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Cousin who?

I always revel in time with my family. Last weekend I saw my Dad, my uncle Dick (his brother), and their cousin Penny, who is my second cousin once removed I think (but that sounds so rude!).

Pretty much all members of my family are, in my opinion, extraordinary people I am proud to know -- much less share genetic material with.

My grama Mary used to have this big amazing ink-drawn family tree scroll. She unscrolled it for me a few times, and I would look at all the names and ranks (Civil War captains and colonels and stuff) in awe. Mostly I looked at the surnames, thinking, "Anderson? I'm an Anderson?" or somesuch. One grows accustomed to one's own surname, and perhaps has somewhat of an attachment to one's mother's maiden name, if for no other reason than its use as a banking password. Beyond that, it's easy to forget that many other names are you, too.

After Grama died, I felt compelled to copy down all the information in the family tree. It felt like if I didn't, it might fade away too. Turns out my aunt Trink, my dad's youngest sister (and my secret hero "me one day"), had the same idea. We both bought a family tree-making program, and I solicited all my relatives on both sides for names and dates, photos, marriage licences... whatever they could come up with. Turns out Trink already had the whole scroll's contents entered, and she sent her file to me in one big chunk requiring little further research.

My Mom, whose side of the family was a relative mystery to me, came up with a brilliant stack of papers from her uncle, my grampa Bill's brother. I don't know why he sent her this stuff; I guess because he had no children of his own. But boy was I glad to have it! Suddenly a whole new chapter of my family unfolded. There, hidden away on my Mom's side of the family, are heroes and scandals interesting enough for a romance novel.

Unfortunately I don't know and probably will never know all the details. What I do know is that my great-great-great-(yawn, just keep reading "great" til you're bored with it) uncle was Civil War General Robert E. Lee, which explains my middle name (duh, Lee). What's most interesting to me there is that the Civil War Captains and colonels on Dad's side were, um, of the North. My Dad is now the proud owner of a big curved steel sword belonging to one of them, which I have seen on the wall in the background in a photo of my grama Mary at age 18. I hope I get to have that sword one day. I wonder if it killed any of Uncle Lee's guys?

The scandal is this: my great-grandmother, my Mom's paternal grandmother, looked to be either Asian or Native American-something. I say "something" because if she's native American, she looks more Eskimo than, say, Cherokee. But what do I know? Her picture was in with all the papers Mom's uncle had given her; and when I came across this picture of a totally Asian-looking woman, with my great-grandmother's name and birthdate on the back, I got very excited and asked Mom what she knew about her.

"I don't know, honey," she said, like it was no big deal. "Your grandfather used to say she was part Indian, but I really don't know anything else."

"But Mom!" I was almost yelling with excitement, wanting to know everything about her. She looks Asian, or Pacific Islander - like she could be from the Philippines or something. I mean, how could my Mom not be curious? This is her heritage too. The cool thing is that Mom and my brother David (who resembles that side of the family much more than I do) have always looked a little exotic to me, with their dark hair and eyes and olive skin. Mom and I both have what I have always thought of as asian-style eyelids, with no curvy depth in which to put eyeshadow (very frustrating, really)... just a sharp crease. I looked at the old black & white picture and thought of grampa Bill: he looked just like his mother, Elphia... of unknown origin.

She was born into the Victorian age, where maybe it was considered better to let one's strange or dusky features remain a mystery, subject to rumor and euphemism. I think in that day among caucasians, unusual features which couldn't be accounted for were attributed to the Native Americans. But from my great-uncle, along with that picture, I also got a rather complete family history back to England 1640 and to Germany 1800, and there are no Native Americans or Asians or Philippinos. The phenomenon of Elphia is entirely undocumented... or rather, is perfectly documented and untrue.

So I entered what I had into my now growing family tree file, and then I took that and searched online for related names of other users of this program. Sure enough, I found a family in the midwest whose family line was traced back to a man whose brother I am descended from. These two men were the only survivors out of five brothers who fought together in the Revolutionary War. I had no record of my great-great-etc.-uncle having had children, but here were living descendants of his -- and living relatives of mine, and complete strangers. I couldn't help feeling overwhelmed by the randomness of it; like, if I'm related to these folks, I'm probably related to just about every hundredth person I see in the street.

Frighteningly, I also found a long line of Gores in my family tree. I shudder to upload that one for fear of finding myself related to Al himself! Sigh. Could be worse, I guess. Imagine being the innocent Family Tree Maker user who finds herself suddenly part of the Dubya family.

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