In the new world of DNA testing, now combined with social media, the word cousin and its meaning have morphed a bit.
Classically, historically, your cousins were the children of your parents’ siblings. Often you were the same age and grew up with them as neighbors, especially in a rural, small town or farming community. Typically your cousins were your playmates and the people you got into trouble with when you were teenagers, and maybe who you married as an adult. You would likely be lifelong friends as well, attending the same church and social functions. Your kids knew each other too, and the pattern repeated itself generation after generation. Your cousins were the people you saw every single day of your life, cradle to grave.
But often, that’s not the case anymore.
My Neighbor, My Cousin
A good example of a historical cousin relationship would be my grandfather, John, who lived across the street in the tiny town of Silver Lake from his brother, Roscoe. Their children, first cousins, grew up as neighbors. My mother’s first cousin is Cheryl.
The stories of Cheryl and Mom are typical of small town America where there were no jobs. Mom moved away for a job and married. Mom visited her parents often, living an hour or so away, but after her parents died, Mom had no reason to go back to Silver Lake. Mom did keep track of family members and exchanged letters and Christmas cards with many, updating addresses and phone numbers religiously in her address book. Phone calls, being “long distance” were expensive, reserved for Sunday evenings when the rates were lower, and often placed only in emergencies.
Mom’s brother, Lore, went to college and eventually moved out of state, living in several locations in his lifetime. After moving away, he seldom returned to Indiana. His daughter, Nancy, lived a couple hours away and was close to Mom, but his son, Mike, moved to Arizona and then on to China. A world apart.
Cheryl, Mom’s first cousin, the first woman in our family to graduate from college, moved about 40 miles away, also for employment. Cheryl’s degree was in education, and sadly, her incredible aptitude for science wasn’t realized, at least not in a professional setting. Women of her generation simply weren’t encouraged or allowed to study science. Even when I was in school, a number of years later, I was told that a seat in an advanced placement science class wasn’t going to be” wasted on a girl” and was going to be “saved for a boy who would make something of himself.” Cheryl did amazingly well for herself, especially considering what she had to contend with throughout her career. She was indeed a woman on the frontier.
Cheryl’s brother Don, after serving in the military, still lives in Silver Lake near where he grew up. He’s the only one – everyone else is gone – scattered like dust in the wind.
I’m one generation removed, and I never met Cheryl until I was in my late 30s. I knew she existed, but really wasn’t sure how we were related. That all changed due to genealogy and in a very ironic twist of fate, Cheryl and I are much closer than Mom and Cheryl were, or than I am to any other family members in that line.
If Cheryl and I look like we’re having a wonderful time and maybe engaged in a bit of mischief, we were, I assure you. You’ll get to read about those stories when I write the articles about our Dutch ancestors and our visit to Holland.
Moving, across the state, the country or the world bifurcated families, especially before the days of the internet and Facebook. The family moved, and while that generation may have remained in touch through occasional letters, the next generation didn’t know each other, and the next generation didn’t even know OF each other, let alone know each other. You can see the perfect example in the pedigree chart of my own family, above. There was no family connection at all after a couple generations. I guarantee you, my children can’t recall the names of Lore’s children, let alone Nancy’s children who they’ve never met.
The past 20 years or so has dramatically changed the nature of moving away and distance. E-mail made communications easy and Facebook made it instantaneous. “Long distance” phone charges no longer apply and for the most part communicating with family has never been easier.
This past week, the message about bifurcated families came home to roost.
My first cousin, Nancy, died….last July…and no one, not one person, notified me, or my sister-in-law, or Cheryl or Don. Nancy had a sibling and children and a spouse, all of whom we knew. Yet no one in this day of electronic media and incredible findability made a phone call or sent a note.
I knew Nancy my entire life. Nancy was beautiful and lovely and smart and talented – shown here with our shared grandmother.
Nancy’s father was my mother’s brother, and they visited the farm where I grew up. There was never a family issue or rift.
Mother’s brother, Lore, and daughter Nancy at the table on the farm in 1977. Mom even used the “special occasion” plates and was always thrilled when family visited.
After Dad died in1994 and Mom moved to town, she drove to Ohio to visit Nancy several times. I visited Nancy a few years ago, but Nancy did not reply to e-mails nor did she reply to letters. You cannot sustain a one-sided relationship. There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings, and we had a lovely visit, but apparently communicating wasn’t Nancy’s strong suite. Nancy also had a degenerative disease that I’m sure eventually took her life.
