As I dip my legs in the pool, I stare up at the sun, grateful for the heat on my skin after a very long winter. It’s finally the 4th of July and the beginning of my vacation! I’m with my family at my Aunt Moo (aka Judy) and Uncle Tom’s house. The smell of hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill is intoxicating as it wafts around their backyard in Staten Island, NY.
With a cocktail in hand, I look around at my Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins feeling a bit nostalgic as a particular person is missing, my Uncle Weazle. The 4th of July is a sacred holiday for our family as we were always together, mostly at Uncle Weazle’s house in Far Rockaway. It was the same scene…pool, cocktails, hot dogs and hamburgers and of course Fireworks courtesy of our very own pyrotechnic, Jimmy Mazzola aka Uncle Weazle!
This is our second Independence Day without him, but before the tears being to fall, my 32-year old cousin Jessica steps out of the house wearing a tank top that says, “Expecting a Little Firecracker” as she stands next to her husband, Junior, whose t-shirt says “The Man Behind the Little Firecracker…”
And just like that, the circle of life slaps me in the face to wake me up from my melancholy. My sadness quickly turns to overwhelming joy as they officially announce the impending arrival of their baby due on December 29 (the day my Uncle Weazle passed away almost 2 years ago). The irony and magic of this “coincidence” is not lost on our family. We feel so blessed that Uncle Weazle continues to participate in our lives and be present, in spirit.
At the same time, I suddenly feel dizzy as I flashback to the day my cousin Jessica was born. I was 13 when she and her fraternal twin sister, Sam, were born. I was so excited, mainly because these were the first baby cousins to be born in about 8 years. WE GOT TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!!!
When I saw her little face for the first time, my mind fast-forwarded, and I wondered what kind of person she would be? What career she would have? Where would she live? Who she would marry? I loved that I would get to watch her grow up and be a mixture of an older sister, cousin, and best friend.
I loved that I had the chance to influence her the way her mom (my Aunt Moo) motivated me in life. And now my daughter, MSP, who will be 10-years old when her baby is born, with almost the same age difference will get to pay it forward in the way cousins do. This realization indescribably warms my heart. Cousins are sacred. It makes me feel good about me, to be part of this fantastic multi-generational cousin tribe.
Our cousin tribe runs from age 1 to 47; Gen X to Gen Z with a bunch of millennials thrown in for good measure. We were raised by a mix of Boomers and Gen X as my Mom, and her five siblings range from age 71 to 53, and they are known as the five J’s (Jackie, Joyce, Jimmy, Judy, and Jeff).
We owe it all to my Nauna and Poppa, Blanche and Mario Mazzola; our matriarch and patriarch. They imparted the importance of family, acceptance, and unconditional love on every single one of their kids. When they passed on, many families might have fallen or grown apart. Not the Mazzola’s; we got stronger, and we got bigger.
At my Nauna and Poppa’s house, there was always extra; extra love and extra food. Everyone was welcome, and everyone was treated like family. It makes me so very proud to be born of such giving people; people always ready with a plate of food, a hug, and a laugh. In my family, to feed is to love, and there was an abundance of both.
Which leads me to the Poconos trip and why the fuck 27 people would happily volunteer to cohabitate in one home for five days and four nights.
It all started in 1972 when Nauna and Poppa bought land in Indian Mountain Lakes, PA. It was the year before I was born, and by 1981 they built a tiny little ranch house and moved in that Winter.
I remember that trip up to Indian Mountain Lakes the Winter of 1981. It was so dark, I recalled that we arrived at the house at night when in fact it was the middle of the afternoon. There was about three feet of snow on the ground, and we couldn’t see the way to the front door. My father was driving the tractor-trailer with all their stuff, as the rest of us drove up in the cars.
I asked my mom why the fuck would we drive up to PA in the middle of Winter, and no one, not one of my mom’s siblings could remember why we moved them in during the Winter. It was nonsensical, straight up crazy. It’s what Nauna wanted. And when Nauna said jump, Poppa and the rest of the family pulled out the trampoline.
