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Inspired to Bond with Distant Cousins

An online overture from a distant relative enlivens an interest in their shared history.

Stefani Twyford

Photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings, a dog-eared journal. Birth and death certificates, genealogy charts. Years of family history were spread out across my table.

I’m a personal historian and a filmmaker. I record family histories on video to connect future generations to the people who came before them.

As a Jewish woman, I knew all about the importance of history. For thousands of years the Jewish people have protected our culture, laws and traditions in the face of exile, oppression and the threat of annihilation.

We can’t know everyone who came before us personally, but we can learn about them and honor our connection.

I turned to my video monitor to watch an interview I’d done with an elderly widow. “The first time I met my husband, we were at a high school dance…” she began.

I imagined future generations of her family watching the video, meeting her for the first time. In telling her story she was giving them a piece of history they could carry into the future.

I thought about my own history. My family—the Elkorts—hailed from New York. Not long before I was born my own parents took off across the country in search of adventure. They ended up in California, thousands of miles away.

Dad kept in touch with his relatives sporadically, but all those cousins were just names to me, people I’d met once at my wedding if I’d met them at all.

They didn’t feel like family, I had to admit. Not the way my parents and siblings with whom I’d grown up did. But I treasured everything I knew about them.

Like the story of how our name became Elkort. “We’re really Ilkowitzes,” I remembered my dad telling me when I was little. “But Aunt Adele thought Elkort blended in better in America, so we changed it.”

This is my family, I thought when Dad explained what happened. The name I carried, the great-aunt I’d never met who gave it to me. And the great-grandmother who refused to change anything for the sake of blending in.

They were all part of me, whether I actually knew them or not.

I logged into Facebook. Someone had sent me a friend request. Jacqueline? “I’m your father’s cousin’s daughter,” the message said.

Of course! I recognized the name from the genealogy charts I’d studied. Jacqueline was my second cousin. Since I’d never actually met her, it had never occurred to me to contact her.

I accepted her friend request and checked out Jacqueline’s page. I saw pictures of her family, read updates about what was going on in her life. One by one I put faces to the names on my charts and birth certificates.

It was so much fun I sent a friend request to Jacqueline’s brother. Why not?

The next time I logged onto Facebook, an update from Jacqueline popped up on my page. She was visiting friends. I left her a comment saying hello. A couple days later she left a note on my page. She asked about my business.

A few weeks after that first friend request we found ourselves online at the same time and hopped into a real-time chat. We talked about our family, our favorite foods, places we liked to travel.

For the first time, when I heard the word “cousin” instead of thinking of names on a chart I thought of funny conversations I’d had with Jacqueline.

“It’s funny to think our name wasn’t always Elkort,” I said to her one afternoon.

“I know,” she said. “We used to be Ilkowitzes.”

“But not any more, thanks to Aunt Adele.”

“Aunt Adele?” said Jacqueline. “But it wasn’t Aunt Adele who changed it, it was her brother.”

“Are you sure?” That story Dad told me was one of my few ties to the past. How could it be wrong?

“It’s what my father always told me,” she said. “Why don’t you give him a call and ask him about it?”

The last time I’d seen her father, my dad’s cousin Randy, was over 30 years before. He was practically a stranger. So was Jacqueline, I reminded myself the next day at work, until you two made the effort to get to know one another.

I picked up the phone and called the number Jacqueline gave me.

“Stefani!” Randy said when I told him who I was. “Wow! How wonderful to hear from you!”

“It’s wonderful to hear you too,” I said. I told Randy about my conversation with Jacqueline. “Dad always said Aunt Adele changed our name,” I said. “But Jacqueline thinks it was her brother, Eddie.”

That’s right,” Randy said. “Uncle Eddie was an entertainment agent. During those times— around Wor ld War II—he thought people might discriminate against an agent with a Jewish name.”

“So he changed it,” I said.

“Yup. But the family all agreed to it first. Everyone changed it together. Everyone except one great-grandmother. She stayed Ilkowitz until the day she died. She wasn’t changing anything for anyone! I’ve even got the original papers to prove it!”

As a personal historian, I naturally wanted to see the papers for myself. Randy promised to send them to me.

“Well, I’ll be,” Dad said when I showed him. “All these years I had it wrong. Good thing you talked to Randy. I need to give him a call and thank him.”

Soon Dad was chatting away with his cousin, catching up on everyone back on the East Coast. Somehow the legal papers in front of me paled in comparison to Dad’s cheerful conversation in the next room.

“What have you been doing these days?” Dad said after the two of them had reminisced over old times. “I want to hear!”

So did I. I promised myself I’d call Randy again soon. I visited Facebook more and more for updates about him. My brother and sister friended Jacqueline and her family. So did my sons. We messaged back and forth regularly.

We were miles away, but our lives wove together just as seamlessly as if we’d lived next door. “We need to get together,” Jacqueline wrote one day. “Let’s have an Elkort family reunion!” Family, I thought. That’s exactly what we felt like.

All those years I’d treasured my family history. But I’d never dreamed that a whole new family future was just a mouse click away! My family might have spent our whole lives as strangers if Jacqueline hadn’t sent that friend request.

Perhaps one day future Elkorts would laugh over the story of how our family lost each other and a cyber angel led us home again.

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