I discovered Nancy’s death by googling the surname for something genealogical in nature, when her obituary popped up. Imagine my surprise. And then the sorrow. And then realizing that we hadn’t been notified of her death.
What is Family?
I’ve thought about this a lot the past few days, and about the definition of family. I realize that I’m very close to several cousins who aren’t my first cousins and some who turned out not to be cousins at all. In fact, I met all of them (except one) as a result of either genealogy or DNA testing.
Before genealogy, DNA testing and Facebook, my world of cousins would have been a lot smaller.
Ironically, Cheryl isn’t on Facebook, but the rest are. I’m still working on Cheryl.
While I met these folks as a result of common ancestors, and genealogy was our introduction, I’ve become close friends with many.
Daryl and I met through genealogy about 15 years ago now, when we met for lunch and coffee, and managed to consume the entire afternoon. Since we virtually disappeared, and both of us were meeting someone we “met on the internet,” both husbands were nearly ready to call the police about our disappearance. Fortunately, we went home in time to avert that phone call – but it was close! After that, we journeyed across the country on many genealogy adventures together.
In fact, our adventures are legendary. Daryl and I have the distinction of being cornered in a cemetery by a bull. We think he wanted to add us to his harem. We were held captive until Mr. Bull got bored with courting us – and then we ran like hell for the car. That would have been very comical to watch.
Quite a handsome guy, wouldn’t you say???
Daryl and I have been through some really rough spots, including the death of both of our mothers. Now, Daryl’s son Brent desperately needs a kidney donor, and we are going through that together as well.
Daryl and I wading in a cool creek one miserably hot summer day on a genealogy adventure. Love you Daryl!
My cousin Dolores and I used to write handwritten letters on stationery back in the 1980s, believe it or not. I still have them. Now we communicate regularly through our Facebook feed and an occasional e-mail. I feel much more involved in her life. Before, I only knew her as a genealogist, and she is an incredible wealth of knowledge, but now, I know her on a much more personal level. We recently discovered, thanks to Facebook, that Dolores’s neighbor is my other cousin, Kay. Small world!
In Dolores’ recent “Friend’s Day” video I noticed a quilt that I made for another cousin and presented when several of us were together for an event in Richmond, Virginia. Seeing that made me feel good and brought back such warm memories. Yes, I love Dolores.
And there’s Lola-Margaret, that “other cousin” mentioned above – bless Lola-Margaret. She and I share the same ancestor that Dolores and I do, Nicholas Speaks. Should I admit in public that I kinda sorta kidnapped Lola-Margaret and Dolores in Middlesboro, KY one time? Ummm…probably not. I don’t think the statute of limitations has yet expired. However, they were willing victims, especially after they discovered that I had kidnapped them to see the newly rediscovered and restored cabin of our ancestor, Nicholas.
Lola-Margaret and I have been on several adventures together, the last one returning to the land of our ancestor in Maryland, with another dear cousin, Susan, between Lola-Margaret and me, below.
I met Lola-Margaret in the hazy past through the Speaks Family Association although I feel like she has been in my life forever. We are very different but have some undefinable bond that neither of us fully understands. I clearly love her, very much.
In the photo above, we three cousins are walking the land of our ancestor together in what can only be described as a spiritual adventure. That day was such an incredible blessing – especially given that Lola-Margaret traveled across the country just 10 days out of back surgery. To say Lola-Margaret is incredible would be an understatement.
Susan, another cousin who is near and dear to my heart arranged a trip to England after we discovered, through DNA testing, where our Speaks ancestor was from.
Descendants of the Speak family, cousins from literally around the globe rendezvoused in England, many meeting for the first time. As I look at this photo, I think about how fortunate I am, in so many ways – and were it not for DNA testing, Susan and social media – none of this would have happened. I love Susan for her tenacity and wonderful ability to get things done.
I love this group photo, because I see Mary, another cousin that I love, and John, and Dolores is there too….you get the idea.
At the church where our ancestors worshipped, cousin Mary and I exchange hugs. Yep, I love Mary too! Bless her heart, she called me to see how I was doing this past week – when she herself has had so many challenges this past year.
These are all people, so far, that I’ve eventually met, but there are many I have never met in person.
Looking at my Facebook feed, just today, I see my Estes line cousin Kathy who I love and supported through a health challenge that she thankfully overcame. I felt incredibly powerless – all I could do was make her a quilt and say prayers.
I’ve never met Kathy personally, but I now “know” her family, and her cat who is an honorary cousin to my cats. I always look forward to her posts and to seeing what she is doing. Sometimes having someone to talk to who cares about you but that isn’t right in the middle of the emotional dilemma is a blessing. I also know that if I had a health crisis, she would be there for me too.
