This past weekend my sister and I traveled to a rural area of the heartland to attend a family reunion. Since both my parents had five siblings who went forth and multiplied, I have a large extended family and many first cousins.
This reunion of my maternal great-great grandfather’s descendants introduced me to a much wider notion of family. None of the children of my aunts and uncles made an appearance, so everyone else was a stranger–a relative stranger! All of those strangers, ranging in age from seven to ninety-three, were cousins or cousins-in-law.
But I knew they weren’t first cousins, so I spent a good part of the time (when I wasn’t eating fried chicken, or chicken and dumplings, or homemade potato salad) plotting out our degrees of relationship on a “cousins” chart.
With the help of the internet and this chart, I finally have a grasp of the concept of degrees and removal of relationships among cousins, as in, first, second and third cousins, once, twice or thrice removed.
For all of you who might be wondering about this subject, here’s an easy way to count cousins: track back to your common ancestor and count the number of generations in between. Is it three generations? Then, if you are both of the same generation, you are third cousins. If one of you is a generation ahead or behind the other, you are third cousins, once removed.
Very few of my newly-discovered relatives bore the surname of my great-great grandfather. Growing up, I had little contact with these distant relatives, but I did often hear the family matriarchs gossiping about local families like the ladies in a Jane Austen story. I was surprised to recognize many of the same surnames from those long ago gabfests, and also surprised at how much intermarriage there’d been over the generations.
How about you–have you discovered any complete strangers who are related to you?