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Dear G4BB: I saw this in a recent Dear Abby column…her answer was OK, but I figured I’d submit it to you in case “Mixed Up in Wisconsin” could use a second opinion! …from Roger, in Racine
55.1 Dear Roger: Yeah, I saw it too…and don’t mind if I do! Altho the specific question Mixed Up asks…how to introduce the boyfriend to others…reminded me of a cartoon from the early 1970s, when the idea of 2 people “living together” was becoming more socially acceptable…but before we had settled on the politically correct but nonetheless goofy term “significant other.” An older woman is introducing a younger couple to another older woman, and she says: “And this is Sharon’s whatchamacallit.” 😉 😉
55.2 And yes, Abby Jr.’s answer is just common sense…this is my friend, my boyfriend, my fiancé… however along they are in the relationship. People today have been cowered (by that drat Media again?) into thinking you need “full disclosure” for every nook and cranny of your existence…and it simply isn’t so…too much information!, right?
55.3 On the other hand, the real point of the question…which Abby Jr. ignores, due no doubt to space limitations…is when Mixed Up’s sister says: This is my sister and her boyfriend, my nephew. After all, in the normal course of events, your sister’s nephew is also your nephew…or worse, your son…so yeah, eyebrows are raised, looks trend towards askance.
55.4 The topic of how one should act towards one’s affines…those one is related to by marriage…is a broad one, and a thoroughgoing examination of it is more than I have time for these days…yes, it’s certainly on my bucket list! Across time and space as I like to say, there are innumerable sets of rules and restrictions, customs and interpretations. And altho this really isn’t relevant, I might mention something I was reading about recently…in many kinship systems, the practice of a marriage “exchange” has been and still is followed…that is, the bride’s family gets something from the groom’s family in exchange for losing their daughter. For one tribe in Papua New Guinea, it’s traditionally a pig, called the “bride’s fat.” The parents can’t eat it, because they’d be eating their own “daughter,” but others in the family can…so it goes, nez pah?
55.5 Now strictly speaking, “-in-law” is seldom tacked onto anything beyond brother, sister, mother, father, son, and daughter. Certainly, we all understand what an “uncle-in-law” or a “cousin-in-law” would be, but you seldom hear it said that way…usually it’s just “my husband’s uncle” or “my wife’s cousin.” What’s more complicated is how a spouse thinks of his spouse’s blood relatives…cultures differ, families, differ, and even couples differ…you might consider your husband’s cousins as “your cousins,” but he might not feel the same about yours.
55.6 With respect to who can marry whom, legal limitations have usually followed religious ones. An illuminating example comes from England. In 1842, a bill was introduced in Parliament to allow a man to marry his dead wife’s sister. The the idea was that it would be beneficial for the aunt to raise the man’s children. The bill was soundly defeated, but it touched off over 60 years of social debate…needless to say, religion and morality entered into it, and there were strong opinions on both sides.
55.7 If you’re a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, you might recall in Iolanthe when the Fairy Queen sings “He shall prick that annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister.” Finally, the “Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act” was passed in 1907, altho it was strictly stated that a clergyman could as we say today “opt out” from marrying a couple, if his religious beliefs prohibited it. But still, this law was very specific, and was not a blanket approval for all siblings and siblings-in-law. The “Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act” had to wait until 1921, and it was another 10 years until you could marry your dead spouse’s niece or nephew…which brings us back around to Mixed up in Wisconsin, altho that isn’t really her case…
55.8 …because strictly speaking, Jared the “nephew” isn’t Mixed Up’s in-law…your in-laws are the blood relatives of your spouse (but not your spouse’s affines…say your spouse’s sister’s husband…otherwise, it could conceivably spread to everyone!) The reason the unmarried Mixed Up has a brother-in-law at all is because her sister is married…and from her sister’s husband’s point of view, Mixed Up is his sibling-in-law, thus he is also hers. But for example, his parents are not parents-in-law to Mixed Up, only to her sister. Granted, when and if Mixed Up marries the nephew, her father-in-law will indeed be her sister’s brother-in-law, but let’s not jump the gun.
55.9 But to be honest here…Mixed Up apparently likes the drama, otherwise she wouldn’t be worrying about the whiff of “i-word.” Anyone in the family…or close to them…knows they aren’t related, and anyone else will understand that quickly enough. Which is not to say that some…her sister perhaps?…might extend the definition of “i-word” beyond what it actually is, but that’s family for you. Remember the old saying…you can’t trim the wind, you can only trim your sails.
55.10 And regardless of whether anybody actually cares who’s what, the sister is perfectly within her rights to abbreviate “my husband’s nephew” to “my nephew” for the sake of simplicity. This is the way we do things…for example, on The Andy Griffith Show, “Aunt” Bee refers to both Andy (her 1st cousin once removed) and Andy’s son Opie (her 1st cousin twice removed) as her “nephew.” That’s fine…until you start constructing a family tree, then precision is key, obviously.
55.11 In fact, this whole discussion reminds me of a puzzle I posed back in G4BB 3…and solved in G4BB 4…that of Tony Soprano’s “nephew” Christopher. (The chart below is not my work so is thus un-numbered, altho I did add in the identifying photos…can it really be only 5 years this June since The Sopranos series ended? Seems longer somehow…)
55.12 When the show took place, Tony’s wife Carmela’s 1st cousin on her father’s side, “Cousin Dickie,” was dead…and his son Christopher had been “adopted” as Tony’s right-hand man and heir apparent…altho if you recall, that’s not exactly how things turned out. She called Chris her “cousin”…as opposed to “1st cousin once removed”…fair enough. She also referred to Chris and her daughter Meadow as “the cousins”…and Chris and Meadow called each other “cousin”…altho of course here it’s 2nd cousin, not 1st.
55.13 But at the same time, Tony called Chris his “nephew”…a double “mistake” if you will, since the relationship was his wife’s, not his…and also it’s not nephew but 1st cousin once removed, since Chris’ father was Carmela’s 1st cousin, not her brother…altho remember, some cultures call that a “2nd nephew” which makes eminent sense, sez me. My challenge was to find a way, without interbreeding if you please, that one and the same person could be your nephew and your wife’s 1st cousin.
55.14 The answer hinges on the fact…and by now I hope this sprung instantly to your mind!!…that we all have 2 sides to our family, owing to the fact that we have 2 parents…and normally those 2 sides aren’t related. But what’s instructive to note is that the solution diagrammed in Chart 189 could come about via 2 different chain of events.
55.15 The way I did it was: your brother marries and has a son, your nephew. That nephew has a 1st cousin Zelda on his mother’s side…and you marry Zelda…badda-bing, badda-boom. But you could do the same thing “backwards” as follows: you marry Zelda, then your brother marries Zelda’s aunt (Zelda’s mother Alice’s sister) and has a son…again, your nephew and your wife’s 1st cousin. Next time, the mailbag still giveth…till then, peace out…
Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved
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