In the middle of her own health issue, she helped me post daily flower pictures for my brother John (when I had to be gone) to help him through a very rough spot in his journey. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it meant the world to John during very dark days when that is literally all he had to look forward to, and Kathy’s help meant the world to me. Yes, I love Kathy and John too.
John, my “brother” who is neither my biological brother nor even a bio-cousin, but my adopted brother, as of a couple years ago. John’s story and our bond are very unique. We met through an e-mail list about the Cumberland Gap region that I began as an offshoot of the Cumberland Gap DNA project. He offered to send me fabrics from Japan where he lived at the time to help with making quilts for a fund-raiser.
John is an amazing example of bravery and triumph over tragedy and is incredibly inspiring after cheating the grim reaper, not once, but twice. In fact, John was the inspiration for this new blog, Victory Garden Day by Day with the hope that it will inspire others.
I love this picture of John and his son, because it shows his inner spirit of courage and joy. Love you oceans, JT!!!
Los and Denise
There’s Los with his two lovely children. I would never have met Los or cousin Denise were it not for our naughty ancestor, William Harrell, with two wives. This all came to light with genealogy followed by DNA testing.
I love that ancestor story, but I love even more Carlos and what he has made of his life, what it represents, his intelligence, drive and conviction. Can I brag on Los for a minute? He’s a double PhD teaching at a university and he’s an absolutely incredible father, driving across the country alone with 2 small children for the genealogy reunion in the photo below. He’s an amazing man. I love my cousin, Los and his wonderful babies, who aren’t exactly babies anymore. I’ve gotten to watch them grow up, thanks to Facebook. I would love to be their honorary grandma if we lived closer.
Here, me, Carlos, his daughter and our cousin Denise meet for the first (and so far, only) time. Denise has an amazing story of resilience and success of her own. Denise found our cousin group, scattered across the country, through genealogy, drew us together, and the rest, as they say, is history. I’m so fortunate to have been found by these wonderful cousins and so proud to claim them as my own.
I love my amazing cousin, Denny, aka Santa. Denny’s Santa activities are focused on nursing homes, the elderly and often forgotten. Denny just dropped me a line to say that he is thinking about me. Sometimes it’s just nice to know that someone cares about you. Obviously, I’m not on Santa’s bad list – maybe it’s still too early in the year. Give me time!
I made Denny’s acquaintance a dozen years ago by accident when someone at his high school reunion told him that some lady was looking for Lore family descendants from Warren County, PA on a rootsweb forum. That woman was me, and Denny replied.
I met Denny and his lovely wife when I visited during a research trip the next summer. A few years later, we lamented on the phone that we wished were siblings. Denny’s research and knowledge of Warren County, PA were indispensable in understanding the life of Anthony Lore, our own personal adventurer, trader, pirate, whatever. I see his resilient spirit in Denny and recognize it, because I have it too.
Kathy and Mary
One last cousin story that falls in the “truth is stranger than fiction” category.
I was working at a client site about 16 or 17 years ago, when I became increasingly close to one particular woman, Kathy. We went to lunch often, and we just seemed to be on the same page repeatedly. She told me she was trying to finish a quilt, and I invited her to my house to “quilt day” with a few of my friends. I never, ever did this with clients, but Kathy was the exception and we got along so well.
One day, Kathy and I were the only two people on time for a meeting, and we were discussing technology in the conference room as we waited for the tardy attendees. I made a comment that my Brethren great-grandmother would roll over in her grave to know that her great-granddaughter not only drove a car (gasp), but embraced all things technology – you know – like electricity and telephones – not to mention computers. Kathy said that she had Brethren family as well.
The following conversation went something like this:
Me: “I didn’t know there were any Brethren communities in this area.”
Kathy: “My family was from northern Indiana.”
Me: “Where in Northern Indiana?”
Kathy: “Around Elkhart.”
Me: “My family too. What is their name?”
Me: “SERIOUSLY???? Mine too.”
Kathy: I’ll bring my genealogy file tomorrow.
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that Kathy and I are cousins too through our ancestor, Daniel Miller, whose children settled in Elkhart County, Indiana.
Not only is Kathy my cousin, she is my very close friend, all these years later, and my quilt sister too.
Here, Kathy, at left above, and I are presenting our other quilt sister, Mary, at right, in the photo below, with a memory quilt for her 50th wedding anniversary. Yes, Kathy and Mary and I all follow each other on Facebook and that’s how we keep track of each other and each other’s families – which are our families too!
