Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cousin Stewart

The Golden Boy

Cousin is a flexible term. Going back to Shakespeare, it could mean “close friend” or a generic relative of most any kind. Even if you limit the term to blood or in-law relations, I still have lots of cousins. If my father hadn’t been an only child, my large family would really be out of control.

I even went to school from K to 12 with two female cousins, one a year older, the other a year younger. Their mother was my mother’s kid sister. Those girls had a family of first cousins on the other side of the golf course, the four children of their father’s kid brother. Stewart, the second of those four; became my favorite cousin, hands down. Since he was a cousin-of-my-cousin, he wasn't a blood relative at all. But there was no way to explain our relationship other than “cousin,” so there it was. 

He was three years older than I, a very quiet boy. My first memory of Stewart was coming over to his house when I was about six, he would have nine. Painfully shy, the lanky boy didn’t talk to me at all. He did get out his six-foot tall unicycle and rode up and down the hilly neighborhood like the most agile of circus acrobats. He may not have been big on conversation, but Stewart sure did know how to make a lasting impression.

When I was in junior high, my parents separated for the umpteenth time before an eventual divorce. My mother decided that she needed to start becoming a regular at church again. As her youngest child, she took no excuses from me and I soon found myself spending time at the First Baptist Church. I knew no one there except Stewart and his two younger sisters. He still didn’t talk a whole lot, but the taciturn teen made it clear I was family and he took me under his wing. We became instantly close, as if we’d been hanging out since that day with his unicycle years before.

Stewart’s family took the moralistic tenets of the Baptist church seriously: No smoking, no drinking, no dancing. My family was a bit more flexible. I never could stand cigarette smoke, but I loved to dance and I’ve been known to liken champagne to mother’s milk. Stewart became what we now would call my “designated driver.”
Goofing with his sisters

Cousin Stewart never wanted to go to college. He worked for Sears and later in an industrial gold mine near Fairbanks, Alaska. In the spring, he would drive a truck from San Francisco up to Canada and follow the Al-Can Highway all the way to Fairbanks. When the ground thawed, they would resume digging for gold. When the ground froze again in the fall, Stewart would return to California.

My cousin would come up to visit me at college for a weekend of partying during those long winter breaks. I would party, he would just hang close. On his first trip to see me, I had prepared my female friends who'd become enamored of his photos. “Stewart is a good-looking kid, kinda like the actor Jan-Michael Vincent. Only taller. But he doesn't drink and he won't dance," I warned them. Of course, a major part of the agenda that weekend was a college dance.

Everything during his visit went just about as expected. Stewart and I had a good time together, but he was mostly a handsome fly-on-the-wall during the bacchanalian events. Then came the Saturday night dance. While I was on the dance floor, my friend Kira grabbed me and pulled me close. 

"Hey! I thought your cute cousin didn't dance?" There was Stewart, dancing like a stiff cracker with my friend Mary. "So..?" She asked.

"Well, I guess he does now. Maybe you should just ask him to dance, then?" 

She did. Stewart's reply? "Sorry, I don't dance."  

Kira slapped me right across the face, hard, and stalked off.

"Stewart, what the hell?" I whined. "Why'd you turn her down?"

"You know I don't dance," he said.

"But you did, with Mary."

"I didn't have a choice, she dragged me out there." That didn't exactly take the sting out of my cheek.

I have lots of stories about my enigmatic, contradictory cousin. Mostly about skiing--water skiing, that is. His fluid athleticism intimidated me too much to invest in a snow ski trip when I knew I would end up skiing by myself anyway. Stewart would return to California permanently, got married and had two daughters. My cousin bought back his father's old ski boat, a wood-hulled gem that his dad built with his brother (my uncle Bob). My squeaky-clean tea-totaling cousin rechristened the boat "My Vice." As far as anyone could tell, it was the only vice he ever indulged.

With his wife and one of his daughters
After I moved back to California in '97, I was fortunate enough to spend time with Stewart and his family water skiing. Whether it was a long summer day on Turlock Lake or the week-long water-ski orgy during our four-family houseboat excursion on Lake Shasta, skiing with Stewart was something special. His boat was beautiful,and he certainly was a generous and patient teacher and host. But the best part of any ski day was at the end, when Stewart got in the water. Considerate to a fault, he always waited for his guests to exhaust themselves first before allowing himself a turn behind the boat.

When Stewart skied--on two skis, one or even none--he was a vision to behold. Calm, strong, graceful, acrobatic, I have never seen a more beautiful skier cut through the water, not even professionals. Our mutual cousin Jackie said he was the most gorgeous man alive when he was barefoot-skiing. She dreamed of those afternoons watching our cousin glide over the boat's wake like a bird on the wing. We believed he could walk on water if he'd cared to. Diligent, humble, kind, giving and quietly religious, he was the perfect embodiment of what a man should be. 

But no man is perfect.

Our cousin Jackie called me up one day with the most incredible of news: cousin Stewart, our golden boy, was dead. A suicide. 

Stewart at 52

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