You see, things don’t always go as planned, nor are they always as they appear to be. Not every family is the American epitome of the little white house, the picket fence, the station wagon and the collie dog. Ok, maybe I should update that to an SUV and an electronic fence, but you still get the idea.
In my case, I was born with one sibling…that I knew of. That was my half-brother on my mother’s side, John. I obviously knew this man from the literal day that I was born. In one of the few surviving family pictures, and only one of two with John and I together, John is holding me in a Christmas photo at my grandparents with our first cousins, the year I was born.
John was 13 years older than me, so it’s not like we were ever close. He was married when I was 5 and really not an active part of my life, so functionally, I grew up an only child.
But I actually had three more half siblings and maybe a fourth, who turned out not to be. That fourth would be my brother Dave, who was my brother of heart but not my brother of DNA. I loved him intensely although I only knew him for a few very short years.
So now we’re up to 5 total, with one being not genetic. We know, for sure that John, my mother’s son is hers, and that my sister Edna is genetically my half-sister. Lee, we’ll have to assume is accurate because he is gone and there are no children to test, and I have another alleged half-sister that has not been located.
Then, I acquired a step-brother, Gary, when my mother remarried who I also referred to as my brother and in actuality, I acquired a step-sister too, but she had already passed away. I’ve never thought of her as my “sister Linda,” but technically, I think she was. I don’t know for sure. Is a step-sibling who died before your parent married your step-parent your step-sibling????
So, if you need a score sheet.
- John – half-brother by mother
- Dave – half-brother by father, who wasn’t genetically
- Edna – half-sister by father, proven genetically
- Lee – alleged half-brother by father, you decide based on the photo
- Sister – alleged half-sister by father, not found
- Gary – step-brother
- Linda – step-sister deceased before becoming step-sister
So, my perception of being an only child wasn’t exactly right.
Now, let’s make this next part easy – they are all dead now, with my brother John being the last to go 22 months ago. Yes, those wounds are still fresh – I lost both of my brothers in 2012, my sister Edna in 1990 and my brother Gary in 1999 tragically.
Yep, every last one of them is gone. So, I am truly an only/orphan child now.
So, you ask, where did my other brother John come from?
Well, now that’s a story about southern families, and cousins, and love, and why we genealogists are always confused.
You see, I met John, my “other brother” John, several years ago – and yes, via DNA. No, he’s not genetically my brother, although I’m always prepared for a here-to-for unknown sibling to pop up at one of the testing companies. My father was very much the “ladies man,” extremely handsome and a bit of a rogue and scoundrel.
My “other brother” John’s family and mine are from the same areas of NC – and John and I share a common bond in both the culture and our Native heritage. And John and I are both Scots-Irish. John and I both moved away from home for our career. John and I are both genealogists. John joined the Cumberland Gap group and became a regular contributor…making suggestions…helping with fundraising ideas for DNA testing…and more. In fact, “other brother” John and I have way more in common than half-brother John and I did.
We e-mailed back and forth about our research adventures and I did a DNA report for John, so I know his DNA inside and out, pardon the pun. My half-brother John declined to DNA test. Over the months and years, my “other brother” John became a close friend, then my cousin, then my brother.
“Other brother” John has been very kind to me in many ways – a very giving soul. He would take the photos of my ancestors published in my blog articles and “fix” them for me, remove scratches, colorize them, all without being asked.
One day I went to the mailbox. Inside, there was a box from Japan with beautiful cotton and silk fabrics. I’m a quilter, and I was just speechless about his generosity – partly because I know how much shipping costs from Japan – not to mention that these fabrics aren’t available here. He hoped I could make quilts to raise money for DNA testing. The fabrics were so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to cut them.
Then, one day John dropped out of the Cumberland Gap Yahoo group.
I was surprised and worried. I missed John and e-mailed him and asked him why.
John, it seemed, was experiencing some issues, and those issues would eventually manifest themselves into a cancer diagnosis.
John’s cancer diagnosis was a personal blow, to a friend, to someone I had become very close to – my “cousin,” John.
Now Judy Russell talked the other day in her blog about collecting cousins. I never realized it, but I’ve done the exact same thing over the years. Since I was raised as an only child – not finding my half siblings by my father until I was an adult – I began researching my genealogy and collecting cousins when I was 22. I don’t know that I meant to, but it was such a wonderful adventure for me to meet someone I was related to. I was always in awe that I had relatives and some of them even looked like me, and like my father who had died when I was young.
When I was a child, I used to ask Santa for a baby brother or sister…every year. That was, of course, before I understood the mechanics of such things, as my father was deceased. Still, as a child who wanted a sibling, it didn’t matter and Santa of course, being who he was, could deliver anything.
My heart hurt for John, as my heart hurts for any of my cousin collection when they or their family is sick or hurting. One of the things I do to express my love and concern are “care quilts,” because that’s what quilters do when we don’t know what else to do.
So, I made John a care quilt…and I cut the Japanese fabric to do it. What better person to use it for?
