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By Holly Hershberger
We were in the car, I was 5 or so and way too interested in romantic relationships.
“How did you and daddy meet?” I piped from the back seat, sly grin on my face.
My mom hesitated for a moment and frowned, the way she always does when she has to think of the best way to answer a tough or awkward question, “Well, Dad is my cousin.”
It was my turn to frown, “like Beau?” I asked, thinking of my rowdy, curly haired cousin. “That’s allowed?”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I know I didn’t think it was weird, nor was I prepared for how other people would respond.
Not long after I discovered my parents’ unconventional love connection, we went on a trip to New York, where we went on the Phil Donahue show. I don’t remember any of this experience unfortunately, but I do remember watching the tape of the show when we got back at home at my dad’s work.
It was a casual environment. My dad was good friends with his boss and co-workers. I don’t remember any rude comments, really just comments about how adorable I was when I ran out to Donahue’s arms. However, I remember there was a strange mood. I felt like people I had known my whole life were looking at me strangely.
That feeling didn’t make me keep this information to myself, however. I put it in a timeline we made in school, I told all of my friends. I thought it was so cool that you could marry your cousin. Other kids thought it was cool, too. We had yet to learn about red neck stereotypes or aristocratic albinos.
The first time I started to feel weird about it was when I saw an episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer thought Bart might be gay, and Moe asked, “You and Marge ain’t cousins, are ya?”
Now, I was at an age where other sexual preferences were new phenomena. Being gay was heavily scorned by my close-minded and critical (as only middle schoolers can be) peers. Obviously my thinking has advanced since then and I no longer think of being gay (or bi, or transgender, or asexual or whatever anyone can possibly be) as a mutation or something that could be caused by sleeping with your cousin.
But it made me wonder, would I be different because of my parents? Was I already some kind of weird because of my parents?
Another incident occurred, again in the torturous middle school phase. I told my best friend about my parents and she was completely shocked. Not in a mean or judgmental way, just very curious and intrigued.
She told her family, including her gorgeous, stoic, older brother, who I had a huge crush on. Sometime after, she and her brother were having a huge fight and I was offering moral support (i.e., helping her be obnoxious) and he called me some horrible name from behind his bedroom door.
I could tell from her face that it was mean, but I didn’t hear it. Apparently it is what they call children of siblings. To this day I don’t know the word, if anyone knows what it is, I’d at least like to know what he said. My friend tattled on him, and her parents later apologized and explained the meaning, but never repeated the word.
I kind of stopped telling anyone after that. I started learning more about the connotations that came with my family situation: doofus kids, shirtless in overalls, mullets. Then my parents divorced.
My family was split down the middle and me, my brother (who was too young to understand) and my grandmother (I’m forever grateful to her empathy) were floating in the middle of lots of anger and hurt. My mother was completely shunned from the family, except for her mother.
My grandmother had to walk on eggshells around her brother -- my grandfather, my mother’s uncle. It gets very convoluted. She also had to be careful around my mom who was very hurt and angry about the treatment. My dad was heartbroken.
To this day there is suspicion that she had an affair with the man she married soon after the divorce. This honestly doesn’t matter to me. I remember, very vividly, the chasm that widened over time between my parents. She was probably unfaithful emotionally at the least, but I know she wasn’t happy, and it wasn’t all her fault.
She was heartbroken, too. She was blatantly ignored at a wedding of a shared second cousin, no longer invited to holiday dinners. She didn’t even come to the graduation party my dad threw almost seven years after the divorce. Even now holidays are a minefield, especially since my mom moved to another state, I moved to another state and my husband’s family is in the same spot as my dad’s side. Who was I with last year? Is my brother going to Mom’s? Is my step sister?
I think their split was especially difficult because of their shared family. Everyone felt the need to take sides, including me. Over the course of my life I have switched back and forth, but now I realize it isn’t my job to choose, it’s their job not to make me choose. That’s a lesson every child of divorce needs to learn.
I’ve only recently learned of the concerns that my grandparents and family friends had about the situation before my brother and I were born. They worried that we’d be mutants or fools, that something would go wrong.
Every family, interrelated or not, should be grateful for happy healthy offspring, which is what my brother and I are. Normal? No. But what is normal? Every family is weird.
The next challenge was to tell my serious-possibly husband material boyfriend at the time and hope he wouldn’t have visions of six-toed, slow-witted children. Thankfully, he took it well and just gives me a grin and raised eyebrows when EVERY SITCOM EVER WRITTEN has a kissing cousins episode.
I no longer feel weird that my parents are cousins. One of my great aunts is known to say, “Holly is so beautiful! It’s that double Hershberger!” Everything I am, and everything my sweet, considerate brother is, came from kissing cousins. We’re not normal, we’re far from perfect, but we’re not mutants.