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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Not Kevin Bacon, but...

My wise Australian sister suggested switching up the subject matter in this blog periodically, to keep things upbeat. So, given the tone of yesterday’s post, and that fact that there were two doctor’s appointments and one outplacement meeting on the agenda, today, I’ve decided to cheat a bit. Connections are an ongoing theme lately, so here is a piece I wrote several years back, related to personal links. Be forewarned that I borrowed the title for yesterday’s post from this essay.

Separate Connections

My second cousin is a late night TV personality. Not that it means much to me, for while we grew up a few towns apart here in Massachusetts, I’ve never met him or his siblings. For what it’s worth, I stayed up one night many years ago to support the family cause if you will and see his show debut. Back then though, my infant daughter stirred around dawn, so much as I struggled, I viewed most of that first episode through the interior of my drooping eyelids. In those days utter exhaustion dictated my bedtime, famous cousin notwithstanding.

Sleep patterns aside, I am nothing if not intrigued by my family, especially those I don’t know. So years later, when rising at sunup is less required but more ingrained in my psyche and midnight remains a foreign time zone to me, out of some sense of ancestral loyalty every New Year’s Eve after the ball drops, I attempt to stay up for this cousin’s show. Each time he appears on my TV screen, I analyze his face, his nose, the set of his cheekbones; eager to identify some tangible feature we share--an inheritance from our common great grandparents. But while the freckled Irish complexion reminds me of a few of the first cousins that I do know, he looks nothing like me or my siblings. Our connection may as well be ten generations removed, not just three.

Pop culture theory asserts that we are a mere six degrees separated from anyone in the world. An example of this principle goes like this: My husband’s brother, a Coast Guard captain works for the Secretary of Homeland Security, who reports to the President of the United States. So my husband and I are three acquaintances, or degrees, separated from the President. While amused at a pastime that demonstrates the miniscule breadth of the world, it’s perplexing to be that close to the Commander in Chief purportedly, yet a lifetime removed from my second cousin, a relation via DNA and not just by degree.

Although my parents lived in the same zip code for most of their lives and spent their respective childhoods knowing first and second cousins, playing with cousins was a novel concept for me. My mother’s one brother lived locally but privately, the other moved his family to California. Her sister married an officer in the Air Force and sported addresses from Alaska to Kansas, Omaha, to Virginia. My father’s brother moved to the West Coast, his sister to New Jersey. Thus my branch of cousins met rarely, most often at funerals.

In spite of the distances between them, my mother’s generation and the one before her maintained an ongoing correspondence. In my mother’s world, letters between aunts, sisters and cousins were forwarded back and forth cross-country between families. Folded inside a missive from Aunt Joan in Virginia might be a letter she received from Great Aunt Anna in Arizona, which may have included a note from her daughter in Chicago. With her reply, my mother would enclose a letter she received from Aunt Helen in Millbury. That way, the relatives of my mother’s time stayed in touch. These connections however, passed away along with the generation. Letters penned in spider-like Palmer Method faded to memory, and lacking a foundation of childhood friendship most of my cousins drifted further apart.

With the absence of communication, the distance between my family members grew exponentially. But in more recent years, the Internet has reduced the figurative miles between us. I can’t remember the last time I sat down to pen a simple letter, but since technology has made it so easy, I now email my aunt, currently in West Virginia, and am on the receiving end of emails from an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. I often forward their emails, as well as those I receive from my sister in Australia, to another sister and my brother, performing the same ritual my mother did, albeit instantaneously, and minus the postage stamp.

Not only has the Internet condensed the time and distance between places like Massachusetts, Australia and West Virginia, but it has introduced an advantage to my generation that my mother would have loved. Yesterday, I Googled a first cousin in New Jersey with whom we had lost contact, and found his business website on the Internet. I emailed the information to my sister, who sent him an email. He responded with promises of family information and pictures to share and in less then 24 hours my sister had both. Minutes later, I did too. Maybe we are six degrees and miles from those we seek to know, but thankfully, on-line research, a correct email address and a decent typing speed can place the world--or our families at least--at our fingertips, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not threatening to email all my unknown cousins, but it’s comforting to realize that I can. Meanwhile, to keep myself feeling linked to my extended family, I’ll do more searching on the Internet, and maybe watch a bit of late night TV.

Oh, and by the way Conan, if you ever get a chance to read this, I think we may share a family nose.

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