When Donna Bennett was growing up in the Richfield area, she lived a block away from her three cousins -- two girls and a boy -- who were similar in age to the three children in her own family.

"We played with each other all day long," said Bennett, who now lives in Plymouth and has grown children. "Our dads were brothers and we were all together so much, it was like we had two mothers."

Bennett believes cousins "are like friends, only better" and thinks shared family history is a boost to the formation of strong relationships from the very beginning.

"You start out in a different place with your cousins than you do with friends," she said.

Although Colleen McQuillan of West St. Paul has several cousins on both sides of her family, she has particularly fond memories of visits from what she calls "my five fun cousins," all women, from St. Louis.

"We're very much alike and we always have been," said McQuillan. "When we get together, it's just nonstop talking. It's like we revert back to childhood and reminisce about all the funny experiences we had together." (A weekend-long slumber party where the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever" was played over and over is an example).

Now in their late 40s and early 50s, they still gather regularly. For several years, McQuillan would join her cousins in St. Louis for the city's annual Mardi Gras celebration, a tradition she said "it's time to start again."

Michelle Craveiro, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Parkdale Therapy Group in St. Louis Park, agrees that the bond between cousins is frequently rooted in friendship, which parents and grandparents can help create.

"Grandparents can nurture those cousin relationships by inviting their grandchildren to spend time together at their home, without their parents," said Craveiro. "My mother has hosted many sleepovers for my two children and their three cousins. They always have a wonderful time."

Even if cousins live some distance apart, she says, parents should make it a priority to get the children together during family reunions or vacations.

"Cousins are not only an important part of our children's lives when they are young, but they will continue to be very important as they grow up," said Craveiro.

Kelsey Lahr has more than 40 cousins on both sides of her family. Some live in Oregon and Missouri and many are in St. Paul, where Lahr lives. Six of her cousins on her mom's side -- three girls and three boys -- are exactly her age.

"When we were younger, it was our parents who organized all the time we spent together. Now that we're older, we plan our own get-togethers and they are so much fun," she said.

Growing up with a brother, Lahr considers her girl cousins to be like sisters.

"I've been so close to my cousin Allie my whole life, but we definitely went through that 'bicker, bicker' stage where we'd fight over Barbies," Lahr said with a laugh.

Now, her female cousins are preparing to be part of a major event in her life: All three will be attendants at her May wedding.

Connected to the past

Donna Bennett has no doubts that family ties are strengthened by the bonds of cousins, no matter what their age. Having lost her own mother many years ago, she has a connection with her mom's 94-year-old first cousin that has become especially precious.

"Many of our family stories died with my mother, but in the last year or so, we've been meeting with my mom's cousin, who was like a sister to her and is still sharp as a tack," said Bennett. "When we talk with her, it's like having my mom back again. We hear the family stories from a new perspective."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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