Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cousinhood

I was an only-child, so a cluster of first cousins was my longed-for siblings, my expanded family. I’ve just returned from a writers’ festival in a cousin-rich environment—Winnipeg, where my mother, aunts, and grandparents are buried—and where my surviving first cousins are still hanging in and their middle-aged children and their college-age grandchildren are thriving. I’m still the only part of my mother’s family to have been born, and to live, in the U.S. Of my father’s side, they’re nearly all in upper New England.

And so, I’ve been giving some thought to the attractions and oddities of cousinhood. First of all, cousins are part of us, but fully on their own. That’s a good basis for friendship. In fact, it’s unique. We’re not responsible for them; they’re not our siblings, children, parents or grandparents. They’re a little bit like us, but not really. Hospitable strangers, we might say. At most, we might share some traits, like a talent for drawing. We may have greater world-consciousness than most families; somehow, we all warmed to maps and atlases as children. We travel. Politically, we’re liberal. But cousins are only a fraction of us, a diminishing fraction with each new generation. Even with that little slice of shared DNA, we’d never recognize each other, we’d pass unnoticed on the street.

My cousins are generally healthy. Alzheimer’s runs like a late-blooming, toxic weed through my mother’s family; it’s something I fear for myself, as do many of my cousins. My mother, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, all died with it. One of my first cousins has it now. Genetic diseases entered my branch of the family from outside sources. (Hybrid hardiness is good for wheat, not necessarily humans). Our children are paying the price. There were twenty of us at dinner last week, ranging in age from 75 to 10, a clan, tending to a tribe. I added to the sum of family lore--did they know that one of our cousins was a two-time Olympic gold medalist? Did they know that another cousin’s ceramic work is represented in major museums on four continents? (Google Carolyn Waldo and Marilyn Levine). My host-cousin had gathered everyone’s photo albums (we’re album-keepers, one of our shared traits), and through one family’s photos we absorbed 120 years of western Canadian history. My baby-photos were tucked away in other cousins’ albums, doubtless to their confusion. Even my father, the long-forgotten “Uncle Leo” to the older generation, as alien to my mother’s family as could possibly be imagined in Canada at that time, made his dashing, boulevardier entrance, probably a “snap” taken my mother before they were married. But now, through marriage, French names, Ukrainian names, German names, are edging their way into our Scots-Irish and Flemish clan. My mother was banished for many years for daring to marry a French-Canadian.

And did I know my host-cousin is the CEO of three companies, which she founded? Or that her husband, a major lawyer and Mennonite choirmaster, had made the Julia Child boeuf bourguignon for twenty by getting up at five a.m. before going off to give a lecture to seventy-five lawyers.

Our extended family recycles names. Every generation seems to have its Annes, Ruths, Kays, Bens, Russells…although the youngest among us have gone a little exotic. Alexa? And they’re getting taller, and the women are better-looking than ever.

What I’m suggesting is that cousinhood is an invigorating exercise in building a social-media empire. Cousins are like the quasi-intimates on my FaceBook page; we’re aware of each other, we have joint attractions—there’s a reason we hang out together—in a nuanced, distant way, we love each other.

4 comments:

  1. Hello Clark,

    Am just in the process of reading RESIDENT ALIEN and enjoying the tearful nostalgia of Montreal in the 1950s, when the street cars had rattan seats and the chauffeurs la! la! ostis! wore crisp uniforms (and the Plouffe Family was on TV [wouldn't be aceptable today j'pense).

    I was an English student at Sir George from 1965-1971 and managed to cram a four-year degree into six years (switched to evening when I joined Canadian Press (CP)--as WIRE EDITOR IN 1969.

    I studied under Mervyn Bukowski (sp?), Mike Brian (natch) and my seminar chief was the redoubtable Greta Nemiroff, married to the advertising guy, Armand. Did Canlit with Michael Gnarowski whom I last saw circa 2004 - in rude health.

    I arrived in Montreal in May 1954 from Belfast Northern Ireland. My Dad was a naval architect and already had a job at Canadian Vickers at the bottom of Viau, having gone out nine months earlier. We crossed the Atlantic in the Cunard liner RMS ASCANIA.

    I was 11 years old and had finished elenetary school in Ulster and had a scholarship to grammar school (high level high school, but got shoved back into grade six at Nesbitt School - years behind.

    However, the point of this comment is that you mention that going to an English school would have involved two trolley (streetcar, tram) rides. However, Nesbitt School, with its much-less-brutal-than-the-Christian-Brothers principal, Mr. Stewart. It was virtually within walking distance or the Sherbrooke Street bus.

    However, you probably became more or less fluent in joual by going to the French side, though you missed out on the Prot Sch Board of Greater Montreal French textbook which involved a family on Avenue Des Erables:) - our primer on French Canadian life.

    Not sure what else is relevant - I was features editor of The Georgian for awhile and I remember palpably that girls wore garter belts and stockings. Another fascinating feature of Sir George was that WASPS like myself absorbed a concentrated dose of Jewish culture, not only through the general SGWU ethos but also dating Jewish girls - the princesses who were determinedly virginal and the intellectuals who were rather more approachable.

    After that I spent 30 years as a writer/editor/journalist - some of it in England and some back in Northern Ireland (Ulster), during the Troubles. Had my house blown up - a big Edwardian terrace house and I could feel it palpably lift under my feet as the next door bomb went off (in a gym bag in the doorway of the neighbouring bank) - a great way to meet the neighbours as we were all out on the street chatting with the police and army for much of the night.

    Bombs turn windows into a fine frost across the carpets of rooms - indistinguishable from the rime of Montreal windows in January. No one was hurt though - all superficial damage. It was great craic as we say in Belfast - craic (crack) being Gaelic for fun, witty repartee (sort of).

    I also recall Louis Dudek standing up reading weighty tomes at his lectern in his office. I don't believe we ever spoke though.

    I lived in many of the places you menton in the book - Ste Famille, 105 Milton (Moey Segal's 12-storey apt bldg).

    I went out with sciology profs - Graciela Duce (St. Mathieu) and Pat Pajonas (maybe around Hutchinson)

    Ben Queenan was Sir GeOrge's resident audio-visual manner - a laconic Scot who had been in MI-9 during the war (operations behind enemy lines incl rescuing downed fliers etc).

    Had seminars with Mordecai Richler, whom I didn't get along with and Irving Layton, whom I remember mostly from seeing him at the Pussy Galore Bar (just up the street from the new building), where he regaled his various student conquests.

    All I can remember for the moment. Your book is a fascinating peregrination, Clark, and it's good to see you looking absolutely fit and thriving.

    All the best

    Carl Edgar

    Carl Edgar Law
    Perth, Ontario - 50 miles W of Ottawa

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  2. Should have added:

    We first lived at 38th Ave/Bellechasse - which was one block above Rosemount Blvd and one block east of Viau, which is 37th Avenue by any other name.

    In 1957 we bought a wee house in relatively-new suburb, Ville d'Anjou which made it even tougher to get all the way downtown

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