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cousins and kinship

August 12, 2011
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When I was a teenager and young adult, one activity I particularly enjoyed was going to funerals and other get-togethers of extended family with my father. I liked meeting cousins I didn’t know I had, I liked hearing family stories, I liked finding out about how I was connected to these people, but most of all, I liked spending time with my father. Especially under circumstances where he was proud to claim kinship with me.

These events gave me opportunities to experience people paying attention to me, in a good way. I was asked my opinion, and it was listened to. Sometimes I was complimented on my appearance, poise, or maturity, which boosted my confidence.  And it was a complete novelty to have my father act like he found me interesting and engaging, which was even more encouraging.

So kinship in these circumstances seemed like an unalloyed good. I gradually found myself collecting information and stories, which later morphed into becoming my generation’s “family tree person”, often bringing with me to parties large genealogical charts that illustrated how everyone was related. Becoming a resource of family information was a niche of expertise usually reserved for people much older than myself. Older people loved that someone younger was interested in their stories and information. People my own age or younger liked hearing how things fit together, without necessarily having to personally listen to and sift through a bunch of boring stories. It was quite satisfying to find a place in my family where I could use my talents and be respected for doing so.

Family gatherings where my mother and my siblings were present always seemed to be events where I never got any good attention. My mother would often draw attention to me, but as if I were a zoo animal on display. I remember one funeral (when I was in my 30s) where she titillated a group of distant cousins by explaining how it came about that I had recently stopped eating pork. The precipitating event was quite traumatic, and I really did not appreciate her dragging me over to these people and then insisting that I talk about that painful topic for the purpose of entertaining them. None of them were at all sympathetic. I felt like a freak in the circus.

I grew up feeling like I barely knew my own first cousins on my father’s side, but I knew quite well my father’s first cousins (and sometimes their children), and sometimes his second cousins, or even third cousins. At times I’ve also been quite friendly with my mother’s first cousins, largely because of shared family tree interests.

I would’ve said, as a kid, that I knew and was close to my first cousins on my mother’s side. It is true we spent a lot of time together, but the older I got, the more I realized I didn’t know them at all.

Since I stopped talking to my parents six years ago, on my mother’s side of the family there have been marriages and divorces, and births and deaths. Someone has an old family tree chart that I did, and wants me to update it. And I don’t want to. I wasn’t sure why not, except for this odd niggling feeling that there was no benefit to me for doing so.

I’ve just realized that the family tree charts I’ve made are, like works of art I’ve created, a synecdoche of me. They embody what I most value — connections between people who care about each other, including me. So when I’ve attended a family gathering with such a chart, I’ve done so because I felt welcome — I was invited; at least one person wants to see me; I belong in this family; and I am an expert of sorts on this topic of genealogy, that someone here is interested in.

The person who asked me if I would update the old chart did so in the context of telling me about the most recent family reunion, which I was not invited to. As far as I’m aware, this relative was the host. Maybe they think that people tell me about reunions and automatically invite me, but they don’t. In fact I only heard about this particular reunion from a cousin on the other side of the family, and she assumed I already knew about it. It’s true that I would not have attended, but it would’ve been nice to be asked.

And if I’m not welcome, then my chart is not going without me.

+++

Another relative mentioned to me recently that one of my father’s siblings, now deceased, had previously made a tape talking about family history; I was asked if I wanted a copy.

I often accompanied my father when he was visiting his father in the nursing home in the later years of my grandfather’s life. My grandfather would often talk about his own personal history, at my father; it was not a conversation. My grandfather only talked about people he knew as a young man, before he married my grandmother. My father kept trying to connect to his father, and my grandfather kept ignoring his attempts. And then my father would make excuses for his father; apparently having “such a rough life” made it okay. It broke my heart.

My grandfather never even bothered to learn my name. If he addressed me at all, which was rare, it was either “hey you!” or he would say something like, “you’re one of YourFather’s kids, aren’t you?” We never had a conversation about anything because he had zero interest in me.

I think I’ve might have liked my grandmother, but she died when I was four.

My father had five living siblings, and of them, only one as far as I know had any affection for me at all. And that is not the person who made the tape.

To me, kinship is about so much more than shared DNA — it’s about relationships. It’s about connections that I’m proud of, legacies that I’ve inherited and am putting my own spin on.

A “family history” that talks about people who I didn’t have any relationship to, people who didn’t know me at all, people who didn’t like me — to me, there’s nothing of family in that. That’s just strangers talking about other strangers. And from a historical standpoint, it could be interesting. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me.

+++

I took over the genealogy database that Spouse had begun populating before we met. At this point, I have personally entered about 5000 relatives of his, of mine, and in some cases, of special friends whose family information I want to keep track of.

I have a very good memory for names, so when we meet his extended family at reunions and such, I am often explaining to him how he is related to them. Or I am asking them questions about still other relatives.

I was beyond excited the day I realized that my favorite of his uncles was a distant cousin to someone I knew and liked. Because that meant that I was her distant cousin by marriage, but none of the rest of my family is.

“Family tree people” are happy to claim kinship with other “family tree people”, whether or not there is a blood tie. But when I meet Spouse’s cousins who are not interested in genealogy, they don’t see me as their cousin. Even when I come in waving the chart and excitedly explaining how everyone (but me) is related to everyone else.

So I have very mixed feelings about hearing family history for Spouse’s family too.

+++

When family means I’m included, I’m interested. When it’s just another way to divide “us” from “them”, and somehow I’m always “them”, then I’d rather talk about something else.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2011 02:34

    Sing it, sister.

    For many years the word “family” left a bitter taste in my mouth. But I am fascinated by genealogy, how people fit together, what history has gone into making the unique combination of genes that is me out of these disparate ancestors.

    Maybe I am wistfully interested, because living relatives are tribes whose membership has always been a slippery or conflicted thing for me.

    • August 14, 2011 10:47

      Asking people about their stories often provides insight you could never have learned otherwise. So that can be a sideways path into genealogy. (There are family tree people, though, who only care about names, dates, and places *that they can document*. They don’t want stories, they want paperwork! I find those people unsettling and unpleasant.)

      When I think of ancestors, and how I’m part of a web/ecosystem, where every individual has a place – we don’t need credentials, we don’t need a majority to vote us in; we belong by right – that works better for me.

  2. August 16, 2011 09:49

    I’ve always enjoyed hearing and telling family stories. One of my favorite assignments in elementary school was to record family stories, for which I told the stories of my two different grandmothers. But then, I’ve always had a family that has gotten along remarkably well. And I have to always remind myself how fortunate I am that I have a family like that.

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