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The Cousins Shay

IT has been another season for belonging. A time when our roots seem to tug at us, pulling us back to our origins and traditions, compelling us to reach out, even to the most distant members of our tribes. For my husband and me, this could have been a lonely time. Although we both come from large, extended families, our clans are, literally, oceans away. My parents and siblings are all back in Ireland, my husband's in Japan. Our only holiday link with kin is through letters, cards and, if the lines are not too jammed, a special phone call on Christmas Day.

We will always miss our families, especially at holiday time, but we are consoled by something rare and beautiful that has come to us in our new homeland. We have found or, more accurately, been found by a ready-made family -- an all-encompassing, all-American clan we call the Cousins Shay.

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It began about 12 years ago, when I was single and living in New York City. The phone rang one day and a gentleman with a Southern drawl introduced himself as Jim Shay, my cousin, formerly of St. Louis, now living in Cheshire, Conn. He explained that he had just returned from Ireland, having gone there in search of his roots. Back in the 1840s, he said, his grandmother emigrated from my home town to the United States, settling in Missouri. Jim's research led him to my grandmother, who happened to be his grandmother's cousin. Grandma, well into her 80s, helped Jim untangle his complicated lineage and, of course, told him about her granddaughter in New York.

Soon after that first phone call, I visited Jim, his wife, Vera, and their four almost-grown children in Cheshire. The Shays opened their arms to me and at once I became family. They fussed over me, fed me, and filled me in on the history of our common ancestor. And thus for me a forgotten branch of my family tree began to bloom, and bloom abundantly.

I married later on and my new family welcomed my husband as warmly as they did me. We moved to Connecticut -- only an hour's drive from the Shays -- and Vera's invitation, ``y'all come,'' arrived often. And we did come, to family reunions, graduations, weddings, and christenings; on birthdays, holidays, and just plain Sundays. Over the years, we shared in all the family's rites of passage, watching the children mature, marry, and create a new generation. When our own child was born, Vera's talented hands made him a quilt exactly like the ones she made for her grandchildren. Jim made barley soup and brought it over in a huge jar.

The relationships we forge as adults -- when we can start with a clean slate -- differ very much from those that evolve with our parents as we grow up. Sometimes, even in the closest of families, tensions and conflicts build between the generations and never quite go away. But when we become part of a new family as adults, we come to each other without baggage -- no past bitterness, no unmet expectations, no guilt.

When we visit the Cousins Shay, it is never out of a sense of obligation, but because we want to be with them. Nor is their affection for us measured, contingent on anything. We are their kinfolk and that is enough.

And perhaps there is something to that minuscule drop of blood we share. (Jim and I are, I think, about 29th cousins.) We differ in some important ways -- in our religious and political beliefs, for example -- yet we seem linked by stronger forces, some mysterious genealogical connection that causes us to recognize and respond to each other. I see, too, glimmers of family resemblances in the Cousins. That new grandchild has a certain curve to the eyebrows that is oddly familiar. Or Mike, the Shays' youngest son, comes walking up the driveway to meet me and for an instant he looks like my uncle back in Ireland.

And always, there are the memories of our two grandmothers, the women who brought us together. They seem to sit among us at the table, coming to life again in the anecdotes we exchange about them. My favorite story about Jim's grandmother tells that she was true to her origins though she never returned to Ireland. Doggedly committed to her native diet of meat and potatoes, she hated greens. If a salad was put in front of her, she would push it away, saying, ``I didn't come to America to eat grass.'' We all laugh, and I think how delighted my grandmother would be if she could know how much joy my American family has brought me.

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About two years ago Jim retired and, with their nest now empty, he and Vera headed back to their beloved South, settling in St. Petersburg, Fla. It's not so close as Cheshire, but we plan to spend winter holidays with them, and every spring they will come north to see us. In between, Vera's long, newsy letters keep coming.

Last winter, the three of us -- my husband, our five-year-old son, and I -- visited Jim and Vera in their new apartment in Florida. Typically, they wouldn't hear of our staying in a motel and gave us their bed. We stayed several days and then said our goodbyes, leaving for a trip to West Palm Beach. We did not plan to see the Shays when we returned to Tampa for the plane to New York.

On the last day of our vacation, we crossed Florida's flat, bleak interior. It was a long, arduous drive, and when we arrived at Tampa airport I was crabby and exhausted. Ahead lay the flight home (flying terrifies me) and I knew the entire Northeast was smothered in snow.

And then, in the waiting area, we saw Jim and Vera. They couldn't resist the temptation to be with us again, they said, so they decided to drive over from St. Petersburg to see us off. We sat together until our flight was called. As I boarded the plane, I was no longer afraid, and even the thought of the bitter winter waiting for me at home could not diminish the warmth I felt from the Shays' gesture.

As the plane took off, my son and I watched out the window together until the lights of the city faded from our view. Then I noticed a tear trickling down his cheek. Wiping it away, I said, ``I guess you like Cousins Jim and Vera.''

``Not just like, Mom, love,'' he corrected.

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