Second Cousins Mean More Than You Know

Where did I come from? Which relatives do I look like?

I was 12 when I first met any of my dad’s family. Raised in an orphanage, Daddy was separated from his sister and brother around 16. But he had persevered in his search for them, and in 1958 he found them living in Florida.

Daddy’s sister, Lucinda (aka Lucy), her husband, and their daughter lived in Tampa, FL, and his brother, Fred and his wife and daughter, lived in Orlando. We traveled to meet them all.

Our first stop was in Tampa at Aunt Lucy’s. In the back of my mind, I assumed Aunt Lucy would look like most of my relatives–slender and petite. Even my dad was small in stature but then his health had been poor since before I was born.

The slender and petite rankled my near adolescent mind as I was what I considered a “chunkette.” I despised how I looked, especially at family gatherings. Based on my dad’s slight build, I assumed his relatives would be the same.

Daddy and Aunt Lucy during a 1963 visit. Aunt Lucy was 67 at the time.
Daddy and Aunt Lucy during a 1963 visit. Aunt Lucy was 67 at the time.

I’ll never forget as Aunt Lucy opened the door to our ringing the doorbell. There I stood with a few decades added on. I’m not sure if my gasp was audible, but I felt it. My existence as a “chunkette” was affirmed! Aunt Lucy was the relative I resembled.

That evening Aunt Lucy and Uncle Tom’s daughter, Jean, and her two daughters joined us for dinner. Jean was a lovely woman nearer my mother’s age than mine, but she was my cousin despite the age difference. The second cousin relationship was explained to my brother and me as Jean introduced her daughters, Barbara and Sherrill.

Barbara was beautiful! Diminutive in size, blonde and tanned, and blue eyes, she could have been a model except for her height. At first, I could only focus on her with envy. Then Sherrill entered the dining room.

It happened again–I saw myself taking the chair beside me. We looked alike, both in facial features and stature. Our hands were almost identical in shape and size. Our names were even similar! How gracious God was to bring me two images of what I’d look like at Sherrill’s age, then 22, and Aunt Lucy at 62.

I gloried in this new-found glimpse of people whom I favored. My gene pool could most definitely be found on Daddy’s family tree. This was a happy moment.

Just a matter of time–all good things come to an end.

As time slipped by and we moved to Oregon from Tennessee, farther away from Florida and family, I kept in touch with my cousin, Jean. Not only a lovely woman but also gracious, Jean has always stayed in touch with me over the years. Her husband was killed in WWII leaving her with Barbara and Sherrill. When her parents left Kentucky for Florida, she moved her little family with them.

Over the years both my Aunt Lucy and  Uncle Tom passed away, and Jean’s girls married and began their families leaving Jean in the spacious house in Tampa. Aunt Lucy’s life ended at the same time Barbara’s young daughter was killed in an automobile accident and shortly afterwards, Barbara ended her life.

This meant Jean and my second cousin, Sherrill, were my only family members left on Daddy’s side. His brother Fred had also passed away and his family chose not to stay connected with us.

Jean had mentioned in letters Sherrill’s poor health over the last almost seven years. Yet she never mentioned specifics, and I didn’t ask.

Knowing I owed Jean a letter, I laughed when Bob handed me another letter from her in Friday’s mail. I was certain she was reminding me of my tardiness. As I opened the envelope, a clipping from the Tampa newspaper fell out. Only it wasn’t just any clipping. It was Sherrill’s obituary. Now, she too is gone. My mirror images have faded away in Aunt Lucy and Sherrill. But my memories of them have not faded. I’m so grateful for the few images I have of Aunty Lucy, and somewhere (don’t ask!) I have a photo of Sherrill and me.

At 100 this month, my cousin, Jean, is my last living relative on the Adams side of my family history. I spoke with her by phone on Saturday, and we laughed over my adolescent need to “identify” myself with some family member. We agreed I couldn’t have chosen two more delightful women to look like and with whom to share common interests.

My cousin, Jean Shivell Bell, in 2006 at age 91.
My cousin, Jean Shivell Bell, in 2006 at age 91.

Whatever you do don’t waste an opportunity to stay in touch with family.