John underwent multiple biopsies, flew from Japan to Massachusetts, underwent surgery, suffered an incorrect diagnosis, became even more ill, was finally diagnosed correctly, and began chemo. John and his wife are gardeners at their home in Japan. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen this year.
I planted pots of plants for John and every day, I take pictures of John’s flowers and post them to Facebook for him. I know it’s not the same, but it is all I can do. His miscellaneous “mixed seed” packets have performed amazingly for him.
And then, John’s mother died, right in the middle of John’s chemo. Just when you think things couldn’t get worse.
One day, in the midst of all of this pain, the days and weeks of chemo torment and the emotional trauma, John became my brother. I can’t tell you exactly what day, but I realized that I love him as a brother, and he, me as a sister – and we simply made it so. It already was, we just acknowledged it. Isn’t this was family does? Support one another, especially in times of need?
So yes, I now have my brother John and my other brother John. Why, you ask, does this matter to you?
Well, because in another generation or so, my granddaughters will tell their kids, “Yes, my grandma had her brother John and her other brother John.” And then they might chuckle to themselves. They may not think to mention that one wasn’t my biological brother, and then to add which one wasn’t my biological brother? And even if they did, they could get it backwards, especially since they are too young to have known my now deceased older brother John. Aha, a family mystery in the making. Not a mystery today, but in another couple generations, it may well be – and all the information may be garbled.
Recognize this pattern in any of your family stories?
But it gets worse, because I’m from a southern family on my Dad’s side. Yes, indeed, I also have Uncle Buster who is not my uncle but my first cousin once removed, and his brother Uncle George. However, his sister is not Aunt anyone. No, I don’t know why except I was close to both George and Buster and not the sister.
In the south, any older relative and sometimes non-relatives are called “Aunt” and “Uncle” as a sign of respect, without respect to race.
Furthermore, I also have quilt sisters. I have Mary who is my sister. Here we are playing in a mud puddle after gardening in the rain. Isn’t that what sisters do?
I’ll let you guess from the t-shirts which one is me!
Now Mary has other biological sisters who don’t live here so aren’t my Quilt Sisters. She’s also from a southern family and has sistens, which are cousin/sisters – cousins who function as sisters.
So in essence, both sisterhood and cousinship are applied selectively and without consistency. Furthermore cousin can mean anything from literally 1st cousins to “we’re kin but I have no idea how” to 14th cousins 3 times removed. In other words, it implies some kind of real or fictive relationship – and you, the listener, have no idea what that relationship actually is and there is no standardized gauge to judge by. Worse yet, the speaker may not either. Does this make sense?
Ok, here’s a much better picture. Mary and I have a wonderful time no matter what we are doing. Here we are at Mary’s son’s house. I introduced her son to my friend who became his wife about 15 years ago, so I think I have some kind of honorary relationship to them too. When my mother was alive, our family always had Christmas on Christmas Eve at her house, but now, we spend Christmas Eve with Mary and her family.
Mary and I aren’t blood sisters, although Mary has not DNA tested (yet) so we might be cousins. In this picture, we’re hemming my original brother John’s care quilt that I made for him when he received his cancer diagnosis in 2010. This is what sisters do.
However, my other Quilt Sister, Kathy, is indeed my cousin. Yes, for real, genealogically and biologically and genetically, all three. So she’s my cousin and my sister. But you see, I didn’t know any of that when I first met her quite by happenstance through our careers. Talk about serendipity! We discovered that we shared Brethren ancestors, quite by accident, sitting at a conference room table waiting on late meeting attendees one day. It was after that she became a Quilt Sister. Here Kathy and I are holding Mary’s 50th anniversary quilt that we helped to make. This too is what sisters do.
Is it any wonder as genealogists that we are constantly trying to figure out why the DNA of family members doesn’t fit exactly as we think it should? Maybe some of the “undocumented adoptions,” or NPEs, non-parental events, aren’t really. Maybe they are just the much loved “other brother” John – the brother by choice, or the quilt sister, or maybe Uncle Buster or my other “Cousin George” (not to be confused with Uncle George) who isn’t my blood cousin at all but my good friend Anne’s cousin. But since Anne is another sister of heart, then Cousin George is my cousin too, pictured with his quilt, below, given as a thank you for his supportive role in the Lost Colony Research Group and DNA projects. This is how relatedness works in southern families. Bless all our hearts!
And I haven’t given you the entire “family” list – there are more. I am so fortunate to have many members of my family and family of heart. I’ve gathered many to love.
Aren’t we lucky that love is the one commodity we can give as humans that is only limited by the size of our heart. Giving more doesn’t diminish what others receive, and it enriches us. Why, we can collect and add to our family our entire lives!!!
What a confusing legacy we’re leaving for future genealogists:) Just thinking about that makes me laugh!
And as for my brothers John….all I have to say is that I’m so glad their names weren’t Derrell, because I already have my cousin Daryl and my other cousin Derrell, and they are both females. Nope, not kidding!
Welcome to the family John. Had no idea what you were getting into did you:) All I can say is, well, bless your heart!