For many children, cousins are their first playmates. Others never get to meet their cousins even as adults. I have experienced both scenarios.
When my father, Ian Angus, and his brother Oswald were discharged from military service following WW II, they returned to their home in Quebec City and the jobs they left when they enlisted. Ian settled in the suburb of Sillery and Oswald in Ste. Foy. Both eventually had three children each. Although the children did not attend the same schools, they visited frequently and celebrated holidays and birthdays with their parents and grandparents.
Angus cousins with fathers and grandparents
My mother’s Willett family came from New Richmond on the Gaspe Coast. Two of her brothers, together the fathers of four children, remained there. Keith and my grandfather worked the family farm. Ralph, an electrician, built a home across the road from the farm. Every year my father bundled the family into an old Pontiac he named Rebecca and drove eight hours to spend the summer holidays with my Willett uncles, aunts and cousins. The kids picked strawberries, fished in the brook, and swam in the frigid waters of the Baie de Chaleur, a story much like Cynthia Rylant’s in The Relatives Came. “Then it was hugging time. Talk about hugging!” 1
Willett cousins with Aunt Kay on Baie de Chaleur beach
My seven Angus and Willett cousins were playmates as children and we remain close to this day.
But my mother had other siblings, two sisters who never married and a brother who married but died young and childless.
A third sister, Madge, also died young leaving two young sons, David and Paige, aged four and six. Their father owned an apple orchard in Abbotsford south of Montreal. Albert remarried and fathered two more children. He kept in touch with Madge’s family by sending a barrel of apples to each household every Christmas although the families never actually got together.
Paige and David with mother Madge
David grew up to become a notary in Montreal where I finally met him as an adult. He never married. When his father died, his step-mother and half-sister Louise moved into his home in Westmount where they remained until his mother’s death. Louise moved to Whitby, Ontario and later David joined her when he retired.
Paige forever remained a romantic mystery. My mother and aunts spoke about his early career in the Royal Canadian Airforce and a stint with the Canadian Snowbirds, a RCAF demonstration squadron, with adventures in the sky that further romanticised him for me. He later moved to the United States to fly with American Airlines and in 1971 he applied for American citizenship.2 He, too, never married. In 1972 a news article listed him as First Officer and one of the crew of Flight 96 flying from Los Angeles to New York who safely landed a plane load of 56 passengers and 11 in crew in Detroit when the cargo hold burst open in flight.3
A few years ago, David phoned to tell me that Paige had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the disease that has haunted the Willett family. My mother and five of her six siblings died with Alzheimer’s and now Paige was the first of our generation to succumb. David and Louise helped him to move back to Canada and enter a care residence in Ottawa near the home of his half- brother Stephen. In 2014, two years later, David called to tell me Paige had died at age 75. We had never met; we were never playmates; we were not even adult friends.
And what happened to David? I have not heard from him since he called about Paige’s death. My emails do not bounce back but they are never answered. The message on his telephone says that his phone cannot accept incoming calls. My calls to all the Whitney names listed in Ottawa and Whitby prove fruitless. None of them are the Whitney family for whom I am looking. Ancestry gives me David’s his birth date but not that of his death. Perhaps David, who would now be 86, is still alive but struggling with Alzheimer’s, the curse of the Willett family.
- Rylant, Cynthia. The Relatives Came. Scholastic Inc. New York, 1985.
- Ancestry.ca, Nevada Naturalization Petitions, 1956-1991
- Wikipedia.org. American Airlines Flight 96