Friday, January 14, 2011

Still Life with Robin: Relativity

by Peggy Robin

A few months ago I had dinner out with my cousin, Kat, and her adult daughter, Janna, who were visiting from out of town.  Kat lives in Sydney, Australia and Janna lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. So far this sounds pretty straightforward; I'm sure you had no trouble understanding that my dinner companions are part of my extended family.  Except that the term "cousin" in this instance is not technically accurate; it takes a series of prefixes before the term "cousin" to present the full picture of how we are related to one another. But first let me say that however complex our family linkages are, I grew up with her and regard her as my cousin. Which would make her daughter Janna my first cousin once removed....that is, if Kat and I were your usual brand of first cousins. But we're not, so I must begin by describing how Kat and I are connected.

Kat is actually my stepfather's first cousin. But she is so much younger than he that she's much closer to my age than his. Since he was an adult when she was born (she's the daughter of his mother's much younger sister), he viewed her more as a niece than a cousin, and she grew up treating him like an uncle. So, to be accurate, I should call her my step-first-cousin-once-removed, because that's exactly what she is.

Now to Janna, the daughter, who, first of all, I should say is not Kat's biological daughter. Janna lost her own mother to cancer sometime during her toddler years. Janna's father Peter got together with Kat when Janna was just six years old, and so Kat brought her up.  However, the relationship fell apart when Janna was sixteen, and Kat moved out of the house that she and Peter had co-owned in Amsterdam. Maybe you have picked up on that next little kink in our family tree -- the part about their "relationship." Kat and Peter were together as a couple for almost a decade, owning a home together, referring to each other as husband and wife, but never entering into a state of matrimony. Keep in mind that Peter is Dutch and that in the Netherlands marriage is something of a fading institution; it's commonplace for couples to skip the legal ceremony formalizing their union, and it makes little or no difference in how they function as a couple in the broader Dutch society. The main effect of their lack of marriage is that when they decided to split up, there was no prolonged divorce proceeding. Kat simply moved out (taking a job as an international aid specialist in Africa), although she continued to maintain a warm, parent-like relationship with Janna.

So here's the term for Janna in relation to Kat:  Previously, she was Kat's quasi-stepdaughter. After the breakup, she became Kat's ex-quasi-stepdaughter.

Now we come to Janna and me. Normally, the daughter of one's first cousin once removed is one's second cousin. But with all the qualifiers and prefixes in place, Janna is ...are you ready? step-ex-quasi-step-second-cousin. And no, I didn't duplicate the "step" by accident.  There are actually two "steps" involved, if you follow all the relationship lines.

If you do, then listen to this related story: Yesterday I got a Facebook request from another member of my complicated extended family.  This one came from my husband's second cousin, Lynn, who asked me to confirm on Facebook that we're related. She listed me simply as her cousin. I agreed without hesitation and pressed the "confirm" button. Lynn may actually be my second-cousin-in-law but you can't expect Facebook to come up with a term for that.

It would be a good thing, however, if English had a convenient term for people like Lynn, and Kat, and Janna, and all the other people you regard as family, no matter how distant or loose your actual genetic or marital connections may be. Yiddish, perhaps not surprisingly, has just such a word: it's "mishpucheh," as in this example from (a website of useful Yiddish words in English): "For the holidays, I invited the gansah mishpucheh" (the entire family).

Now if only Facebook let me list Lynn, Kat, and Janna as my mishpucheh!

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