Cool Cousin Steve
My cousin Steve died last fall. It was a senseless accident, really. He was riding his bike. From what I understand, he was biking along, traveling down a steep hill when he attempted to avoid a dog that suddenly jumped out at him. In his efforts, he was thrown from his bike and struck his head. The rest of the details are really immaterial; the most significant detail is that he didn’t make it.
His widow, Dawn, didn’t schedule a memorial for him until this past August. I didn’t ask about the reasons for the delay, although I’m sure I understand them. His loss hit me hard, and I rarely had the opportunity to see him; I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of the pain she must have been feeling.
That’s one of the toughest parts about growing up, and getting older, actually. The specter of death becomes more real every day. Parents die. Peers pass on. Loved ones succumb to various ailments, afflictions and accidents. The loss of Steve is a reminder of the fragility of life, and the importance of appreciating the loved ones in yours.
Steve and his brother Jeff were always my “cool” cousins. When I was growing up, they were the older cousins that a young, wannabe cool kid would naturally look up to. Steve was seven years older than I, and Jeff was four. I didn’t get to see them very often, as we lived six or seven hours away. But at holiday time, and during the occasional visit to the house, I often got a chance to see them and, for a limited time, hang out with them.
I loved hanging out with both of them. To the young, pre-teen me, they were very similar in many ways, and I was really too young to differentiate between the nuances of their very different tastes and personalities. They were just cool, and I always looked forward to spending any kind of time with them.
I learned as an adult that Steve was the gentlest of souls, but to a young pre-teenager growing up, he had a dangerous-coolness about him that I gravitated towards. Because there was a seven year difference between us, I could never hope to be cool enough for him to want to hang out with me, but he still did, because that’s what cousins are supposed to do. And I reveled in the time I got to spend with him.
A child of the ‘60s, Steve had the obligatory long hair, torn jeans, and (to me) psychedelic tastes. (That's Steve, on the left, in one of my favorite pictures of him.)
He went to college and studied fine arts, and photography. He was a true artist and was a master of the camera, and of sculpture. I learned, only after his passing, how well-respected he was in the art community, and how well received his art work was. At his memorial, I read one of the local reviews of his sculptures, which included an interview with him. He was fascinating. He saw things in art, and in design, that I could never hope to see. He had a talent, and an eye, and knew how to bring his vision to fruition, in brilliant and challenging ways.
Steve was also a car nut. It might seem incongruous – an artist and sculptor who liked to get his hands dirty under the hood. But he did. He worked on cars, tinkered with cars, repaired cars, and swapped cars like a horse-trader from the old West. He owned Porsches, and Volvos, and Volkswagens, and Alfas. He had a Morgan that he rebuilt, and an original Mini. He owned almost 70 cars in his life, having acquired them in one deal or another, and he made them all run.
He helped me revive an old Volvo I’d bought years ago. It was a bad car, really, but when I called him on the phone for advice, he’d told me it was a good deal at $250. He told me that, for that price, I was getting a great car. Although I trusted his judgment, that trust was sorely tested the first day I drove that car because the wind caught the edge of the hood and blew it clean off the car; too much rust inside the engine compartment. I had to pull off the road to pick up the hood and reattach it, holding it in place with a couple of bungie cords. When I told Steve of my misadventures, he told me to bring the car up and we’d make it road worthy. And we did. We spent a weekend rebuilding that Volvo, and literally bolting the hood back in place. It was nothing if not a colorful vehicle.
Around Christmas of 2005, I realized that I hadn’t seen Steve in more than 20 years. Oh, sure, I’d talked to him on the telephone, and exchanged an occasional note. But our lives had gone in very different directions, in very different parts of the country, and the relationship between cousins who live as far apart as we did was difficult to maintain. But I decided I wanted to change that. So I sent a card to Steve that Christmas, and he responded with a phone call and an email. It felt really good inside to be in touch with him again. He was my cool cousin Steve, and I was glad to be getting to know him again.
He sent me pictures of his work, and it was very impressive.
I had no idea how he created the things he did, but the things he did were amazing. He visited me in the summer of 2007; there was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that he just had to see, and I was more than happy to have him stay with me while he visited the museum. It was great fun connecting with him again, although it was a bit of a wake-up call for me to see my long-haired hippie freak of a cousin standing at my door looking like Charlie Legit. But I was so happy to have him back in my life again, and thrilled to finally meet his wife, who I’d never had the chance to meet before.
Over the past four years, Steve told me about his farm, and the horses his wife took care of, and his art. When my dad got sick in the fall of 2006, he expressed concern, and after my dad passed, it was Steve who tried to coordinate a reunion of my mother and his mother, sisters who hadn’t seen each other in years because life sometimes gets in the way. I tried to help Steve in his efforts by giving my mom a little push towards a trip to upstate New York. She never had the strength for that trip, and she passed, too, in the summer of 2008 before getting the chance to see her sister, and her nephews, again.
Selfishly, I was sad, both for her, and for me, because I figured I’d get her up there, and we could all sit around and tell the old stories again. And it would have been a good excuse for me to finally get up to visit Steve at his Blue Moon Farm. I just wish I hadn’t needed an excuse; I should have just gone when I wanted to.
So my cousin went on that bike ride in October 2009. I wish I knew if the bike ride was a usual thing for him. I wish I knew where he was going. I wish I knew what his daily routine was. I wish I knew what special magic made him such a popular fellow that something like 100 people showed up at his farm in August, nearly a year after his passing, to honor his memory, and to celebrate his life.
Mostly, though, I wish I knew why I never made the time to get up there to see him again, and spend time with him, and to continue to reconnect with someone who not only was a nice guy, but a special man.