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Excerpt from Turn South at the Next Magnolia

Kith and Kin

Not too long ago, my first cousin, Crawford, from my maternal side, came through town with a lady friend. We invited them out to eat Chinese at Szechuan 132 Restaurant, since I have permanently stored my chef’s hat and no longer cook at all if there is a way humanly possible to avoid it.

At the restaurant table, we were trying to fill in Cud’n Crawford’s friend on the various connections of the people we were talking about…Cud’n Marcus, Cud’n Mary Emily, Uncle Monroe, Cud’n Joe Mac and so on. A veil seemed to fall over the friend’s eyes. Her spoon of won ton soup stopped, poised in mid-air for some minutes. I wondered if catatonic seizures ran in her family, but it was certainly a question I couldn’t politely ask, since we had just met. My husband had long since gotten that familiar glazed look in his eye--actually some thirty years ago--when the family tales went on and on, most as familiar to him as his own heartbeat.

It occurred to me that we had crossed into that rarefied zone known in some Southern families, where not only the territory was more exotic, but the language, too, changed.

Calling cousins “cud’n” was only the beginning…the threshold, so to speak, of the journey where few outsiders have dared to follow. We advanced to the upper levels of the game’s complexity, crossing into the realm of double first cousins and cousin removal.

I don’t know if those from outside of the South speak this way, or if it is an inherently Southern idiosyncrasy. I have never seen cousin removal done north or west of the Mason Dixon Line. (Is there a west of the Mason Dixon Line?) Anyway, I only know that I am inordinately proud of my skill in this dialect…as vain about it as if I were fluent in Swahili or Croatian or some archaic language. The almost-lost art of removing cousins is a snobbism akin to name-dropping in some circles, and I indulge whenever the opportunity arises.

What am I talking about? Double first cousins abound when brothers marry sisters, doubling the kinship. This is a pattern familiar to most Southern families, a practice apparently common when fresh marriage material was scarce in rural areas. Of course, crude outsiders sometimes make snide and unkind remarks, best not repeated here, about backwoods Southerners. Hollywood’s rude view was clearly depicted in the dueling mentalities in Deliverance. After all, if there is an occasional distant relative who speaks only in monosyllables or is unable to wear sandals because of an unfortunate abundance of toes, it is only whispered about within the bosom of the family.

Now for the more complicated operation, ‘cousin removal.’ When brothers or sisters have children, those children are first cousins to each other. Everybody knows that. Those children’s children are second cousins to each other, and so on, in subsequent third and fourth generations. A cinch.

But when is someone a cousin once or twice removed or, heaven help us, thrice removed? When you cross the generation lines. One of the first cousin’s children is a first cousin once removed from the parent’s sibling. The first cousin’s sibling’s grandchild is her third cousin once removed. Thoroughly confused? Good. I like to think that those who can pull this off with aplomb are few and far between.

At the end of our Chinese meal, we all read our fortunes from the fortune cookies aloud to each other. Crawford’s read, “Family is one of life’s real blessings.”

His friend’s fortune cookie read, “You will soon take an unexpected journey.” She seemed inordinately pleased.

Mine read, “When you speak in strange tongues, your audience is only yourself.”

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