From that day forward, most of our summers were spent in that house. That three-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch home.
That move in the middle of Winter brought 20 people into that teeny, tiny house. One bathroom! 20 people. Yeah, you figure it out…but we made it work. No one cared. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything (they were possibly too afraid to speak up). We were together, and we were happy. The stories and experiences that ensued as a result of that investment are exponential.
When I talk with people outside my family, and we share summer stories, many people visited many places around the world. But my cousins and I experienced life and love in an enviable way.
As kids from Brooklyn, the best part of summer in the Poconos was leaving the sanctity of stoop ball, block parties and fire hydrants (as sprinklers) to the smell of the woods, ATVing, horseback riding, swimming in the lake, skeet shooting, building campfires, ghost stories, and smores. The best of both worlds.
It was a pleasant reprieve from the cityscape of our everyday…where the air smelled so clean and the trees swayed in the breeze, causing a cacophony of swishing that was pure magic when you napped on the hammock.
The craziest part is that my grandparents treated all of us as free labor and our familial games included: move the boulder from one side of the house to the other OR hurry up rake the gravel in the driveway so the cars wouldn’t get stuck. Or don’t wet the rocks with the hose because…well, I don’t remember why it’s just what Nauna wanted.
In Italian families, blood, sweat, and tears were all part of a hard day’s work…and we valued the lessons in physical labor. I treasure that now, more than I ever thought possible. Particularly as my child is raised in a culture of immediacy and access. We knew how to work for what we wanted and needed.
And then there was the bocce court. One year my family and I went up to visit Nauna and Poppa to build a bocce court. How guinea can you get? And let me tell you, there were some epic games on that court!
The stories from that house, the memories flooding my brain…the antics, crazy nights, chaotic mornings…both horrifying and glorious while experiencing them and remembering them.
The time my cousin James (aka Uncle Rill; which is short for Gorilla) broke his collar bone while ATVing (we called it quading and even had our own quad). Or the time that my two aunts (Aunt Jackie and Aunt Moo) got twisted on bloody mary’s while power-washing the house and my little cousin, Tori, told Nauna “Stop giving them Sissy’mary’s!!!” which lives on in infamy til this day.
The building of people pyramids as regular entertainment or the time we went up for Halloween and had a murder mystery weekend (in costume; even Nauna and Poppa complied). Or the countless games of ‘May I’ when my Poppa would get so mad at the game, he would pound the table with his massive hands scaring the fuck out of everyone.
And the food…my God the food! We always brought up bagels from Brooklyn for breakfast and then on the last day Nauna, and the sisters made Sunday sauce. It was a tradition. It was required, and nothing will ever taste as good.
But after Poppa passed away in the fall of 2002 and Nauna one year later in 2003, the five J’s sold the Poconos house, and we haven’t visited the Poconos together as a family since.
This still breaks my heart as I wished I could have afforded to buy it at the time.
‘Til this day, I can close my eyes and remember the smell of the house when we first opened the door (mothballs and pine). I can still see my grandparents on the porch signing “I Love You” as we drove away to go back to our city life.
While we still see each other often as a family and celebrate life’s milestones and holidays together, we haven’t cohabitated the same way in a very long time; 18 years to be precise.
On July 7, 2019, the Mazzola family united in the Poconos; now 27 deep and missing at least 11 family members who couldn’t make it. We are on our way to a house we rented to relive all the wonderful times we had growing up with big family trips to the Poconos and to celebrate my brother’s retirement from the Police force after 21 years.
It’s not our house, but a house we rented…not the same but shit, the house is not the home, the people in it are what makes it a home.
And as my mother, daughter and I (three generations of Mazzola women) drive up for our family vacation, I realized this was the first time my daughter would experience this wonderful place only two years older than I was when we traveling there as a family.
