"I'm your second cousin," said my mother's cousin Sophie, "and my daughter Alison is your third cousin. So her son is your fourth cousin."
"That's not right," said Sophie's sister Margaret. "Elliott is our first cousin once removed. So Alison is his first cousin twice removed, and Albert is..."
"Thrice removed? You're both wrong," said their brother Ralph. "Our children are his second cousins. And their children are his second cousins once removed."
"I don't like that expression, 'removed,' " said Sophie.
"It's done for clarity," said Ralph.
The conversation was taking place at our annual cousins party. I had not attended for a number of years and there was some catching up to do.
"So what's William?" asked Sophie.
"William is Elliott's step second cousin once removed," said Ralph.
"William is as much a member of the family as any of the other children," said Margaret.
"Nobody said he wasn't," said Ralph.
"You called him a step cousin."
"Well, he's Carol's son by her first marriage."
"I don't like that expression, 'step,' " said Sophie.
My mother had come from a big family, and there were lots of cousins on her side. Still, it was surprising to see so many people, a great many with children, spilling into the back yard and roaming through cousin Sophie's old house in Santa Barbara, where the party was being held.
Margaret had made her famous chicken, and just about everybody had brought something special, so there were plenty of good things to eat.
Cousin Henry was there, so there was more than enough to drink.
"Louise and Victoria have Robert's blood, right?" asked Ralph.
"Genes," said Margaret.
"OK, genes. Does William have Robert's genes?"
"He has Carol's genes," said Sophie.
"And she's my daughter-in-law," said Margaret.
"I guess we're all cousins," I volunteered.
"I love William just as much as I love any of Robert's children," said Margaret, "whether they're his children with Carol or his children with Helen."
"Whatever happened to Helen?" I asked.
"She married Carol's first husband," said Margaret.
"Jack? She married Jack? How did that happen?"
"When Carol and Robert fell in love, Jack called Helen to commiserate," said Margaret. "They were really better suited to one another than their ex's."
"That's today for you," said Sophie.
"Do they have any children?" I asked.
"What's the difference? They're not cousins," said Ralph.
"They don't have children of their own," said Margaret. "But if they did, they'd be cousins as far as I'm concerned. I always like Helen. And besides, she's Louise's and Victoria's mother, and they're my grandchildren.
"Oh for God's sake!" said Ralph. "That's not the issue. It's the language. We want to use the language properly."
"Just call us all cousins," said Margaret, "like Elliott said."
In past years I had been able to see a series of family resemblances among the cousins. But now that the family had grown so much, it was harder. There had been family voices, too, sounds you could recognize. Now the voices were more varied, more reflective of other worlds.
And yet I still felt at home.
"What if Louise and Steve have children?" asked Sophie.
"What do you mean? asked Margaret.
"They're not married."
"They'll get married," said Ralph.
"A lot of people aren't getting married these days," said Margaret. "That doesn't mean the children aren't cousins."
"Victoria wouldn't do it. She wouldn't be a single parent," said Sophie.
"She wouldn't because she's a lesbian," said Ralph.
"Do you have to use that word?" said Margaret.
"OK, she's gay. Gay people don't have children."
"Says who?" said Margaret. "Anyway, she can adopt. And if she does, that child would be a cousin, too."
Suddenly, Louise and Victoria ran up with some young children I'd not seen before, and drew us into a tight circle. We all hugged and kissed.
"Hooray for the cousins!" shouted Louise.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and shouted, "Cousins! Cousins! Cousins!"
Next year the party will be at Margaret's in Walnut Creek. I'll try to make it.
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