It’s all relative, apparently


new cousinsBarbara Wallraff’s May I have a word column in the Boston Globe tries to address It’s all relative. Specifically, what you call certain folks to whom you are connected. For instance, how do you “refer to your grandchildren’s other set of grandparents”?

Her favorite suggestion was “parallelogrands, ‘owing to the pairs’ literally parallel positions on one’s family tree. Variations might include parallelogramps and, well, parallelogram. Readers also recommended grandsisters and outlaws. A couple of decades ago, the wives of my wife’s brothers and I would refer to each other as the “outlaws.”

Wallraff’s readers contacted her to inform that “a Yiddish and Hebrew term for relationships of these kinds is machetun in the singular and machatunim or machetunim in the plural… Machetunim covers “all one’s relatives by marriage,” per the late New York Times language columnist William Safire, and its singular form can refer to a relative by marriage even as distant as “your spouse’s mother’s second cousin.” I LOVED Safire.

The writer also discovered on her own “that Spanish has consunegros to describe some or all relationships of this kind, Italian has consuoceri, Greek symbethèra (or συμπεθέρα), Russian a gazillion specific terms categorized in a way I don’t understand, Tagalog magbalae, and English-speaking cultural anthropologists affines.”

Para, perhaps

Mushing all of these suggestions in my head, I think I’m going to opt for para- as a choice. It’s a nod to the parallelogram, but that has too many syllables! Para- means “alongside of”, or “closely related to”, among other things.

I’m thinking about this specifically because I was looking to find a tidy definition of a guy who died this year, who I’ve alluded to before. I was very fond of him. His name was Jack White; no relation to the guy from the White Stripes. He was the husband of my wife’s first cousin, Diane; yes, Jack and Diane. It was she who got me some of his cool baseball books.

In fact, I had envisioned Jack, my late father-in-law Richard, and me going to a major league ballgame one of these days. We always talked about the game at the Olin family reunions. So I’m trying on para. Jack would be my para-cousin. Or maybe para-cousin-in-law because he was my wife’s paracousin, or cousin-in-law?

Or maybe just cousin, because it’s what I call my great aunt by marriage’s nephew. Cousins cover a lot of ground.

Debra Johnson, nee Walker, nee Miller


Leslie.Nita.Lauren.Debra.LaurenDebra Johnson, fourth from left in the above picture, was my cousin. The photo is about 50 years old. It was taken, almost certainly, at Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in Binghamton, NY, my church growing up. The young women appear to be in the choir loft.

Debbie was adopted by my great uncle – my paternal grandmother’s brother – Earl and his wife, Jessie. The adoption was no secret. They had already largely raised their biological family, so they were “older” parents to her. But from everything I knew, good ones.

I knew Debbie primarily from church, specifically from singing in church choirs. One group was the MAZET singers, directed by my father, which also featured my sister Leslie (left), Nita (2nd left), and Lauren H. (right). Lauren B. (in the middle) came to church slightly later.

Leslie was closer to Debbie than I was. I mean, guys of a certain age didn’t hang out with “girls,” even girl cousins. But neither of us kept in touch after I left town. I hadn’t seen her since the mid-1980s, possibly earlier. We were Facebook friends, that “the least you can do” relationship tentacle.


One of many things I didn’t know about Debra Johnson is that she continued to be in touch with one or both birth parents, surname Miller, plus her over a dozen siblings. More strange for me is that some of them live in Albany, which is where I live!

She died recently in the Binghamton area, I found out from her sister, my cousin Ruth, who also provided the photo. The first iteration of the narrative was that Debra fell down some steps.

There’s a lot of love showing on her Facebook page from some brokenhearted folks. It’s very touching, even if it’s from people most of whom I do not know.


That “once removed” stuff involves people of different generation. Donald and Robert, my mother’s cousins, are my first cousins once removed, for instance.

As I have noted, my parents were both only children, so my sisters and I had no direct aunts or uncles, and no first cousins. But we do have cousins. And a whole lot of them were under one roof on Thanksgiving night.

When people try to describe cousins, they tend to talk about the siblings, but I find it easier to understand a generation earlier.

Edward Yates and Lillian Archer, married in the 1880s

They had five children, one of whom did in infancy. For this purpose, I’ll mention only two:
Gertrude Yates married Clarence Williams.
Ernie Yates married Charlotte Berman

Gertrude had one daughter, Trudy Williams
Ernie had four children, Raymond, Frances, Donald, and Robert
As Edward and Lillian’s grandchildren, Trudy is first cousins with Ernie’s four. She’s a decade to the day older than Raymond, but they are the closest thing to siblings she had.

Trudy married Les Green and had three children, Roger, Leslie, and Marcia.
Frances married Jimmy Beal and had two daughters, Anne and Lisa. (Donald and Robert also had kids.)
As Edward and Lillian’s great-grandchildren, the Green kids are second cousins to the Beal girls. The Greens are also about ten years older than the Beals but considered them their closest relatives outside their nuclear family.

Roger married Carol and had one daughter, Lydia.
Leslie married Eric and had one daughter, Rebecca, who married Rico.
(Marcia also has a daughter, Alexandria.)
Anne married Brahm and had three daughters.
As Les and Trudy’s grandchildren, Lydia and Rebecca are first cousins, though 25 years apart.
As Edward and Lillian’s great-great-grandchildren, Anne’s daughters are third cousins with both Rebecca and Lydia.

That “once removed” stuff involves people of different generations. Donald and Robert, my mother’s first cousins, are my first cousins once removed, for instance.

And all of the people noted in italics were at Anne’s house outside New York City for Thanksgiving dinner last month, three generations of descendants of Lillian and Edward, along with a couple of spouses, not to mention some friends as well. Someone at the table, just before the meal, said that we individually may think of our immediate families as small – I know I do – but we really have a large family when we look at things differently.

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