them they were shipped directly to you from your cousin in New York. :)”
For years to come, the clothes that made up that life-changing care packaged remained an essential part of my wardrobe…and my heart.
Late last night I decided that I again needed my cousin, so I packed bags for my son and me, gave my husband a good, long kiss, and made our way to Mary’s in Maine.
And when I woke up this morning I had that same wave of peace wash over me, that lovingly rolled in when I cracked open that box so many years ago.
(PS – Mary Ellen is the one to the far left)