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.
Because I had lost both parents and grandparents (and, effectively, all three sisters) by my teens, I had grown used to orphan holidays where a bunch of miscellaneous strays pool their resources, stuff a bird, and make it work. I was an adult before I had any idea how many of us are in that same boat—how rare it is for people to have the perfect, symmetrical family: a dad, a mom, a boy, a girl, a cat, a dog. What's more, feeling out of it, I was slow to understand that every now and then it was no disadvantage to be spared the fallout of the well-named nuclear family.
I have been invited to the holidays of my friends' families where ancient slights and misunderstandings threaten to resurface the minute the brandy hits the eggnog. In those situations, it's nice to have an outsider at the table as a buffer. People feel obliged to practice some restraint. And I have always been a grateful guest because I love the holiday and the container that family provides even when it's not my own.
But here's my Christmas gift. I have my own family, after all. And what a splendid family I turned out to have: My nephew, whose father is Mexican, with that proud Aztec lift to his cheekbones. And yet another niece with smooth dark skin, rich as Belgian chocolate, and a husband who can diagnose and heal cars. My half sister, with her peachy complexion, got Daddy's eyes, green as shamrocks. She married a great guy—a science teacher, bringing knowledge of constellations as well as the warmth and wit that accompany growing up in New York City. In addition to having the gumption to summon us all and turn her home into a Christmas wonderland for this variegated tribe, my nephew's young wife brought her proper Italian grandmother—the kind who makes gnocchi by hand. Another nephew, who carried all the family traits including girth, a sharp head for business, and an original way with a recipe, arrived with his Japanese girlfriend, who settled on the couch with that self-containment I used to employ when overwhelmed in a bubbling, boisterous familial mass.
Beyond any doubt, this was the most astonishing gathering I had ever attended. My oldest sister was there, returned to me, not angry after all that I'd written about our family, but eager to share her own earliest memories. She's a woman who also knows that the proper pronunciation of the word "creek" is "crik."
And because it was brand new, I realized what a pristine opportunity was at hand—I got to have a family with none of the bad stuff. I started thinking about what I'd learned over the years visiting other families. You know what I mean—that slight 24 years ago that led Aunt Petal to stop speaking to Sister Blossom. Sitting there, I understood I had been handed a gift few ever have—connection without all the baggage. What would it take, I wondered, to retain and nourish this precious climate? I came up with a couple of tips to survive and preserve your own holiday reunions.
1. Get that Currier and Ives print out of your mind. It wasn't even valid back in the day. I know because as a child in Colorado, I inhabited the realms of that frosty winter fantasy adorning those very postcards. But what the tourists imagine and what was real were two very different things. I remember how visitors would coo when they saw our windowsill lightly frosted with starbursts of diamond icing. But they weren't around the next morning when my folks had to scramble out the top window of our house because a storm had brought drifts so colossal our front door wouldn't budge. For the skiers, a hundred inches of snow is heaven. But in the practical matter of getting hay to the livestock, you end up with chill blains and frostbite.
Those jingle bells? On the harnesses of the massive draft horses of Strawberry Park whose job it was to bring hay to stranded livestock, there was nothing jolly about them—that sound was there to avert a collision in blizzard whiteouts.
And while everyone else had Christmas turkey they bought at a store, we had goose—the other dark meat—from goslings we had hand-raised the previous spring and whose sweet peeps I recalled ruefully when my aunt brought out the carving knife.
It wasn't all bad, by any means. But it was never easy. Still, I loved the cheery holiday candles and lights designed to hold the dark at bay when days were shortest and the nights so cold my breath condensed above the down quilts. My guardian would treat me to a piece of horehound candy while my pajamas were heating in the coal stove oven. I would then have to sprint for bed while they were still warm. This brings me to my next point.
2. Don't take your family or your home for granted. They will not be around forever. Just before my fourth Christmas, my mother and I were staying in Denver. So in preparation for the holiday, my middle sister, who was already 15, fetched me back to Steamboat Springs with the understanding that my mother would follow shortly. The next night, however, one of those fuming blizzards settled down around the Rockies, which led the landlord at Mama's rooming house to fire the furnaces as high as they would go. But the chimneys hadn't been properly maintained and the house filled with carbon monoxide poison that night, asphyxiating my mother, who was only 39. Seven days later, I found myself in a strange house with neither parent and a new guardian who was so desolate herself she had little comfort to offer me. Strict and religious, she was always critical of my "guitar-pickin' Daddy," and especially scandalized when I turned out to have a proclivity for country music as well. I had neither seen his instruments nor heard him play. So it was such a profound moment when my nephew walked me into his music room and held out the guitar my father, a master craftsman, had built. I held it and played—as I think he would have—songs about horses. And then my nephew—a gifted singer and songwriter—began tuning his own steel string. And my 6-year-old great-niece—who sparkles with her own high-spirited dose of the family smarts—picked up her little pink guitar and launched into "Jingle Bells."
Six of us, arriving from far-flung homes, all played guitar and sang together.
These people I hadn't met were as familiar as my father's guitar. I guess I feared that because I had grown up feeling like the gosling who got separated from the rest, I might not have the necessary instincts to recognize my own flock. It turns out I need not have worried.
And after dinner, with everyone drowsy and the dishes dried, my nephew respectfully asked: "Rita, would you mind reading to us from your book?" These kinfolk didn't just want to gloss over the rough parts. They were telling me they were along for the whole ride, the hard truths as well as the pretty ones. No doubt about it, friction will eventually come, but I look forward to working through that as well. Will we be able to handle it? I just know: This family handled blizzards, locusts, lynchings, and slavery. Ain't nothing gonna stop us.
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