Lost Journal: Once Removed, is a Cousin Still Family?

Journal entry:  August 28, 2007 (age 38)

This past weekend, a group of my cousins came to visit with my parents, my wife, and me.  Mary Elizabeth Sullivan is my mother’s first cousin, and they have always been close.  Joining her on the trip were her husband, Bob, and two of their grown children, Bill and Madeline.  Bill’s wife, Kristen, couldn’t make it, but their adorable, 3-year-old son, Cormac, was along for the ride.

Madeline, who is close to me in age, has been a good friend of mine since we were knee-high to a thighbone.  Back in the 1970s, our family used to visit the Sullivans at their summer cottage on Tripp Lake.  While the rest of the kids were engaged in sun-soaked sports outside, Madeline and I would happily sit in the dark, damp kitchen, trying to out-tycoon each other in Monopoly.  As adults, we reconnected when I was living in Washington, D.C., and she landed me a decent-paying, low-stress job.  In short, Madeline is a good egg.

Little Cormac had a question for Madeline on the car trip to Binghamton.  “Who are we going to see?”  Madeline got stuck when trying to explain who I was in relation to Cormac.  “Tim is your second cousin once removed, or your third cousin, or something.  He’s your cousin.”  When she relayed this conversation to me, we laughed.  Then we talked about the fact that almost no one in our culture seems to understand the rules for labeling cousins.

I know that I could probably do some quick research on the Internet that would explain the rules, but that would ruin the fun.  I prefer to go through life listening, without prejudice, to different people’s theories of familial nomenclature, most of which are completely contradictory.  Depending on who you ask, one of your relations could be a second cousin, a first cousin once removed, or a third cousin who was removed twice, but keeps coming back.  It seems to me that referring to any living family member as “removed” just isn’t right.  Gall bladders are removed, but family is forever.

Perhaps the word should be limited to describing cousins who have passed on.  After all, the Grim Remover will one day visit all of our cousins.  If a cousin has any near-death experiences, he or she could rack up “Cousintudinal Removal Levels,” like a martial arts expert earns belts.  Or, perhaps “removed” should only be used to describe an ex-spouse’s cousins.  But then serial re-marriers, like Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, would need an abacus to keep track of how many times they added and removed each other’s cousins.

In any case, I think the civilized world needs to better establish and communicate the rules for cousin-calling.  Perhaps an International Synod of People With Nothing Better to Do could work out the solution, and share it with the rest of us.  Until then, I will continue to think of Kevin Bacon as my first cousin, six times removed.

Tim Mollen
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