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Broken Branches

July 27, 2014

For the past few days I have been thinking about – and mourning, to a degree – a woman I had never met. Her husband found my email address in her online account and was kind enough to take the time to notify me of her passing. I was saddened to hear of her death. I had hoped to one day meet her and ‘compare notes’, as they say. She lived in the next town – the town I grew up in. She was only eight years older than me. She was my second cousin. I never even knew she existed until last January.

Powers Family CrestIt was one of those bitterly cold winter days when I was at loose ends. I decided to sort through the miscellaneous ‘stuff’ that I had shoved into the living room wall unit when I came across my mother’s old address book. I hadn’t looked through it since I had notified the dozen or so ‘distant’ friends in it of her death two years earlier. Was it worth keeping? I wondered, or should I merely make a note of the addresses I didn’t have in my own records, and then toss it? As I went through it page by page, I noticed the words ‘Powers Family History’ beside one of the names in the Ls (Powers was my mother’s mother’s maiden name). I didn’t recognize the name (although I would have sent her a note when Mom died), but my curiosity was peaked. I had undertaken quite a bit of genealogical research after my parents’ passing (prompted by an email from a distant relative on my father’s side of the family, and two photo albums my mother had put together years ago – one about her early life and one about my father’s) and there were quite a few gaps on both sides. Perhaps this person has some of the answers I’m looking for, I thought. So I wrote her a brief letter explaining who I was and where I had gotten her name and address, and hoped for a reply. She phoned me a week later.

I grew up in a family that didn’t talk much about family history or ‘relatives’. For the first ten years of my life, both my grandmothers lived in the same house as our family. My father had converted our three story house into three apartments, moving the stairs outside and converting the upper two levels into apartments; we lived on the main floor and the grandmothers each had their own apartment upstairs (my mother’s father lived up there, too, until his death in 1956; Dad’s father had died when he was 17). The only ‘family’ who ever came to visit were two great-aunts (the widows of two of Dad’s uncles on his mother’s side, one of whom eventually came to live near us when she was about 75). I never questioned the lack of other aunts, uncles, and cousins (like my friends had) because I’d always thought both Mom and Dad were ‘only’ children (and they never talked about any kind of ‘extended’ family other than the two old aunties of Dad’s who occasionally visited).

FamilyTree2The only ‘family’ on Mom’s side that I recall hearing about was my grandmother’s sister. She was 8 years older than my grandmother and pretty much raised her after their mother died (of ‘consumption’) when my grandmother was only a year old; I don’t recall her ever visiting us (although I do remember my grandmother talking about her occasionally). Mom did have a story or two about a cousin (the aunt’s son) who had owned a restaurant in Toronto where Mom had worked when she was in her teens (Christmas cards were still exchanged each year). There was some mention of the aunt having ‘several’ children, but I only vaguely recall hearing a name or two mentioned and I never saw any pictures of them until I went through Mom’s ‘family history’ album and saw a family photo taken at the aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1953 (and they certainly never visited, nor did Mom or my grandmother go to see them that I know of, even though I have since discovered they lived only a couple of hours’ drive away). It turns out Mom had 8 cousins; 7 of them were married and 6 of the couples had children –meaning there were 19 second cousins in my family that I never met and knew nothing about until this year.

Even more surprising was the discovery that my mother wasn’t an ‘only child’. It wasn’t until my grandmother’s death in 1980 that I found out she had a brother (two and a half years younger than her). My brother and sister (who are 10 and 8 years older than me) knew of him, but apparently ‘something happened’ around 1953 or so (the year I was born) that drove a wedge between Mom and her brother, and they hadn’t spoken to each other since (estrangement seems to be something of a pattern in our family – say or do the ‘wrong thing’ [in someone else’s opinion] and suddenly people aren’t talking to you anymore!)  A few family members tried to bring my ‘uncle’ back into the fold, but it didn’t last long (Mom died still bitterly angry with him; I will likely never know why!)

Every Family Has A StoryIn any case, it turned out that the woman whose name I found next to the ‘family history’ notation in Mom’s address book was the daughter of one of Mom’s cousins – not the one she’d worked for, but the middle son (who – surprise, surprise – I found a photo of in Mom’s album; he and two of his other children had paid my grandmother a visit in 1978). My ‘newly discovered’ second cousin had undertaken some family research several years earlier and had contacted my mother for information about our ‘branch’ of the family tree. The information Mom had sent her was all data I already had, but some of it had turned out to be inaccurate or incomplete (as I found out during my own research), so I sent copies of my files to her (as well as scans of some old family photos – including one our great-grandparents Powers taken around 1875, and one of my grandmother with her sister and brother-in-law [my second cousin’s grandparents] taken about 1905). In exchange, she sent me a link to an interactive family history her brother had developed, which provided me with names, dates and details on her side of the family (information I hadn’t been able to obtain elsewhere!) We set a date to meet a few weeks later, but there was a driving snowstorm and sub-zero temperatures that day, so we decided to postpone the visit until ‘the weather improved’. Unfortunately, we didn’t reschedule, and now it’s too late. I deeply regret that. I would like to have met her and learned more about that branch of my family tree.

I will get in touch with her husband and ask him to pass my contact information along to her brothers and her sister, in case any of them are interested in touching base with a ‘lost’ second cousin. But I can’t help feeling like I missed an opportunity to connect with a branch of my extended family (one I didn’t even realize existed).

Family Branches On A TreeOne thing I’ve come to realize (from all the research I’ve done – discovering ancestors I didn’t even know I had – and the ‘missed opportunity’ of meeting my second cousin) is that no matter the circumstances that prevent us from getting to know one another (or the misunderstandings or differences of opinion that drive us apart) family connections are important. I guess that’s just another one of life’s lessons I’ve learned here on … the other side of 55.


  1. Colleen permalink
    July 28, 2014 8:28 am

    Margo, even though my family is constantly talking and spending time together and talking even more (!), you’ll always find there is something you didn’t know…or now need to know. I had a raspberry question this week and went to call Poppa, but then I remembered he wasn’t there anymore.

    • July 28, 2014 10:14 am

      I still automatically reach for the phone sometimes – wanting to share something with Mom or ask Dad a question. I guess that never goes away. Its amazing how much information is ‘lost’ between generations, though; I’m slowing eeking it out.

  2. July 28, 2014 7:59 am

    Sorry to hear of your missed opportunity. As we get older, we DO appreciate family and ties more. sigh.

    • July 28, 2014 8:19 am

      I wish I’d asked more questions of my parents before they died. I’ve found out so many things I didn’t know about our family (including unearthing a few ‘secrets’). I’m going to write it all down and pass it to my kids (and include my own ‘story’ for them). It seems we appreciate family more as we get older.

  3. July 27, 2014 9:32 pm

    What a lot of sleuthing you have done to find out that much. I definitely agree that family connections are important. Remarkably, I grew up not just meeting but knowing all aunts and uncles (4 of each), and all my cousins (25). I say remarkably because they lived in the States, Spain and Mexico. My head does spin a bit going down further to the next generation. I have met many, but not all. How touching your cousin’s husband contacted you upon her death. I hope you continue to find out more.

    • July 28, 2014 8:21 am

      I got immersed in for a couple of months last year and was gobsmacked by all I learned. It was a real journey of discovery. You’re lucky that your family was close; ours was small and even now most of those connections are broken or weakened by time and ego. Still, I’m writing down the stories and passing them on; hopefully my boys will be interested in it all when they’re my age.

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