I’m related to Maya Angelou! A recent message from the genealogy website Geni–to which my daughter subscribed me after getting my lukewarm okay—brought the good news.

Dear Nancy,

Maya Angelou is your sister-in-law’s 6th great grandfather’s wife’s nephew’s wife’s great niece’s husband’s daughter’s husband’s first cousin once removed’s husband’s first cousin once removed’s wife’s first cousin twice removed.

Who knew that the family tree would branch thus when I introduced my brother to the young writer who would become my sister-in-law?

They married in 1976. By coincidence I met Maya Angelou that year—in the green room of a morning TV show: Los Angeles, I think. She was promoting the third installment in her seven-volume memoir series, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. I was on a briefer tour for a vastly—infinitely—less important book, a paperback original novel about expensive sex workers. It was called $500, and both the title and the racy die-cut cover were created before I was hired to write an 83,000-word caption.

Ms. Angelou warmly shook my hand and asked about my book, making me feel for a giddy moment that I had as much right to be in that green room as she. When I blurted (boasted!) that on a talk radio show the night before, Margo St. James had made me an honorary member of the sex workers’ union she’d founded, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), majestic Maya gave me a slow nod that I interpreted as approving (I remember her lips scrunching nicely). Zowie!

Imagine if I’d known she was my clan-mate, a part of my mishpocha. Instead of calling her Ms. Angelou, murmuring how honored I was, I could have called her Cuz. Proposed we have lunch and search for the common ancestor who’d passed along the writing gene to both of us. Sappho? Cervantes?

While I get a pain in the lexography from the dreadful Geni locution “first cousin once removed’s,” I’m turned on by the thought of all the removeds to whom I’m related. I feel like Charlotte, the glorious spider, at the heart of an infinite web. Glistening threads keep me buoyant with their aggregate tensile strength. Lines shooting this way and that offer endlessly varied routes from here to there.

This good feeling has little to do with family in the conventional sense. There’s no sentiment or pride, the hallmarks of obsession with lineage.

My tree may be rich in removeds , but the precious immediates are harder to come by. No computer program can trace my beloved maternal grandmother back beyond Ellis Island. Was she the biological daughter of her father’s wife, Annie, for whom I’m named, or of his mistress, as an older cousin once whispered to me?  

My mother didn’t know or didn’t want to know. My father had known one set of great-grandparents, but the memories weren’t happy: poverty, superstition, blinkered hopes. And looking back deeper meant the heartbreak of losing the trail in the dust of pogroms. My parents were more nostalgic for the future than for the past, and so am I.

Still, it’s scary to bobble untethered in the vast sea of existence. So I endure Geni’s too many emails a week. Sometimes the program makes clear that such-and-such a person (often a name I barely recognize, names not being my strength) has added a relative or relatives, living or dead.  The unbidden, unattributed information about Maya Angelou must have been triggered by the adulation that followed her death this past May.

Is Geni 100 percent reliable? I doubt it. Is it an elegant program? Nope. I hardly ever follow its complicated threads, any more than I sign on to be in the Google+ Circle of someone I barely know. But I need fixes of the flawed thing and the interweavings it suggests.

In the 1960s, computer visionary Ted Nelson coined a fabulous word for what I’m talking about: hypernoia, which he defined as “the belief that everything is, or should be, connected, interconnected, or reconnected.” Never mind the more recent, dour medical definition, which relates hypernoia to the manic phase of manic depression.

So I forgive Geni for bringing the news, on another recent day, that I’m related to my childhood dentist. I adored his wife, a dear friend of my mother’s, which is why I never told anyone that he’d stuff my mouth with horrid cotton wads and then tell me jokes he’d read in Playboy. Yuk.

Now that I think on it, however, he may have given me material that would come in handy decades later when the cover to $500 showed up on my desk. Everything connects.


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