When I think of the 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny, I almost laugh out loud. It was that funny. Here's the plot: While heading for college, teenagers Bill and Stan are arrested in Alabama under circumstances that point to them as having murdered a convenience store clerk. Unable to afford an attorney, they turn to Bill's cousin Vinny (played by Joe Pesci), a brash New Yorker who took six tries to pass his bar exam. Worse, until now he's only taken personal injury cases, none of which have gone to trial. He has an even more abrasive fiancee Mona Lisa Vito, Vinny will have to straighten up fast, and keep out of jail himself, if he's going to win the case. Vinny's a cousin, kin, and kin come to the rescue of family, right? Yes, much to Bill and Stan's chagrin. Vinny's the cousin from hell, but he redeems himself after all.
I thought of Vinny recently when I read Anthony Esolen's short article, "Dozens of Cousins," in the latest issue of Touchstone magazine. Esolen laments the loss of extended family, of ties to anyone beyond the immediate family, the nuclear family. He's talking about "those strange people called cousins, strange and familiar at once, whose blood -- nay, whose noses -- exert a powerful claim on your duty and who, in their numbers and their crazy variety and their blissful being-themselves, place you within a community whether you like it or not and remind you that you are not the most important person in the world." I'll say.
Growing up I had something like eight cousins that I saw much of, and all of them were on my mother's side. They all had their disagreeable propensities, were brats at one time or the other, played nice at other times, but regardless of how we got along, we knew we'd see them again and we'd better make up if we fought. You see, we were family, in some weird way, even though I couldn't imagine that we were in the same bloodline at all. I suspect Stan wondered that about Vinny, accepted his help (had to) and put up with his outrageous character -- because he was his cousin, he was family. You don't have a choice.
As Esolen says: "A cousin always has to choose you to play on his team, though he doesn't necessarily have to choose you first; you can waltz into your cousin's house and ask to use the bathroom or get a drink of orange juice; you can just show up unannounced and pester him into a game of rummy. Some kids find it hard to make friends, but a cousin has to like you even if he doesn't like you, and he comes readymade." Cousins know stuff, private information, like what a nerd you were as a kid, how you cried all the time when things didn't go your way. But that's OK, because you have information too. Thus, we are bound together in our secrets.
We're told life is better when we have more choices, and that even extends to family. So many people have no extended family ties, having burned those bridges long ago or never even bothered with them. But expanding choice is not always a social good. It's good to be plopped down in an extended family that you did not choose and be forced to deal with them. Grow up to be a dignified attorney, and they'll remember the undignified moment when you got your pants caught on the barb wire fence running from Mr. Crumbie's strawberry patch.
You know, to be honest, I don't have a single cousin that isn't a little strange. But it's OK -- I'm sure they feel that way about me too. I like it that way. You see, they're my cousins: I have to like them. It's good for me.