“It’s the family joke,” my 88 year old uncle told me over breakfast at our favorite pancake spot. “My brothers and sisters used to tell it all the time. Lucky for them I think it’s funny, too.”
“It’s like this,” he explained, staring at his coffee as he concentrated on remembering the exact wording. “It all started when I married my sister’s niece.” He scowled at my expression. “Not MY niece. HER niece. There’s a difference, you know.” Then he paused. “You should write this down,” he suggested. “So you get it right.”
I thought that was a good idea, so I pulled out a notepad and pen. He proceeded with the explanation. “You see, when I married your aunt, I became my wife’s uncle, my sister’s nephew, a first cousin to my nieces and nephews, and finally, my own uncle.” I thought about it later, and realized he hadn’t mentioned he and his wife were also first cousins to their own children and to each other. Huh. I’ll have to point that out to him. He’ll probably get a laugh out of that, too.
Relationships interest me. I’m one of five sisters. People often ask us if we have any brothers. It’s our family joke that we used to, but we got rid of them. I wonder why they always look like they’re not sure whether to believe us or not…
I live with one sister. The others all live alone. If my sister and I could afford it, we’d probably live alone, too. We’re all happy hermits, with our own preferences and habits. Even the two of us who share a house can spend hours in silence, cheerfully ignoring each other. One sister did get married and stayed that way for thirty years till she became a widow and raised two lovely daughters, but now she lives alone and enjoys it. We’re close, though, when trouble looms, like when we all wound up with various forms of cancer, or somebody needs some transportation, or a hand moving something around.
Facebook has been a real boon to us, because now we can keep in touch with each others’ lives without getting on each others’ nerves, which was always a problem before. Keeping in close contact can create friction and heat, just like with brakes. I’ve found it’s the same way with friendships. I’m a whole lot closer to people now that I don’t have to look at them all day, like my coworkers. It works for us.
Because of my interest in relationships, I’ve been checking into genealogy and asking a lot of questions of my relatives. If it weren’t for my preference for tact and manners, I’d ask lots of rude questions about their marriages, and family lives, and what are their children doing running around with that crowd? Oh, the things I’d like to know, but know it’s rude to ask, and some questions might get me arrested for stalking… So I stick to the relatives that aren’t around any longer.
My father and uncle’s mother told her children when they asked about him that her daddy was hung for a horse thief and that’s all she would say about it so never ask again or else! They took her seriously. She was the kind of woman you took seriously. I knew her for a short while, and I totally understood. My mom told me when I asked that as far as she knew, during the Civil War her forefathers had spent the war raiding the farms of those whose menfolk had gone away to fight. Sheesh! Outlaws on both sides? But a few years after that, she was listening to a history program on the radio and heard some names she recognized from her family’s lineage, and found she might have some relatives who were Union generals commanding prisoner of war camps. My uncle and father’s paternal grandfather was a doctor in the Confederacy for all of three months.
I decided to spend some time on Ancestry.com and see what I could find. It’s been very interesting. My dad’s maternal grandfather’s death certificate said he died of heart disease in 1918. Either she was wrong (or couldn’t stand her dad – apparently he was abusive) or the doctor was trying to be polite. It also listed his father, but his mother was unknown, at least by the informant, who had his last name but an illegible first initial. Handwriting, people! It’s important! Someday some genealogist will be trying to read yours! His wife died six years later of exhaustion as a result of senile dementia. She was 62.
The Confederate doctor spent his time in the military hiding in a tent. No, he wasn’t a coward; he had asthma, and the dust raised by all the soldiers was killing him. But the soldiers discovered he was a doctor and formed long lines at his tent every day, because even without battles going on, you could easily get injured. When the army was preparing to move, his commanding officers told him to go home before he got worse and just take care of the folks at home. He obeyed, and rode horseback in a three county circuit to provide medical care for the citizenry. He had lost a young wife after a ten year marriage and seven children, and had joined the cavalry to try to get over not being able to save his own wife and child. It was time to get back to his remaining six children.
But his three months in service was enough to score his second wife and widow a pension from the state after his death and a bed in a Confederate widow’s home in Austin until her death. I have a copy of her application for the pension and her death certificate. She died of ‘cancer of the heart’. Studying her life history, I realized she had at 22 married a man old enough to be her father and started her married life with six children. Then she got to run the homestead and his children while he doctored the public. Tough lady, she lasted until she was 84.
I’m still working on my mom’s side. She’s great for remembering names and I now have several pages of names and families and locations to look up. Both she and my late father come from very prolific families and the men seem to have outlived more than one wife and had kids by all of them, so there is a lot to look up. It’s very interesting, though, and I keep running into unexpected side trips, like the book of oaths I found from Georgia that all the men over 21 had to sign and swear they would not rise up against the United States after the end of the Civil War. I love history, but I am so glad I didn’t live through it.
My uncle brought over the family Bible he found in a back room some years after his wife died. I photocopied the list of births and deaths such old family Bibles always had and thumbed through the rest of it, because I’m always interested to see if the owners ever made notes in the margins like some people (read, me) do. To my surprise, a tightly folded thin piece of paper fell from between the pages. Opening it carefully, I discovered it was a letter written by my father’s and my uncle’s father, a farmer and carpenter, that was never sent. It was a ‘day in the life’ kind of letter, that people used to mail to each other instead of putting it on Facebook in bits and pieces. At the very end he mentions that his stomach is bothering him and he would take a shot of medicinal whiskey to see if it would settle. I glanced up at the date at the top and realized in shock it was the day before he died of a burst appendix. My uncle and I just stared at each other. Talk about hearing ghosts of the past.
I am eager to see what else I find about my family history and any interesting little side trips. I know my family has traveled far and wide. A few years back, we held a Perry family reunion in a recently discovered rural cemetery. No, we’re not weird; most cemeteries in the country were next to churches, and we are used to big celebrations involving food and faith surrounded by gravestones. We saw several very small cars pull up next to the big pickup trucks and SUVs most of my relatives drove. A flood of Japanese tourists, complete with collections of cameras around their necks, came up to our group as we paused over our barbecue, potato salad, watermelon, and chocolate cake. We figured they had managed to get thoroughly lost, because this tiny Civil War era graveyard was waaaaaaay out in the sticks. Instead, their spokesperson grinned widely, pointed at the banner somebody had hung among the trees and said “Perry?” When we nodded, fascinated, he pointed at himself and the rest of his group and announced, “Perrys!” We now have a large family photo of short Japanese folk surrounded by tall gangly Texan cowboys, all grinning proudly. I can hardly wait to see who else I might be related to.
Almost forgot to add this: To complete the family circle, I just met the newest member of our large family. (I’m pretty sure she’s the newest at only a few weeks old.) The family on all sides makes adorable babies and boy, do we love to take pictures. One of the projects I’d love to do is fix a baby book with the several generations of baby photos we have, and maybe throw in the oldest photos we have. Family should be a thing to celebrate, and if you’d rather not associate with yours, start your own. Family is not alway made of blood connections. Go hug someone today, and tell them a joke.