Monday, November 22, 2010
US and THEM, Or Drawing that Bright Line Around “Family”
Interestingly, the responses suggested that the question is far from simple, since there was no single point of agreement as to where the line dividing “family” from “non-family” should be drawn.
Why does this matter? Well, before we’re able to define the scope of a research project, those of us who do genealogy usually have to come to grips with that basic definitional problem, otherwise the project would grow out of control.
Exactly what do we mean when we speak of “family”? And are we possibly stepping out onto shifting sands by even raising the question in the first place …?
Even though I’ve been doing family history and genealogy for nearly 50 years I’m still surprised to learn where non-genealogists draw the line when they’re faced with the task of defining their own “family.
For example, several years ago, while working through a large archival collection, I found a letter addressed to the individual whose career I was researching. In it, the correspondent, who was writing what was essentially a “fan letter” to a journalist that he listened to on the radio, identified himself as a simple apple grower AND then mentioned that he was the journalist’s father’s first cousin (making him therefore the recipient’s first cousin once removed). He then proceeded to observe that he didn’t expect a personal reply to his fan letter since he and the journalist were – in his words - “barely related”.
Certainly that’s not a position that most genealogists would take!
Similarly, I received an email a short while ago from the great-grandson of my grandfather’s first cousin, asking for information about my grandfather’s major league baseball career during the World War One era and before. In the note, he described my grandfather as his “distant relative.”
However, maybe it’s not so strange after all, since the very condition of being “related” to someone – in effect, being a full-fledged member of someone’s “family” – often brings with it certain responsibilities. These responsibilities can be emotionally, financially or sometimes even politically demanding.
Are people who view themselves as distant relations still “family”? Are second cousins still “family”? What about those who descend from a much more remote common ancestor born, say, in the 16th century? For that matter, what about that very same remote common ancestor him or herself? There’s no question that he or she is related as “kin” in the genetic sense, but is that individual someone who would be considered “family” in the common everyday sense of the word? Or is that person just another member of the “Family of Man” with whom we share one of many of our genetic relationships?
Try this: if the final resting place of this remote ancestor from the 16th century was discovered and identified beyond all question, would you chip in, say, 200 of your hard-earned dollars for a grave marker? How about for your much closer (but still largely unknown) great-great grandmother? Does your third cousin deserve a seat at your daughter’s wedding reception, simply because he’s kin? How about your favorite aunt’s grandson? Would you vote for a first cousin who was running for a state office, even if her political views were, in your opinion, more than a little weird?
Then, there are the spouses of those blood kin. Where do they stand?
Where do YOU draw the line on family?