One reason I’m not a hundred percent sure that I’m Southern is that I don’t know what a second cousin is or why I might be related to him. (Another reason: I sometimes order grits in the singular form. “I would like a grit, please.”) Knowing who you’re related to — or to whom one is related (See, would a Southerner write this?) — appears to be a prerequisite to get into this hallowed club, one that is, in the end, more philosophical than it is geographical.
I understand the basic arithmetic of family — mother, father, sisters, brothers, even cousins — but once it gets into the extended calculus of it all, I’m lost. Who is the husband of the daughter of my grandmother’s sister to me? If I had a calculator, I suppose I could work it out, but I have a feeling my head would explode long before I got to the answer. Part of my problem is pure laziness; I just don’t want to have to think that hard. But another part of it is a failure of imagination: It’s hard to believe there are that many people in the world with a connection to me that, however tenuous, can be proven to be part of my family.
When I was growing up, my parents kept me close to home. They let me get to know my grandparents, of course, and my aunts and uncles and their kids, the cousins. But beyond those relatives, it’s a mystery. For instance, I know my mother’s mother had three sisters, but I never met them. Why? Who were they, and what sort of enterprise were they involved in that I was kept away? I was told they were spinsters living quietly in Savannah, Georgia, but I imagine them rolling their own cigarettes and drinking whiskey straight from the bottle as they barked out instructions to their shadowy henchmen, ordering them, in their gravelly voices, to engage in some nefarious activity. I remember one of them was named Eloise — a sweet name for a Mob boss. She died in a shoot-out with a rival gang when she was 97.
Kudzu covers the branches of my family tree. Virtually anyone could call me up, tell me he is related to me, and get himself invited to Thanksgiving supper. And even worse, my second cousin (whatever that means) could live next door to me, and neither of us would know we share the same blood. Southern novels are full of sisters and brothers who accidentally get married; I hope that didn’t happen to me. Thankfully, Laura and I appear to be of different stock. She’s smarter and prettier and hails from Vermont, and has more freckles than anyone I’ve ever seen. Definitely not a Wallace.
But maybe the question isn’t who is related to me; maybe the question is, who isn’t? Stay in one place long enough, and it’s just simple math: Families grow. Some families become the size of small towns. Time passes, and as it does, the math gets harder and harder to follow, and becomes more algebraic, with parentheses and square roots and fractions. Family reunions illustrate the difficulty of drawing the line between those people who are related to us and those who most definitely are not. I bet I could find a way to justify my presence at all of them. That sounds like a good idea for a book if someone wants to write it, traveling across the country attending as many family reunions as possible. Think of all the fried chicken and cornbread you could eat.
A confession: In these pages and elsewhere, I’ve mentioned an Uncle Merle from Morehead City who lost his life in the salt mines. The truth is that Uncle Merle doesn’t exist, and I don’t even know if there is such a thing as a salt mine. But I’ve written about him so often, he seems real to me. So real that if he called and wanted to come over for Thanksgiving supper, I’d set him a place. I miss him.
Daniel Wallace is a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow him on Twitter, @DHWallace, or visit danielwallace.org for more drawing, writing, and news.