Do I love Kathy and Mary? You bet your britches I do. In fact, my husband and I have spent every Christmas Eve evening with Mary and her family since my mother passed away a decade ago. I do believe we have created a new tradition. Above, Mary and I are working on a care quilt together at her son’s house.
No, Mary and I aren’t biologically related – and yes, she tested her DNA just to be sure.
Kathy and Mary are family in every sense of the word – whether by blood or not. Which brings us full circle.
A New Definition of Family
Sometimes the family we were born into slips away, intentionally or otherwise. But family we choose, our family of heart is what sustains us. All of the people above are my family, in various ways and for differing reasons – but the common unifying fact is that they are family and live in my heart – along with many more people not mentioned.
Today, with the availability of Facebook and other electronic communications, we can follow families as they grow up and remain in touch outside of that yearly Christmas card. Those relationships we cultivate and nurture are the ones that survive. The rest starve to death and die of neglect.
In my case, this social evolution or maybe revolution has redefined what cousin means, as well as family. Aside from Cheryl and her brother, I can’t tell you how distantly or closely related I am to any of my cousins, at least not without cheating and looking at my genealogy software. But I know we are “cousins” and that’s really all I need to know.
Occasionally, “cousin” might just mean a close relationship with someone I “feel” is a cousin. In some cases, cousin refers to someone we thought was a cousin, only to discover they weren’t, genealogically or biologically, but they are still “cousins” of heart and referred to as such.
In the south, elder cousins (and sometimes elders that aren’t related) that you are close to and respect are referred to as “aunt” and “uncle,” as in Uncle Buster who was really my first cousin once removed. So yes, the word cousin is now redefined a bit and has become more a term of affection or simply stating that one is related in some fashion rather than referring to a specific degree of relationship. In a way, it harkens back to the southern word, “kin.” “We’re kin” means “we’re somehow related but I’m not sure how.”
Social media is an incredibly powerful venue – as politicians have recently discovered. But for family, both close and distant, social media has the ability to help us forge relationships and nurture them, keeping them strong and allowing us to maintain a continuity never before available – an advantage our ancestors never had. Genealogy and DNA testing has allowed us to expand the size of our known family, and social media has facilitated easily becoming more inclusionary – encompassing and cultivating our ever-expanding family.
As I was finishing this article, I received one of those phone calls no one wants to receive. It wasn’t about a cousin’s death, but that of a friend. Yes, my cousins didn’t call, but my friend did.
Our mutual friend, Don, died unexpectedly this morning. I didn’t always agree with Don, but I valued his friendship and always looked forward to his research and what he had to say. We were warriors on a common path, seeking the truth.
We are all bonded and bound by the seeds we sew, those common causes that draw us together, and we are united by years on a collective journey.
I will miss Don. He always sent me a Jackie Lawson card e-mail at various holidays and when I was feeling blue. His e-mails, contentious or reflective, will no longer grace my inbox. His journey is finished, but ours wasn’t, nor was his work complete. I am gravely saddened. I hope I enriched his life as much as he enriched mine.
However, Don’s death vividly points out that while I was related to Nancy, our only commonality was that we were born into the same family, while my common journey with my “Facebook cousins” and close friends is one of reciprocal caring, shared experiences and mutual interests – having walked side by side, step by step and sometimes hand in hand over the rocky road of life for many years.
Fortunately, love is not like a pie that is divided into pieces and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s the only resource in our human arsenal that isn’t decreased when some is given away. Love is boundless and endless, a renewable and ever-expanding resource that enriches both the giver and receiver. The more you give, the more you receive. I am so very blessed to have many “cousins” and family members of heart. While I have only mentioned a few cousins and friends, I am unbelievably blessed to have a great many. So if your name isn’t here, it’s not because I don’t love you.
Sometimes family isn’t who you are, or the relatives you are born to, but the family you make, woven into a whole from the strands and fibers of love from each individual, colorful and unique person. The most beautiful patchwork quilt imaginable.
We are all on a journey together – enriching each others lives. That enrichment is what we will be remembered for – and why we will be missed when it’s our turn to finish our earthly journey.
So yes, you can indeed love your Facebook cousins and friends! What a wonderful unintended consequence of genealogy and DNA testing!
Love, it’s a renewable resource – give it away! Tell your family and friends you love them. You never know when it will be the last opportunity – don’t miss it.
Here’s wishing you a Happy Valentine’s Day and many wonderful cousins to love!!!