by James Wallace Harris, 11/11/21
They say that blood is thicker than water. I’ve never been much into genealogy but ever since my cousin Harold Ervin died a couple weeks ago I’ve been thinking about my cousins and regretting that I didn’t spend more time with them. I keep asking myself why I didn’t and why I regret it so much.
It came to me that cousins are special because we share two grandparents. But what does that mean? I’ve always felt closer to my cousins on my mother’s side of the family. My mother was one of five sisters, and her mother, my grandmother, was a much-loved matriarch of the family. My sister Becky and I called her Nanny, and she had sixteen grandchildren (although one was by marriage).
I actually loved my father’s mother more. We called Ma. My father was one of three boys. But my father’s side of the family didn’t make over Ma as much as my mother’s family made over Nanny. Could sixteen grandchildren versus ten make a difference? I do think my cousin Alana might have made over Ma more. She was always my favorite cousin on my father’s side. It could be that I knew my father’s side cousins a lot less, and thus didn’t know how much time they spent with Ma. One of my big regrets in life is essentially forgetting about Ma after we moved away from Florida. I only went back to see her once.
The above photo shows the last time all sixteen of Nanny’s grandchildren were together. I’m the bald guy on the far left. I’m not even sure when that photo was taken. And I really wish it was a much better photo, one where I could see everyone clearly. But it’s what I have to help me remember, and the poor image is kind of fitting since the memories that day are fuzzy too.
Seven of the sixteen are now dead, and it seems like something very essential to my life is fading away. Even though I have strong feelings for these fourteen people (not counting me and my sister), I don’t remember actually spending that much time with them. I have spent far more time with people that aren’t kin. But these fourteen, and the eight cousins on my father’s side, have a large presence in my memory. Is that because of blood? The most intense memories of my cousins come from the years 1960-1970. Were the kinship experiences I had in adolescence the strongest not because of genetic connections but because everything was so strong during that phase of life?
Looking back I realized that I saw my cousins mostly when my grandmothers were alive. (I never knew my grandfathers.) After my grandmothers died I saw my cousins mostly when visiting my aunts and uncles. Then when my aunts and uncles died, I seldom saw my cousins again. Actually, I haven’t seen my cousins on my father’s side of the family since his funeral in 1970. I do regret that. I also regret that I don’t have a group photo of the ten of us.
Contemplating all of this I realized there are varying levels of kinship bonds. Parents and children are the strongest. But that relationship comes in two modes. Your relationship with your parents, and the relationship with your children. My wife Susan and I have never had children, so I don’t know the second mode. I’m guessing the strength of bonding is greater with your own children. I wonder if I didn’t want children because I never felt a strong bond with my own parents? My parents weren’t happy, and I’ve often thought having children is what tore their marriage apart. Their marital strife certainly affected my desire to have children.
The next most powerful relationship is between siblings. After that, it’s with grandparents. Next, is with aunts and uncles. Then comes cousins. Finally, it’s nephews and nieces. My connections to my cousins were at their strongest when my grandmothers were alive. After that, my aunts and uncles kept me close to my cousins. But once my parents and their siblings were gone the connections to my cousins just faded away. By then, they had their children, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. That’s sad that Nanny’s family has dispersed, but natural too.
The passing of my cousins might be hitting me harder because Susan and I are a dead end. I have no direct descendants going forward in time. All my connections to family are toward the past, and they are disappearing. I wonder if we could have felt what we feel now when we were young would we have chosen to have children? Strangely, Susan still doesn’t regret not having children, but I do. However, I don’t think I would have been a good parent, I’m too selfish. Most of my friends don’t have children, but of the ones that do, I see they’re having a whole different life in old age than us childless couples.
Writing this essay has answered my question about why I regret so strongly that my cousins are dying. They are the last of my direct line relatives. Susan and I have eleven nephews and nieces, and we like them very much, but they feel like they are on different branches of the family tree. We never got to see our nieces and nephews that much after they grew up, and they are now spread across the country. They have their own children, and in not many years, their own grandchildren. And how much blood do we share with our nephews and nieces? But I have such fond memories of my aunts and uncles, why hasn’t it gone the other way? Is it because I didn’t try harder?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been recalling all the times I saw my grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and cousins. I’ve even thought about trying to write down every encounter I can remember – the number is quite finite. I’m starting to think there really weren’t that many meetings. Mostly we met at holiday dinners, vacations, weddings, funerals, and reunions.
For some reason, we have a special bond with people who have the same pair of grandparents. Is blood really thicker than water? Or is it because we knew those people when we were young and gathered on so many special occasions? I will continue to think about this for a while. I wonder what my cousins think? Maybe I’ll send them this blog.