Modern Family

My son, now almost 17, has cousins on his father's side of the family only a few years younger than he whom he has never met.  They live in Vientiane, Laos, with my husband's middle brother and his wife, herself a native Laotian.  My son has another cousin, just born, who lives in Cambridge, England, with his father's half-brother, who is a Muslim convert, and his second wife, who is also Muslim.  My half-brother-in-law met his first wife, also a Muslim, in New York while he was studying at my Alma Mater; she, like me, was an American, while the brothers (if you haven't guessed yet) are English.  My husband's other brother, whom we have not seen since my son was a toddler, lives in York, England.  Their father, my son's grandfather, is now living somewhere in China when he is not in Laos; we haven't seen him since we were in England in summer 2008.

Meanwhile, on my side of the family, there are my younger brother and his daughter, who live in Antwerp, Belgium; we have seen them maybe four times in her life; she turns seven next month.  My sister, who is two years younger than I am, is expecting her first child this coming May; she lives in Austin, Texas.  The last time that I saw her for longer than 24 hours (she was in Chicago this past spring for an overnight) was in summer 2009.  My son's grandmother, my mother, lives in Amarillo, Texas, which at least puts her in shouting distance of my sister; we see my mother and her partner on average no more than once a year, for maybe three or four days at a time.  My father and my husband's mother are both dead, my father since 2005, my mother-in-law since 1996, the year my son was born.  Before my father died, we used to see him about twice a year, always at Thanksgiving, often at Christmas, and even every so often simply to visit.  He lived in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time.

I'm not sure how I feel about all of this.  On the one hand, there are always opportunities to travel; but, on the other, none of us really has the funds to be able to afford to travel as much as it would take to see each other even more than once every other year.  One day maybe my husband, son, and I will get to Laos to meet the cousins, but we are unlikely ever to live close enough to make the trip more than once or twice.  Thanks to Skype, we have seen them--and their puppies, all three of them!--but usually only at Christmas when suddenly everybody remembers that we haven't been in touch for nearly a year.  It was different when we were younger.  I used to travel all the time when I was in my twenties (a.k.a. graduate school), back and forth across the Atlantic, and my brother-in-law lived in Tanzania working in the Rwandan refugee camps before he moved to Laos.  My husband's half-brother has lived in Cairo as well as New York and did his dissertation research in Morocco, but now that he and his wife have settled down in Cambridge with his mother, one suspects he won't be traveling quite as much (although I could be wrong).  Likewise, my sister used to be on the go almost constantly, often for work, but often simply to visit, but she hasn't been here to stay for longer than overnight since the Christmas before our father died.  My son and I were able to visit my brother and his family (since reconstituted) in Antwerp the same summer we saw my father-in-law in London, but we have no plans in the foreseeable future to make it back to Europe.  Life, but also the expense, intervenes.

Are we that unusual as a family?  Or a not-quite-family?  Sometimes it feels as if we are living in a 19th-century Victorian novel, with long-lost, never-seen cousins living in far-flung places around the globe, only to meet over the reading of the will of a forebear whom none of them have actually ever known.  Or in a Western, in which the cousins set out for the High Plains never to be seen again.  It happened, at least I suspect it happened, with previous generations of my family.  My mother's father's mother (Nona Alexander) was one of the first white pioneers in the Texas Panhandle, back at the end of the 19th century.  My mother's father's grandparents on his father's side (I think I have that right) came over from Germany in the mid 19th century ("Snyder" is the family name, clearly adapted to the new clime, although I think they came through New Orleans rather than Ellis Island).  Or maybe that was my father's mother's mother (Mabel Haberer), who also immigrated from Germany before Skype, although about the time of telephones (she was born in 1876 and died in 1974).  (I think; I realize I am fuzzier on a lot of this than I had thought I was.)  It is the definition of an American, it would seem, to have lost touch with one's family at some point, sometimes for the rest of one's life, just as (to judge from my husband's family) it is the definition of an Englishman to marry abroad (he married me, after all, and moved to America with me). 

