“Let’s eat cake in honor of my grandparents,” I suggested to my children three times in February. My paternal grandparents shared birth dates with Presidents Lincoln and Washington, while another grandmother had a Valentine’s birthday. Family legend explains that when my Eastern European immigrant ancestors entered America at the start of the 20th century, they had only a vague sense of their mid-winter birth dates on the Gregorian calendar.
Immigration agents tried to accelerate their Americanization by assigning them presidents’ birthdays or other well-known dates. My grandfather may have learned his first English words on the ship carrying him across the Atlantic, but as soon as he arrived on these shores, he shared a birthday with the President who ended slavery.
My 11 and 13 year-old sons were so mesmerized by the suggestion that a birthday could be contrived, that they grew curious about my other grandfather’s birthday. He passed away before I was born, so I had no memories of him or his special day. “I’ll find his birthday,” my son assured me, as he typed on my computer. After a brief search, a website informed us that this grandfather’s birthday landed on November 8, 1902. As I pressed onto a link, a family tree filled the screen from a genealogical website to which both my mother and husband’s relatives had subscribed.
That’s when my stomach flipped over. My husband’s family was there.
“This says Daddy is related to your grandfather,” my son announced.
“What? Impossible!” I responded, my voice wobbling a bit. “Daddy’s roots are in southern Germany and France. My family is from Poland, Romania, and Belarus. We are not related,” I insisted.
My son pointed to a progression of branches on my husband’s family tree marked on the Geni website. “Joseph Meyer Fish [my grandfather] is Sharon Forman’s husband’s first cousin thrice removed’s wife’s sister’s husband’s first cousin twice removed’s wife’s grandfather!”
I ignored the boiling pasta water overflowing on the stovetop and sat down to investigate. What if it were true? Could I be related to my husband? If so, how related? My stomach was doing flips. Sure my family of origin are all intense, emotional Russian type Jews, and my husband’s family are very stoic, quiet German Jews, but what if we turned out to be close relatives?
Then, my pulse calmed. My husband is not my first cousin, or any cousin. He is connected to my grandfather, however, by marriage. It turns out my first-cousin’s husband is one of my husband’s cousins, apparently. My mother-in-law confirmed that that the blood connections were true: our distant cousins had married one another on her family tree.
A few summers ago, my first cousin and I arranged to meet up when our families were vacationing in California. As the second cousins frolicked in the sand, we noted that my daughter resembled these relatives, even though my fair, blue-eyed cousin and I don’t really look so much alike. Now we know that our children are related twice over.
“You never know who you are related to,” I told my children after this discovery. At the end of the day, the story isn’t so surprising. There are only so many Jews, after all, and the world is small in its way: friends can be family, and relatives can be strangers. DNA floats in our cells shaping our noses, the size of our toes, and our hairlines. The roots of different families’ trees interlock and intertwine. Scientists remind us that as humans we share more than 99% of our DNA. We are all scampering around the sands of this earth connected in profound ways, members of the extended human family.