The Relative Taken In
My mother Grace was orphaned at age twelve after pretty much taking care of herself and her little brother Ira John most of that time. At this point, her longtime ill mother Myrabelle was put in a sanitarium because she was totally bedridden. Ira John was grabbed up by a childless, paternal aunt and her husband as a four-year-old boy was just what they wanted. He was just what a maternal uncle without a male heir wanted, too, but the paternal aunt had gotten to him first. No one from either side of the family wanted an almost-grown girl, so Grace waited in an empty house in Windsor for a few days until a young, maternal uncle and his new wife were shamed into going and picking her up as they were childless and had the room. The arrangement didn’t work for somewhat questionable reasons, and Gracie landed at her maternal grandfather’s farm where, ironically, the sonless, maternal uncle lived with four daughters and wife. Both fussed about getting Grace instead of Ira John. Grace spent the rest of her childhood as a maid and caretaker for four, female cousins and the rest of the people on the farm. She knew her place. She was the relative taken in and was to be grateful to have a place to live at all.
The cousins Grace cared for grew to love her and even had their children call her aunt as they became adults with families of their own. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with these people— “cousins” and “aunts” who were actually “second cousins and cousins once removed.” At family gatherings there was always something different about the way my mother and her children were treated. It was hard for me as a young child to figure out.
One Christmas eve at a gathering in this farmhouse where Grace had been taken in, I was a seven year old participating in gift opening from my great aunt and uncle who wanted my brothers and me to call them Me mere and Pa. Always in a resentful tone of voice, my mother had told us to call them Aunt Lucy and Uncle Bill. That noisy evening in this house filled with relatives, my three female “cousins,” about the same age as I was, opened large gift-wrapped boxes that immediately thrilled them with tall, beautifully dressed dollies. I watched anxiously for my turn. I was handed a small package by Aunt Lucy, who walked away casually, not waiting for me to open it. Much to my disappointment, I found my gift was a tiny, bubble-wrapped collection of cheap play cosmetics. I can’t recall what my brothers received as presents. They were older and wise enough not to make a fuss if what they received didn’t match up to their male counterpart. I was not that discreet and voiced my objections to my mother. She shushed me in that whisper growl she used when she herself was also angry about a situation in which she felt she could do nothing. There were many of those occasions when I was a kid.
As if to add insult to injury, one of my “aunts” called all of us “grandchildren” together for a picture in front of the Christmas tree. I was surrounded by my three “cousins” who held their dollies proudly. I was empty-handed. We went back to those gatherings most Christmas eves throughout my childhood. They were the only local family my mother had even though she spent time bitterly complaining about how they had used her as a live-in maid and nanny. I don’t remember where my father would situate himself during these festivities. Perhaps he stayed out in the kitchen talking to the other males not blood-related. He maybe knew his place better than I did. After that Christmas when I was seven, I, too, learned where I stood with these people. I was the daughter of the orphaned relative who was taken in, and I never forgot it.
As a young teenager while helping in the farmhouse kitchen, I told my Aunt Lucy I wasn’t her grandchild and would not call her Me mere after one of her requests for me to do so. I was only five foot one, but Aunt Lucy was a mere four foot eight. I remember being surprised that she looked up at me with a puzzled look after I announced this. Had she not realized how she had treated me so differently than her real granddaughters? I guess, I forgot that I, too, was to be grateful that she and her husband had taken in my mother years ago. Things were rather cool between Aunt Lucy and me after that. She did offer her farmhouse lawn for my wedding ceremony when I was nineteen and once again seemed genuinely shocked that I instead chose to be married on my maid of honor’s side lawn a few miles down the road.
As a young adult, I chose not to stay very close to this part of the family, except for one “cousin” Holly, whom I had been rather fond of. Holly would always try to include me in her family gatherings as she had children herself. She even hosted a baby shower for me when my first daughter arrived shortly my mother died. Cousins on my father’s side had given me a baby shower, and I joked with Holly about how she didn’t want to be outdone by them. She would be the only one to call me about births and deaths, and so forth. Unfortunately, Holly died relatively young of cancer. Several years later at her grandmother’s funeral, Holly’s daughter Becky looked at me and asked if we were actually related. Once again, I was reminded of my place with this crowd. I decided not to go into lengthy details with Becky and instead simply told her, “Not really, dear. Not very close, I guess.” Why burden yet another generation with this sour story?