They will always count you as their own
Bill McDowell is my second cousin. At least Ancestry.com says so.
It is confusing to weed through the degrees of relationship. He is the grandson of my paternal grandmother’s sister. Bill is the son of Mary Anne Swanton’s sister Elizabeth’s daughter, Marian’s. Basically, our grandmothers were sisters.
Truth be told, I’d only actually met Bill three or four times.
Bill’s parents were friends. They lived on Lee Terrace in East Syracuse at least as long as I’ve been in Central New York.
My parents stayed with them when they brought me to SU for the first time in 1958 and we visited often through the following years. Marian was one of the most gentle people I’d ever met and Jim was a lively Scot with a charming accent who loved golf. He even had child sized golf clubs with which he used to teach my son the game.
Long before I met them, the McDowells were a family to me, among all of the many relatives in the Swanton and Smithwick diaspora, because on 55th Street, around Philomena Smithwick Lowry’s table, the state of the family and all of its members was disseminated and discussed.
We knew by name people who we never met, knew what was happening in their lives. New jobs, births, deaths, marriages, acceptance at college, etc. And, of course the things that we, as children, were not to hear. Like Aunt D’s maybe divorce or someone else’s love of the “grape,” as my Aunt Gen would say.
There were the Calo’s who lived in New Jersey. The Blehl’s, Aunt Minnie’s family, that lived in Brooklyn, more than a bus ride away, various and sundry Swanton’s in and out of favor who had moved out of town. We were also said to be related in some way to Irving Berlin’s Irish wife.
The McDowells were different.
All of the distributed family moved to urban or suburban areas. My Uncle Chris, for instance, moved out on the “Island” to Patchogue which had only recently been built on what were potato fields, but was distinctly suburban. They made excuses for relatives that moved to New Jersey but the McDowells, however, lived in Manlius, or as my Aunt called it, Manulus, on a farm. A farm? You would think that this family had moved to Mars.
I don’t know if they actually lived on a farm. Jim McDowell worked for the phone company and Marian was a homemaker. There is always that little bit of imagination in family stories. Remember that supposed relationship to Mrs. Irving Berlin.
I do remember a terrible sadness when news came to Brooklyn from Manlius, that Jim and Marian’s oldest boy was killed in an automobile accident. I was still a child myself. I never met the boy, but I felt the pain. We all did. It was family. How could a 16 year old boy die? Unfathomable to my child’s mind.
I knew that the McDowells, the Bill McDowells had moved to Cazenovia. I had only recently discovered that Bill’s daughter Mary was a friend of our daughter, relatives unbeknownst to each. Mary and I planned to get together and visit Bill who was ailing, but other things interfered and we never fulfilled that plan.
Things change in a heartbeat.
Bill died last week.
Just the weekend before, while standing on the sidelines at our grandson’s soccer game, I met the siblings of Bill’s wife, Ann.
What do you call relatives by marriage? Shirt sleeve relatives? I told them about my failed attempt at getting together with Bill. They told me that they had, just the night before, been at his home and that he was well. They were a large family that had welcomed the McDowells, most probably with their version of a kitchen table around which the relatives were measured.
Bill’s funeral mass was on Saturday. St. James church in Cazenovia was full, one of those Irish gatherings where laughter and tears provided the background and theme for the religious celebration of a life.
We were one as the priest said the final prayer: :
“May the angels lead you into paradise may the martyrs come to welcome you and bring you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.”
And the Celtic song of farewell left not a dry eye.
I did so wish that I could have been a more meaningful part of that, other than the antiseptic designation of second cousin. I wish that life had not interfered with the connection that I wanted to establish. I wish that my children could gather up all the threads of family that have spread so far and been lost to contemporary memory.
The family that was so close in Brooklyn and its surroundings has scattered to the winds.Where are my cousins, their children and their children’s children? An unweaving of the family’s cloth.
I miss the table at 32 55th Street where family was always the topic of the day. Where distance was no barrier to the weaving of family life, where tradition had applications, where meaning and purpose had cheerleaders and where there were always, always people who would count you as their own.