It was such a beautiful day Sunday here in the Fox Valley that we did considerable work outside. As a reward for my son doing some chores, some up on a ladder, I grilled bratwurst and then simmered them in beer (I figure it’s what God invented Pabst Blue Ribbon for) and yellow onions for our first meal out on the patio this year.
As we ate, we chatted about families, and our family in particular. My son noted that our concept of family doesn’t match that of many of his friends. In my family, formerly almost all farmers, extended family members are all considered aunts, uncles, and cousins no matter how far removed. Apparently, among his friends this is no longer a common family practice.
At our yearly family reunion—we’ll be holding the 89th annual event on the second Sunday in August—second, third, and fourth cousins abound.
And, in fact, it got me to thinking about my early childhood in a close-knit farming community where several of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents were actually no relation at all.
There was Granny Ferguson, who lived down by the neighborhood one-room school where a tiny sort of residential subdivision had grown up, seemingly by accident. The Wheatland United Presbyterian Church, nicknamed the Scotch Church because of its overwhelmingly Scottish early membership, was at the intersection of modern Heggs and Ferguson roads, across Ferguson Road from the school, which was known (naturally) as Church School.
That’s where my sisters and I went to elementary school, my oldest sister going through all eight grades where she was the only one in her class for virtually all eight years.
A few houses, including Granny Ferguson’s, had sprung up around the church-school intersection. I was of absolutely no relation to Granny Ferguson, nor to Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, who lived right next to the church across from the school. They were among my parents’ best friends, and so became default uncle and aunt. Unlike my parents’ friends, Octa and Howard Gengler, who were also dear friends, but who were never an uncle nor aunt, but were just plain Howard and Octa. However, the neighbors to our farm to the north were Auntie Grace and Uncle Herb Norris—again, no relationship whatsoever, but close friends so for some mysterious reason became aunt and uncle. Grandma Rance, Auntie Grace’s mother, lived in the little next door to the Norris’s classic American Foursquare.
And not only that, but Auntie Bernice Bower’s mother and father became Grandma and Grandpa Anderson. Who were not to be confused with Granny Stewart lived in the neighborhood and who mysteriously faded in and out of my childhood memories. So far as I know, not a drop of shared blood was in our veins.
And I shouldn’t give Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken short shrift, either. When my dad, a young former Kansas cowboy and oilfield roustabout, arrived in the neighborhood looking for farmwork, they hired him and introduced him to the Scotch Church community, where he met his future father-in-law, and through him, my mother. I should mention that my grandparents were Lutherans, but since there was no Lutheran church in the farm neighborhood, they went to the nearby Scotch Church. Because that’s what Protestants do. Or did, at least. Didn’t like the Methodist minister? Okay, we’ll go to the Presbyterian Church until he goes somewhere else. My Catholic friends never could get their minds around this practice.
But anyway, my dad worked for the McMickens before he and my mom married in 1930, and forever after, the Matiles were all considered family. Aunt Bess looked after me when I was a youngster, and she made the most delicious cottage cheese from the leftover milk from our productive Guernsey cow, Daisy. When my wife and I were married, the McMickens gave us a piece of their family furniture, a glass door fronted Mission Style bookcase that still fills a prominent corner of our living room.
And then there was Grandma Fitzpatrick, who was the mother of my actual uncle-by-marriage, Les Penn. I was a little unclear until a bit later in life why Grandma Fitzpatrick could be Uncle Les Penn’s mother when they had different last names, but in the welter of random aunts, uncles, and grandparents in which I lived it was not as big a deal as it might have been for some.
And if that wasn’t confusing enough, there a number of uncles in my life who were related, but who weren’t actually uncles. Rather, they were cousins of various degrees. My Uncle Gerald, for instance, started out his life as my first cousin once removed—his mother and my grandmother were sisters, who were extremely close all their lives. Unfortunately, Aunt Edith (my grandmother’s sister) died almost immediately after giving to her seventh child—Gerald. On her deathbed, Edith asked my grandmother to promise to raise Gerald as her own child, which my grandmother faithfully did. Before he went off to fight in World War II, Gerald asked my grandparents to officially adopt him, which they did, and so he became not only my first cousin once removed but also my uncle by adoption. His two children are not only my first cousins, but also my second cousins.
Of Gerald’s brothers, only one, Oliver, was called uncle by me and my sisters. On the other hand, some of my other first cousins once removed—the children of one of my grandmother’s brothers—did get the designation. In that family were Uncle Herbert, Uncle Wilfred, and Aunt Esther.
This was particularly mystifying for a youngster because I never really knew at first whether an aunt, uncle, or grandparent was actually one, whether they were even tangentially related or not.
I suspect that figuring out who was who and then keeping all those relationships straight was what got me interested in history. When my wife and I got married, she had a bit of a struggle trying to figure out which grannies, aunties, and uncles were actually related, since calling non-blood relatives by those names was, in her family, pretty much not done. But, since she was a history major, too, it didn’t take long before she was able to keep track of what was what.
Today, all of those relatives by courtesy are long gone, although our era of claiming even the most distant cousins as part of the family continues pretty much unabated. It’s one remnant of those days when the term “extended family” meant more than precisely that, something that provided a warm, comfortable security blanket to those of us lucky to enjoy it.