I was told once upon a time by a spinster great-aunt who disapproved of my adolescent exuberance (and, perhaps, my apparent irreverence for traditions she held close) that in our vast family-tree, with its roots stretching back to highland-hills across the sea, I was surely the sap running through the branches. The sap!
I probably smiled gamely, unsure about the implications of the comparison, although doubtless certain I’d been disparaged. But, interestingly enough, her comment did prompt me to find out more about my family-tree.
That lady and her sister, my grandmother, were first-generation Scots-Presbyterian, born into a family of nine to an austere, eastern-Ontario farmer and his wife—my maternal great-grandparents, dead long before I appeared as a bud on the tree.
Sometime in the early 1900’s, my grandmother married a Catholic suitor with a French name, whose family had emigrated to Canada from Ireland. From the time I first learned to speak, I was told not to address him as Grandpa or Grandfather, not Poppa or Gramps (my preferred sobriquet now with my own grandchildren), but instead by his first name. So, I did.
This worthy couple had five children, my mother being second in line. She—in concert with my father, of course—eventually had five children of her own. One of her siblings had one child only, the others none at all, so I and my sibs grew up with one first-cousin on the maternal side of the family-tree.
My paternal grandparents—he born in Canada to English émigrés, she born in Canada to parents of Irish descent—had three children, only one of whom, my father, had children. Thus, I had no first-cousins on that branch of the tree.
Interesting, at least to me, was the discovery that, after my grandfather had married my grandmother, his brother had wed her sister. They also gave birth to three children, so my father and his two sisters grew up with three double-double-first-cousins—a somewhat unusual occurrence on a family-tree.
Long after my disapproving great-aunt had passed to greater glory, I married a young woman whose family had similar roots to mine—Irish, Scottish, and English. My wife has three siblings, and two first-cousins. Her sibs have produced five children who are first-cousins to our own two daughters. Our girls also have ten first-cousins on my side of the family, the children of my sisters, for a total of fifteen!
As I delved into the history of our family-tree, I learned about the nomenclature and relationship of cousins—considered complex by some, incomprehensible by others. I think it’s straightforward, however, so let’s see if I can explain it simply.
The children of my first-cousin are my first-cousins-once-removed, as are my children to her. Her children are second-cousins to mine. That pattern is repeated unto the third, fourth, and all subsequent generations of cousins. Easy, no?
We are now at the stage in our extended family where second-cousins (great-nieces or -nephews to me) are just beginning to have children. Eventually, I expect this will lead to multiple sets of third-cousins, most of whom (due to constraints of time and location) will probably never even meet one another.
Two generations on from me, two of my five grandchildren—each with her own maternal and paternal branches of a family-tree—have a total of five first-cousins from both sides of their family. The other three of my grandchildren, likewise growing from two branches of a family-tree, have two first-cousins. None of those cousins has, as yet, had children.
Years ago, a good friend of mine, an artist and out-of-the-box thinker, developed a prototype for what would today be marketed as a family-tree app, which he called Toot Your Roots. It didn’t catch on, although the digitized world we live in now might make it a feasible product. As I recall, it had spaces in which to enter surnames in flowing script as each new family-tree melded with the others.
If I were to attempt entering those names today—back to the time of my great-grandparents, forward to my great-nieces and -nephews, including both my and my wife’s branches, and those of our daughters’ families, and the families of their cousins, and so forth—I confess I could not do it. Not without a lot more research.
Even now, having benefited from the endeavours of like-minded extended-family members, I can list only twenty-five surnames. Descending across the years, they are: Burt, Thompson, Smythe, Duck, McKinnon, Roche, Colquhoun, Fife, Dunleavy, Eaton, Eckert, Cherry, Rowsell, Whittington, Wigglesworth, Lansi, Moss, Curtis, Sweezey, Tiller, Tucker, Dunn, Fiorino, Guthrie, and Grant.
Given this partial list, and aware there are many more surnames I do not know, I envisage my family-tree looking like one of these—this dragon-blood tree on the island of Socotra (left), or this large banyan tree in Florida (right), one tree at root, despite its many appendages.
Dragon tree (Dracaena cinnabari) in Socotra island, Yemen.
The thing is, I’m not sure where to look for myself on either of them. My family-tree is just too vast, its roots and canopy too extended.
But I do know one thing for sure. I am not the sap!