As we see the ‘Welcome to Pennsylvania’ sign on the side of the road, memories flood my mind, and we begin to surface moments from two decades of Pocono family trips.
Then we see the Planet Earth store; our rainy-day respite for nearly twenty years. When we walked in, it smelled and looked the same. We found out from the store manager that they opened 25 years ago…around the same time we started traveling to PA together. My entire childhood Summer memories wrapped in the warmth and aroma of patchouli and incense.
All that PLUS my cousins. An entire five days and four nights uninterrupted cousin-time. It may sound geeky to say, but I never really worried about friends. While I always had lots of friends, and even during my darkest/coolest college days, my cousins were EVERYTHING to me. Whether they realize it or not, all that I am is wrapped up tightly in who they inspired me to become.
And the coolest thing about cousins is that no matter how long we’ve been apart, it’s like no time has passed when we converge in this 7-bedroom home. The most precious gift of all is witnessing my daughter with her big and little cousins. Mainly because she is an only child, she will never really feel that because she is so close to her cousins. She doesn’t know the difference between a cousin and a sibling.
While we are together in this home, we cook EVERY SINGLE MEAL. Yes, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The uncles take all the kids to the firing range (DO NOT JUDGE ME PLEASE), they go fishing and we have a blast at the water park. But the best times, the best moments are at night around the campfire.
One day, we were sitting around the pool just bullshitting and messing around playing cornhole and frisbee…we started talking about the rules of being a cousin in our family. Which then sparked an idea for this blog…
I asked my cousins…all 21 of them…what are our unspoken rules? I told them I thought it would be awesome to write them down for all the new cousins being born into the family. It can be our code…the Code of the (Mazzola) Cousins. Of course, my amazing cousins actively (and aggressively) contributed.
And so, on a Wednesday afternoon in July, we sat in the backyard of our rented Poconos house and created the Mazzola Cousin’s Code. Every single cousin inspired or came up with the below list…I hope it inspires you to capture or create your own code or simply to reach out and call your cousin to tell them how much they mean to you…
The Code of the (Mazzola) Cousins. Deez Be The Rulz!
- Cousins don’t rat on cousins (unless someone is bleeding and then it depends on how much blood).
- Nicknames are both welcome and hated. The more you have, the more you are loved. If you don’t have a nickname, worry.
- Big cousins take care of little cousins even when they are annoying.
- Cousins can beat each other, but no one else better touch a cousin, or they will receive the wrath of all the cousins.
- Cousins make up games whenever possible, and that can even be with a tin can and scotch tape or sheets and a broom. (One game we made up included my brother and cousin simply melting on us. They are forever Melting Tommy and Tommy Mush.)
- If the older cousins are ever drunk or stoned, they should act like a bunch of Fonzis to confuse the parents. Yes, this was an actual quote from a Poconos trip from my cousin James aka Uncle Rill.
- Sweet talk the Aunt’s/Mom’s: compliment their shirt or the meal they prepared. You can literally get away with anything if you up the ante and give them a hug.
- Make fun of each other, but once someone cries stop.
- Spontaneous singing is expected and welcomed. If you don’t know the words, you will learn because we tend to sing them over and over and over again!
- Talent shows require participation from every cousin. Every cousin has a role whether they like it or not.
- There are certain Movies required for respect and quoting often. For the Mazzola Cousins, the required films are History of the World, Grease 2, Conan the Barbarian, DC Cab, Breakfast Club. The younger cousins may now require other films, but these are foundational.
- If you married a fellow Mazzola cousin, you would NOT be considered an official cousin until you’re married to a blood cousin for 30 years. Then you are all in!
- Cousins call each other out on assholery. No holds barred.
- Chanting is necessary to annoy and control the parental units (aka the Aunts and Uncles).
- Storytelling and speeches are expected and judged harshly. Even if you are really good at making speeches, cousins will mock you publicly (but they will secretly love that you are making a good speech and tell you later privately).
