Volume 4, Issue 87: Cousin
"The dead awake in waves."
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About three years ago, in the middle of the isolation during the pandemic, bored and antsy and frantic like everybody else, I did something a little out of character for me: I signed up for 23andMe. Maybe it was the universality of the pandemic, the fact that everyone in the world was going through this at the exact same time, that made me want to find some sort of tangible connection to something outside of my house. Or maybe I was just listless and scared and thought, hey, if the world’s ending, I might as well find out if I’m Dutch.
Growing up in the flatlands of Mattoon, Illinois, one’s ancestry and background, if I might put it delicately, is not something that came up very often. (I once joked that everybody I grew up with was either named Billy, Bob, or both.) An old friend of mine, on a ski trip in Utah, once went to visit a Mormon records facility to look up her family tree and ancestry, and she asked if I’d be interested to learn mine. I eagerly said yes. She called the next day.
“I researched your parents, and your parents, and their parents, and their parents, and their parents, all the way back to the Civil War,” she said.
“Oh, so where I am from?” I asked, on the edge of my seat.
“They’re all from Mattoon,” she said. “Literally, your great great great great great grandfather never left Mattoon. I think your heritage is just Bland Midwesterner.”
Thanks to 23andMe, though, I found out it is more complicated than that. But only barely.
If you scroll a little farther down the page, I think the next entry simply says “Whole Milk.”
But there was something else, something in the family tree, that jumped out at me even more. If you’ve ever signed up for 23andMe, you find out quickly what other family members have signed up as well, because, well, they’re your family: They’re three percent Whole Milk just like you are, and they’re listed accordingly as DNA Relatives. I found my parents and sister in there—I’d gotten them 23andMe as a Christmas present the year before, though it’s worth noting that my little sister, with whom I share “45 percent” of my DNA, is listed as “Mother” by 23andMe, which is either a glitch in their system or, uh, extremely confusing and disorienting—and I found a couple of first and second cousins, one of whom I recognized and one of whom I did not.
The cousin I recognized, about a day after my results hit the site, emailed me immediately.
“Did you see that guy listed as our third cousin? I emailed him as soon as he showed up, trying to find out who he was. He wanted nothing to do with it. I think he may have found out something from 23andMe that he didn’t want to. Ooooh … is there a secret in his family? Or ours?”
I wrote her back and said we should probably leave the guy alone, that 23andMe can be pretty dangerous sometimes, and, eventually, she agreed. Then I felt bad for ever messing with the past in the first place. But then again: It never hurts to find a new cousin.
My father has eight brothers and sisters; he’s the fourth child, and the oldest boy. His oldest sister is her eighties; the youngest just hit her mid-50s. When my first son William was born, my wife and I took him back to Illinois so he could meet the extended family, specifically my grandmother, who was in her ‘90s but just as country tough-as-nails as she’d always been. As we stood in her kitchen, my uncle asked us what is was like to have a kid in New York City. The way he asked it made it sound like he thought all childbirths in New York took place on a moving subway train while being chased by The Warriors.
But we did have a story. The story is my wife’s to tell, not mine, but the short version is that because she went into labor more quickly than we had anticipated, and the baby came faster than doctors thought he would, we did not have time to get her epidural: I remeber the doctor, outside her room, telling me, “yeah, we’re not going to have time for that. We’re going to have to go natural. You better go in there and tell her.” It was, fair to say, a harrowing experience. (Again, my wife’s story to tell, but I’ll say this: The first time I ever saw my son, he was literally airborne.)
So anyway, we’re in the kitchen of my grandmother’s home in Toledo, Illinois, telling this story, hitting all the right comedic notes, and when we finished, everybody congratulated my wife on her strength and resilience. (And then offered her pie and Cardinals-themed knitted blankets. Midwesterners!) She said thank you, and then we picked up Baby William to show him off. “It was hard,” my wife said, “but obviously it was well worth it.”
My grandmother, sitting off to the side, coughed a little. “Yeah,” she said, her hand shaking a little, like it had for a few years at that point. “I did that nine times. Had dinner on the table that night the second eight times too.” We all got real quiet after that.
When your father has eight brothers and sisters, and they all live within a half hour radius of each other, well, it’s fair to say you end up with a lot of cousins. (It’s also why, when you livin within that half hour radius, you kind of have to be careful whom you date.) A big family like that leads to extremely crowded Thanksgivings. Mostly I remember us gathering into a cold garage with a black-and-white television, where we’d fill up our styrofoam plates with noodles and turkey and green beans and sit on sagging lawn chairs Grandma brought in out of the rain to watch a football game we all pretended to care about.
I don’t see many of my cousins any more; I am no longer within their half hour radius. We’ve lost some of them over the years; one of the Leitch family tragedies is that while all of Grandma’s children are still alive, several of their children are not. My closest cousin is actually my cousin Denny, from my mom’s side of the family, and he’s the only one I make sure never to miss when I come back home. The rest of them, well, they are a part of my life the way nearly everyone from my past is anymore; occasional Facebook commenters, little life updates from my parents, funny stories my sister and I share when we’re together. If I’m being honest, I probably use them more as anecdotal foils in my writing than I actually speak with them anymore. That’s far more my fault than theirs.
But they still are my family—literally part of me just as I am part of them. I check in on them, I hope they are doing well, I am tied to them, however loosely, for the rest of my life. As I get older, I realize more and more that this bond, as casual as it is, is still more secure than the bonds I have with people who used to be among my closest friends. It’s easier to lose touch with friends, no matter how close they once were. You have to keep coming up with excuses and reasons to see friends; you don’t need one with family, even distant family. They’re just there, forever, just like you are for them, forever. Sometimes you even discover new ones. I am not as close with many of my cousins as I would like to be, as I probably should be. But they’re with me for the rest of my life, regardless. It’s comforting, in the end, to have people like that: People, as you float around the universe, you’re tethered to no matter what. You don’t have to try. You don’t have to check in. They’re just there. And so are you. That might not be the most inspiring definition of family. But I’m not sure it’s the worst one either.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Knicks Know What They’re Doing, New York. They do! They really do!
I Wrote About Four MLB Icons Likely Playing Their Last Games of Their Career This Weekend, MLB.com. Cabrera, Wainwright, Greinke and Votto.
Your Things To Look Forward To in the Final Week of the Season, MLB.com. We have reached the season in which a lot of these links are outdated by the time I link them in this newsletter. That’s the fun of October.
What to Look For on the Last Friday of the MLB Season, MLB.com. Another good example!
What to Look For on the Last Thursday of the MLB Season, MLB.com. Another good example!
What to Look For on the Last Wednesday of the MLB Season, MLB.com. Another good example!
What to Look For on the Last Tuesday of the MLB Season, MLB.com. Another good example!
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed the immortal “Stop Making Sense,” as well as “Expend4bles” and “Team America: World Police.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I only have one more show after this one until this year is finally over.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we recapped UAB and previewed Auburn.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Tears Don’t Matter Much,” Lucero. On another one of my Lucero kicks, bear with me.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Had a grand time at Francie and Finch’s in Lincoln, Nebraska last night. My son is doing a much better job at hiding his boredom at events where his dad has to talk about all those boring words.
We will be at the Nebraska-Michigan game today. I am going to try to find a hat made of corn.
Have a great weekend, all.