Time is short. Days fly by. We get busy and think about people, especially family, but often it gets lost in the next task or errand. I had not seen Sherrill since 1976, and our lives had grown apart due to age difference and lifestyles. Not a good reason not to try to contact her now and then.

Because time flies by, don’t waste an opportunity to write, email, or call that family member who just crossed your mind.

Is there someone you should get in touch with sooner than later?

16 thoughts on “Second Cousins Mean More Than You Know

  1. A very touching post, Sherrey, and a great reminder to keep in touch with family, even if we only see them rarely and only share news at Christmas. The distances between family members and the way time speeds by makes it difficult, but it’s so worth it.

    1. Hello, Joan! So good to have you here. Not only is today’s society fragmented by speeding time and distance, so are families. Ours is a perfect example on both sides of our family. Even our son’s family, all here in the same area, see very little of each other and some are never in contact except at birthdays and holidays. Sad commentary on where advances have taken us, but progress is important too, I suppose.

  2. Such a wonderful story. And Jean certainly doesn’t look 91 in the photo. You are right, we need to keep in touch with family. Time passes quickly and I often put off doing things. We never know when it might be too late.

    1. Joan, thank you for stopping by. I can’t believe how quickly time passes by. And I am the worst at being in touch with folks. I tend to procrastinate on those things, leaning in favor of my writing or other favorite things to do. I must practice being a better family member.

      1. Sherrey, I’m also a procrastinator. I have an aunt that lives less than 100 miles away, yet I’ve only seen her once in three years. She’s not getting any younger. I allow the “busyness” of life to take precedence. Sad, but true.

  3. This is so poignant,Sherrey. I felt a reaction when you opened the letter that revealed an obituary. But I can tell you made every effort to stay in touch. You have carried your family in your heart and will continue to do so. And I do see the family resemblance in the photo of your cousin,Jean.

    1. Kathy, thank you for being a faithful reader and commenter. Your words are always good for my soul. I am honored that you see the family resemblance in Jean’s photo. Jean is and always has been an amazing woman. I suppose we represent the same for each other–the last tie from our parents.

  4. Sherrey, it must have been hard to see that obituary and to have such tenuous family connections all your life.
    But you found a way to use every opportunity you could to connect with your own flesh and blood. You have helped me imagine what it must be like to construct one’s identity, and even one’s evidence of DNA, from scraps. Thank you.

    1. Oh, Shirley! I was so ready for a funny note from Jean asking if we’d dropped off the edge of the world or something similar. Her way of sending reminders. The newsprint almost flew out of the envelope leaving Jean’s note behind.
      My stepdaughter, adopted by Bob and his ex-wife as an infant, helped me see a long time ago what identity was like for adopted children. I like to think that’s when I began to realize how important my past experiences were to my own identity in finding myself. Life is a magical and beautiful thing when the threads begin to weave from unknown and heretofore unseen places and people.

  5. Fascinating clip and taste of your memoir Sherrey. And wow, your cousin looks mighty fine in her nineties, God bless. Nice to have the good skin genes, lol. 🙂

    1. Yes, Debby, Jean has aged well. I always believed my good skin genes came solely from Mama, but now I wonder. Perhaps Daddy’s family had them too! 🙂

  6. Poignant memoir snippet, Sherrey. It was easy to feel a range of human emotions in this anecdote: envy, yearning, surprise, satisfaction. I like how similar and dissimilar characteristics slip into the gene pool. Because of it, we have two red-haired grand-children.
    It’s hard to believe cousin Jean is 91 in that photo. She appears to be aging backwards – ha!

    1. Thank you, Marian, for reading and sharing. Isn’t the gene pool a fascination? When Jean reminded me she’d soon be 100, I couldn’t imagine the voice on the other end of the phone belonging to someone of that age. She has always been “younger than springtime” in my mind and heart.

  7. Sherry, this post is heartwarming. You and Sherrill were more closely related than you thought. You were first-cousins-once-removed. If she had any children, you would have been second cousins with them. These distinctions were important in my Amish community… you were not allowed to marry anyone closer than a second cousin. (Which I think is already too close).
    Thank you for sharing the importance of family and kin.

    1. Saloma, your words were more than encouragement. They were like balm to a wound. I appreciate the clarification on first, seconds, once-removeds. I never did understand all those kinfolk terms. 🙂

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