- Cousins repeat legendary stories as often as possible. Stories are usually retold around the kitchen table or a fire pit.
- The pool is not a bath (shower your nasty ass before entering the pool). The ocean is not a toilet (do NOT pee in the ocean near me).
- Cousins have each other’s backs when anything is broken. Our main goal is to confuse the parents, so cousins must run in circles until they are too tired to care.
- When singing happy birthday, cousins make loud, obnoxious noises similar to a loud barking duck.
- Little cousins DO NOT wake older cousins before 11am, or the littles should prepare to be beaten. This rule applies even if the parents are telling you to wake up the older cousins because coffee is made and breakfast is ready; consider this a trap.
- Respect your elders but fuck with them as often as possible, especially if they are hard of hearing.
- Cousins beat on cousins, even the littles. No one is safe, and there are no rules!
- Cousins hug as often as possible even if another cousin doesn’t want to be hugged.
- Cousins never let another cousin live down their most embarrassing moments or mistakes. We are each other’s witnesses and tormentors.
- Cousins keep each other’s secrets; til the death!
- Farting on each other is mandatory and respected. Even setting farts on fire is acceptable (yes this happened many times).
- Cousins DO NOT fall asleep first, or there will be consequences. Consequences may include but not limited to: magic marker drawing on your face (and they will use a permanent marker), a mouth full of whip cream or straight up mockery for being lightweight.
- If you do not prank your cousins, you will be ridiculed and pranked extra!
- Be on guard at ALL times as people will jump out at you (from closets or hallways) and scare the shit out of you. You may then beat them relentlessly.
- Cousins make fun of each other’s deformities/blemishes like moles and zits; cousins may even make up songs and chants about these issues.
- Blame your cousin as needed, just know they will sell you out next so choose wisely.
- Cousins are not merciful, they are relentless, and that can either mean ball-busting or in loving ways.
- Shyness is confusing to the cousins, it will be shunned, and you will be broken of any shyness.
- Cousins show up to each other’s stuff. If you have a performance or important event, cousins will always be there rooting you on (sometimes so loudly you might want to crawl under a rock, but then you realize how cool it is and you’re proud).
- Cousins make sure we are always the loudest family.
- Cousins don’t keep valuables in their pockets as they can be thrown in the pool at any moment. To that point, DO NOT stand by the edge of a pool fully clothed as that is cousin code for “push me into the pool.”
- At least one cousin needs to have the skills to get out of a zombie apocalypse. In our case, it is our cousin James, aka Uncle Rill.
- Cousins get together as often as possible, but it will never seem like enough time.
- Cousins create traditions around holidays or just because we feel like it.
- The kitchen is the heart of the family and the place you can always find a cousin to hang out with.
- Cousins will always help another cousin find their way (especially if they are a little lost).
- Cousins are first in the food line and possibly cover a favorite cousin if they are in the bathroom. You will be duly rewarded for kindness
- Cousins are crazy funny. The most popular cousins are the craziest.
- Never choose a friend over a cousin.
- Don’t be a dick. It’s just that simple.
- Cousins are best friends. Cousins are forever.
Here is a pic of the Poconos Mazzola clan that volunteered to live together for five glorious days…the funny thing about my family is that they are NOT camera shy and they take direction very well. After this beautiful photo celebrating my brother’s retirement…
Immediately after that amazing picture, I directed them to “Beat each other” and they happily and quickly complied…I’ve never had such willing subjects. These crazy fucks!!!!
I realized what makes me unique and special is this crazy, wild, intense, and raucous crew of people. They are everything to me. I love the way they love my kid; I love the way my kid loves them. And I will always be a rock for this family…I will make it my life’s mission to keep us together, making new memories, sharing old ones, and always honoring my Nauna and Poppa. Cause that’s what Nauna wants and when Nauna says jump…I proudly pull out the trampoline.