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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

When you grow up in an Irish Catholic family, you are going to have a lot of cousins. That's because your mom grew up with a lot of siblings. At least mine did. My mother was one of seven children. This was not considered a particularly large family in her neighborhood, where the only birth control practiced was prayer. She then had six children, and on our mother's side of the family, my siblings and I were part of a gang of 24 cousins. Our father's more reserved, by which I mean less procreative, German side provided only eight cousins.

Cousins occupy a special band on the relationship spectrum. A cousin is less than a sibling but more than a friend. When siblings are close in adulthood, either geographically or affectionately, their children spend a lot of time together.

Which is to say: you may not necessarily like your cousins, but you are around them a lot. You know more about them than you do about your friends, but less than you know about your siblings. Which is to say: potential blackmail material. You share some DNA with a cousin, but not all. You may resemble each other, depending on your other parent and whose genes dominate your own randomly apportioned genetic makeup. Some of my Irish cousins are half Italian or half Polish, but the occasional red-haired, freckled kid occurs. I suppose my cousins from my adopted uncle are not blood cousins, but they are cousins nonetheless, because even if you don't look alike, cousins recognize the family behaviors, talents, and shortcomings that dwell in each other. Being related on the family tree is not a relationship you choose, but it can be one that you cherish.

Which is to say: A cousin can be a blessing or a curse.

Many of my cousins live in California, and we had the idea, at our annual Day-After-Christmas get-together, that we should spend more time together than only one day a year. Every Dec. 26, we'd say things like, "We really should do something during the year!" or "I'll call you for sure!" No one did. Finally, three years ago, we chose a summer weekend and invited all the cousins to the First Annual Cousins' Camping Trip.

Facebook, of course, helped in organization, at least for the cousins who subscribe to Facebook. One cousin in New Jersey surprised us with an early RSVP, but it turned out that she thought that "Cousins' Camping Trip" was a Facebook game, like farming or Bingo with Elvis. Then there were the cousins who would rather drop dead than go tent camping. We suggested that they get a hotel room near the campsite and participate in all the activities besides sleeping outdoors, but so far there have been no takers for that option. To date, five cousins and their families have successfully participated.

We take turns organizing the summer weekend, which includes choosing the date and the site, making the reservation, doing the math and then collecting the camping fees, and providing directions. Reservations at state campgrounds for summer weekends are notoriously tricky and hard to come by, so the availability of a group site often dictates the date.

The first annual Cousins' Camping Trip took place at Tehachapi Mountain Park, mainly because it was possible to secure a group site without an act of God. So far, this was the only place where any of the veteran campers among us has actually seen a bear. The second annual Cousins' Camping Trip was to Malibu Creek State Park, a lovely place for hiking, although, as we discovered, a hotbed of yellow jackets in the summer. This year's trip took us further south to Mount Palomar State Park, which boasted pleasant weather at an elevation of 5,500 feet, and an observatory, although the road to the park is a hairpin adventure in adrenalin. Next year's place and date are TBA.

You learn a lot about people at a shared campsite: from what they pack, what they cook, what equipment they use, how they spend the day, and how they treat the family members who come with them. You also learn a lot about people around a campfire. When we get past the basic personal news, the only updates really covered at the Day-After-Christmas event, the starry sky, the night air, and the glow of the fire encourage us to share more intimately the things that humble us or challenge us or energize us or delight us. We've discussed cancer, politics, childrearing, the death of parents and spouses, childhood memories, occupations, religion, pets, marriages, financial struggles, addictions, aging, traveling and more. Being of the same generation and the same blood, we have a lot in common.

The children we bring along, who are second cousins to each other, are of their own generation, and form their own connections from distant perches in the family tree. When I watch them interact, I hope the tradition of the Cousins' Camping Trip continues. A family, like a tree, needs deep roots to anchor and sustain green new growth, to reach ever-skyward.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian.