Sunday, December 23, 2018

Cousin Spencer

Miracle house - built by my great-grandfather and Spencer's
great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Johnston.
The miracle is it is still standing.

My Japanese husband is fascinated by Japanese-Americans, at how American they are and at the same time seem to retain something “very Japanese” about themselves. No mystery, of course. You naturally acquire the habits and behaviors of the people you grow up with, so if they use expressions like “grab a bite” and by that mean a hamburger and fries, that’s no surprise. And if they tend toward shyness and not grabbing the first piece of chocolate, that may well come from a Japanese grandmother who taught them to hold back when they were still young. It’s not in the genes, as some people say. It’s carefully learned behavior over time.

The husband (after five years of marriage the word still makes me sit up and take notice when it comes out of my mouth) and I went to Angel Island recently because a local Japanese-American organization formed to remember their history was having its fourth annual visit to the camp where Japanese were held as prisoners – along with many more Chinese and others – entering the country through the Golden Gate Bridge. Angel Island is sometimes called the Ellis Island of the West Coast. Not hardly, given the warm welcome Europeans received at Ellis compared to the cold one Asians received at Angel Island. But that's a story for another day.

I won the door prize. It was a membership in, and that came with a little tube I was to spit into and send off to learn that I am 8% Swedish. And 6% Norwegian. Which has, I assume, little to do, at least directly, with lutefisk and the Little Mermaid (OK, so she’s Danish – close enough), and probably everything to do with the fact that the Vikings found the Anglo-Saxon girls of England to their liking and made babies with them. I’m actually two-thirds British and one-third Germanic, tells me. Which baffles me, since aren’t Brits – the Anglo-Saxon ones, anyway – Germanic as well?  Since my mother was 100% German and my father 100% of English, Scottish and Irish stock, it would appear I inherited two-thirds of myself from my father and only one-third from my mother. What's that you say? I don't have that quite right?

I just work here. I don't explain things.

This kind of thing does make me want to take this DNA business with a grain of salt, though. I’ve watched people go bananas discovering they are .1% Latvian and .06% Congolese and run out to plan a trip to Latvia and the Congo to see where their ancestors came from. It’s become a real fad, and those who go in for ancestor-chasing this way would seem to have a common ancestor with those who send their savings to televangelists, it seems to me. In my view, these DNA worshipers should focus more on just how much of the planet's population, aka the human race, we all share genes with, and not so much on which blacksmiths, pirates and handmaidens to Anne Boleyn they share eye color with.

But I’m a babe in the woods when it comes to haplogroups and all these other details of how ancestral connections are established. I have much to learn, and it would probably behoove me to hold off on the scoffing.

I do, however, come from folk for whom it was important to establish family connections. I had an Aunt Carrie in Nova Scotia who could list second cousins till the cows came home. How often have I wished I had picked her brain and written everything down!

I do know that I seem to be related to most of the people in that Maritime Province. I went to Nova Scotia once with a couple friends who noticed that everywhere we went the people we met tended to begin conversations with how we are related, or at least how we knew people to whom the other was related. It became a joke. We stayed at the old house in which my grandmother was born, and while we were there the phone went out. We called the phone company and they sent someone right out. As he was repairing the line, the conversation went something like this:

Phone Repairman: You from around here? (It was obvious we were not.)
Me: No. I’m from Connecticut originally, but we used to spend part of the summers here when I was a kid. This is the house where my grandmother was born.
PR: So you’ve been coming here all these years? (I was in my 50s and he was in his 20s, so I took that to mean, “Aha, I see why this house is falling apart. It’s really really old!)
Me: Well, not to this house, so much. In the early years we used to go to Guysborough.
PR: Un huh.
Me: Well, not Guysborough, actually. Boylston.
PR: Un huh.
Me: Well, actually the house was down a road outside of Boylston, in Manchester.
PR: Whose house was it?
Me: Charlie Simpson’s house.
PR: That’s the house I grew up in. When Charlie died he left it to his nephew, who was my father.

From there the conversation went on to the Chisholm family, because he was married to a Chisholm girl. I knew all her relatives.

So who needs, I’ve often said. I’m too busy keeping track of first and second cousins. What would I do with knowledge of third, fourth or fifth cousins?

But when the topic comes up, I’m reminded of how much fun it used to be as a kid to discover another link to a shirttail relation. The other day, I made mention of all the people I am related to in Nova Scotia to a friend of mine in Little Rock who takes ancestry-tracing as a serious business – both for him and his husband, whose family goes back to Minnesota and beyond to Franconia in Bavaria. This friend, Bill, seems to have relatives all over the south and every so often comes across another connection, which he is fond of posting on his blog or Facebook page.  I listed the names once of my relatives to him: Johnston, Chisholm, Sangster, Nickerson, Simpson, Worth, Hart, Horton, MacKay…

“MacKay?” he said. “I have MacKays in my family. Wonder how far the connection is."

This morning I got an e-mail from Cousin Betty. She was raised by her Aunt (and my great-aunt) Carrie and has the find-your-ancestors bug. "Here's an article about your cousin Mary's great-grandson," she said."

Well, actually, Mary MacKay is my father’s cousin, as is Betty. Betty and Mary and my father are first cousins, all from different fathers in the Johnston line.

Spencer MacKay
The article was about a filmmaker who has made a splash with a movie recently about people with
disabilities. He was born a dwarf and has spent his life in a wheelchair.

He’s my second cousin, twice removed. His name is Spencer MacKay. Our common ancestor is my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, who were his great-great-great-grandmother and grandfather. If I had a grandchild, he or she would be Spencer’s 4th cousin.

And you thought I was pulling your leg about being related to everybody in Nova Scotia.

More background on Spencer's work with the Disabled here and here

Photo credits:

The Johnston House (my photo)

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