Saturday, September 24, 2011

Theory of Relativity

As we have done in the past, my wife wanted to host a gathering for as much of her family as could make it. We sent out a bunch of invitations, but as usual for these things not everyone could attend. No matter: all were lovely people, and it was good to reconnect and catch up. There were cousins, in-laws, siblings and friends. And then there was baby Alice.

The kind of baby that makes you want to have another, she was as cute as button and quiet to boot. I welcomed the chance to take her for a while, and she seemed comfortable perched on my shoulder. If you have kids that are grown, this was the best kind of infant to offer to hold: well behaved, not too fussy and giveable-backable to the parents when the tide started to turn the other way.

Those in attendance made the expected comments about how contented she looked as I held her (she smiled a lot), how much she liked me (what's not to like?) and did I want to keep her (absolutely not). But as the two of us strolled around the house, I started to wonder: just who was she? Not animal, vegetable or mineral, but how did she fit into the gathering? She came with her parents, who were cousins of my wife. And since the crowd contained a gaggle of siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, in-laws and friends (and I thought I even saw a neighbor who wondered in looking for a couple of eggs and stuck around for a drink), we needed a Venn diagram to plot the connections.

Like an Abbot and Costello routine, the question is who is first, who is second, who is removed and who is nothing? The basics we all know, and are easy enough. Have the same parents, and you are siblings. The children of your siblings are your nieces and nephews, while you are their aunts and uncles. And those nieces and nephews are cousins to one another. Some slight wrinkles: if only one parent is in common, your siblings are "half," while if the relationship is through a second marriage, then it's a "step" away.

For many of us, that's as difficult as it gets. True, were we elsewhere in the world, there might be some subtle variations. For instance, in Sweden your mother's brother... your uncle here... is your "morbror," and while your father's brother... also your uncle here... is your "farbror." Some Polynesian languages use the same words for male and female cousins as for brothers and sisters. And in France, where they tend to treat affairs and liaisons much more casually than we do here, both your daughter-in-law and your stepdaughter are your "belle-fille." Remember, they also consider Jerry Lewis a god.

But even if you stick to these shores, it can get more complex. That's because families morph, expand and contract. Or you meet a bigger group, and want to chart your cousin's cousins, or start talking to those of different generations. So unless you are the Kardashians and call everybody "ex" or "defendant," it gets more complicated.

According to genealogists, you look backwards. More specifically, you look back along your ancestral line, and see where there are commonalities. Relationships are derived from the point of view of where you and another overlap. Go up one step, and you have parents. If they are in common, you have siblings. If you have the same grandparents, but not the same parents, you are cousins. But if you have the same great-grandparents, but nothing else, you are described as second cousins. And thirds have great-greats in common, fourth have great-great-greats... you get the idea.

But what if you hail from different generations? That's when "removed" comes in. You and your first cousins are in the same generation (two generations younger than your grandparents). But your mother's first cousin is your first cousin, once removed. That's, because your mother's first cousin is one generation younger than your grandparents and you are two generations younger than your grandparents. This one-generation difference equals "once removed." Likewise, twice removed means that there is a two-generation difference. You are two generations younger than a first cousin of your grandmother, so you and your grandmother's first cousin are first cousins, twice removed.

All of which brings me back to baby Alice. She is the next generation of the cousin of my wife. So to my wife, she is her first cousin once removed. But to me? Well, since I am related my marriage, you could say she is my cousin-in-law once removed. Or you could just say she's a cute baby. Me, I'm going with the later.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has 1 sibling, 6 cousins and who knows what else. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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