Perhaps it is the possibility, given unlimited funds and/or air miles, of seeing each other again that makes it particularly painful.  We could, after all, simply hop on a plane and get together again.  But we don't.  My brother has not been to Chicago since before we moved to our present apartment in 2002, and before then he was here only once or twice, once to attend the MLA when we were actually away, another time just after my son was born (we have the pictures to prove it, so at least I'm sure on this one).  My husband's middle brother came to visit us once on his way to Laos; his half-brother came a couple of times, and I saw him once when he was in New York and again at his first wedding (we missed the second, as it was in England), but the younger of his full brothers has never been to see us (not that it is at all within his budget, but he would be welcome if it were).  My father-in-law has been here two or three times, the last time on an overnight for several days when my father died (which was very generous of him, I must say).  We moved here in 1994, so these are visits tallied over the past 19 years.  In that time, we managed to make it back to England every other Christmas through about 2006, although it seems like there was one interval that was longer than that (yes, there was; we missed 2004); our last visit to England, as I said, was in 2008, when I was able to pay for some of our stay because I was on fellowship to do my research.  Since my father-in-law moved to Laos, however, we have not been to see him either. 

And this is just our immediate family, as it were: my husband's and my parents and siblings.  I, too, have cousins whom I have seen only once or twice in my life; one of them, now just over thirty, is getting married this summer.  I think that I have seen her twice in her life; her older brother, maybe three times in his.  Even the cousins that my siblings and I grew up with, my father's middle sister's children, have children older than my son whom I have seen maybe once in their lives, and one whom I have never met (although we are friends on Facebook).  I didn't even recognize one of my cousins (my father's youngest sister's son) the last time we met (was it in 2009? No, that doesn't seem right, my son was younger than that) at our aunt's house.  Mind you, it was the more embarrassing because those cousins do all tend to see each other regularly (they all live in New Mexico or Colorado); none of them has ever been to see us here, however, despite the fact that their father's brother lives in Chicago with his family (so, more of their cousins), and their father grew up here.  Wait, no, my father's youngest sister's daughter was in Chicago for a conference this past year and looked us up; but the ones with cousins themselves here haven't come.  (Don't worry, the point isn't to keep the cousins straight; I certainly can't always keep up with them!)  I have seen some of my husband's cousins more than I have seen mine--and they all live in England (at least, the ones I have met, although one was living in North Carolina the year that we were there).

These people aren't really family; they're strangers.  Sure, with my father's middle sister's children, I share a lot of memories, particularly the cousin who is just six months younger than I am.  But we are ever so polite when we meet and we quickly run out of "Do you remember stories?" only to realize that we haven't a clue what each other is like now.  My father's youngest sister likes talking about how much we Fultons are the same, but I haven't felt like a "Fulton" in years; a Fulton Brown, maybe, but not a Fulton in the way that we cousins were when we were kids (and then we were the only true "Fultons" because my cousins had their fathers' names, not my aunts').  My son has never known what it is like to be "a Brown" (remember, he has never met his cousins on his father's side, albeit one was only born a month ago).  He has seen his cousin my niece four times (if I am counting correctly: once when she was a baby, one Christmas when she was almost two, for two whole weeks the following summer, and for about a day on our way home from Anaheim last July), and, truth be told, they are wonderful together.  But she is ten years younger than he is and lives an ocean and over 4,000 miles away.  He will never have the kind of memories with her that I have even with my "closest" cousin (whom I last saw for lunch in, I think, 2009; it was pleasant, I wish that I could see her again). 

Maybe, in fact, that's all we need to be--polite strangers.  After all, none of us seems to be making much of an effort to be anything but.  But.  It still makes me sad.  My youngest cousin has invited me to her wedding in June; it is unlikely that I will go (money, plus my husband's schedule, plus, you know).  I haven't even met my sister's baby's father yet, and she is due in May.  They have been together for almost three years now, so it really isn't as if there hasn't been time (or money).  Except, it seems, there hasn't.  Just like there hasn't been time (or money) to go to Belgium or England or Laos.  If there ever will be. 


  1. The University of Chicago apparently is one of the top paid universities in the country. Your husband also works full time at a major cultural institution. You have one kid. Why not travel a little -- your poverty surely cannot be that severe.


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