I’ve said before that my father and his sister never saw eye to eye, and that neither did his father and his sister. But I am beginning to wonder if this is just a little genetic. Earlier this week, a second cousin twice removed – that is to say, my grandfather‘s second cousin – died in the USA. I never met him, but at the very height of my family research in the first half of the 1990s, I traced him. It was not easy. It depended upon another of my grandfather’s second cousins finding a letter sent to him in the 1960s, and on my decoding a completely mis-spelt address in a 1967 will. But we made contact, and we exchanged a number of photographs. (To get a sense of the relative distance of the relationship, his grandmother, who died in 1900, had been my great-great-grandfather’s youngest sister. Her family had emigrated to Canada, and then from Canada to Illinois, in about 1910, perhaps earlier. It subsequently transpired that the son – my great-great-grandfather’s nephew, if you are following – had returned to England during World War One, and photos of him surfaced here and there, when he paid a visit to the North-East in about 1916. It is this nephew’s son who has just died, aged 76 – some 40 years and more since my grandfather died, and someone about my grandfather never knew. They were born a generation apart, in time.)
But my second cousin twice removed also had a sister, and she is still alive (and is now the very last of my grandfather’s second cousins). But brother and sister had not spoken for some years even when I first contacted them, and had not spoken since then. I don’t know how long they had been estranged, but I would guess at three decades or more. So suddenly I was in the position of being the middle man – the only person who had had contact with both of the siblings. I therefore had the strange experience of ringing the USA to tell a sister that a brother had died in the USA.
Because I am keen on family – and try to keep up with the more special of my third and fourth cousins – hello, Kate, Heather, Helen and Vron – I have once or twice found myself in an oddly pivotal position: not that I am complaining, since I enjoy it. People send me family albums and letters and it is a joy to marry them, as it were, together.
Quite early in my searches, I came across two of my father’s third cousins, sisters, who had not spoken for about four decades. Their mother had died young, and they had fallen out over a step-mother. I visted them in consecutive weeks – one in the North-East, one in the Midlands. The conversation was treacherous, or felt like it. The second sister I visited wanted, and didn’t want, to see the photos of nephews and nieces which I was carrying. In the end, she succumbed, and some time later, she and her sister were re-united. I had not realised what a minefield I was walking into when I became keen on family history in the first instance, nor that there would be accidental narratives with happy endings.
But I can’t say I wasn’t pleased.