As I stepped through the yard to the front door of my family's home in Northern California, twinkling lights depicting reindeer and wise men and presents wrapped in bows all seemed to say, "Welcome, come on in." But I hesitated to knock. I was here for a holiday reunion. But reunion was hardly the word, since we'd never had any unity to begin with.
Not that there was any particular acrimony. As children, my half sister and I didn't know each other because my father had married her mom and gone across the country when I was a toddler and before she was born. My other two sisters, who were much older than me, soon left home to go on with their lives. It had taken all my energy to accept the loss of my father, but I had moved on with a will. Growing up, I'd fantasized about the golden life my father's chosen family must share. When I was 16, it finally occurred to me to ask for a bus ticket from Colorado to this mythical California. Part of me worried now—what would I lose by dismantling the defenses of a lifetime? I fought an urge to bolt for the rental car, make tracks back to the motel, and light out for Los Angeles, my inner album of memories intact. Instead, I knocked on the door, and unlike so many doors of my childhood, it opened.
For the first time, I saw my niece and great-niece. And then my nephew.
When I wrote a memoir about my wacky background in the Colorado Rockies, there was no way out of mentioning the California relatives, although I was as careful as I could possibly be to respect their privacy. After I knew If the Creek Don't Rise was going to be published, I sent them all a copy to the addresses I could find. I had no idea whether they would read it. If they did, I hoped they wouldn't hate it. And I prayed they wouldn't sue. But the last thing I expected was that they would find the book important and meaningful—and that my own journey into our tangled roots would move my family to invite me home for Christmas.
How many times I had heard, "The truth will set you free." But I hadn't trusted it would free others, too. I will never get over the sound of my little half sister's voice on that spring day after she'd received her copy of my book and she called to break the silence: "It's Joyce," she said. I realized nearly a lifetime had gone by without it occurring to either of us to pick up that phone and reach past our parents' distances to claim our kinship with each other. What strikes me now is that it had been there all these years.