My father grew up in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. When he was in his mid-20s, he got his girlfriend pregnant. She was, literally, the girl next door – her family lived just down the lake from his family. Because they were proper Midwesterners, it was agreed that they should get married, so they did. My father’s first wife gave birth to twin girls in May of 1951. A year later, my father ditched his little family and headed out to Berkeley where, about a decade later, he met my mother and had three more daughters with her. More than anything in the world, my father wanted a son. When his fifth daughter was born, my sister Emily, he walked out of the room without a word to my mother.
After he abandoned his one-year-old daughters in Lake Elmo, my father never contacted or saw them; they grew up with no memory of him. My mother knew about them and told us they existed, so I always knew that I had two half-sisters who were 11 years older than I was. Through the years, I liked knowing they were out there. I had a strong feeling we’d find each other some day when we were grown up.
My father abandoned us, too, of course. It happened in 1972, four years after he and my mother had gotten divorced – the cops had a role in this disappearance; I was the one who called them. After they led him off in handcuffs for beating up my mother (he’d driven to Tempe from Oakland, possibly for this express purpose), she didn’t press charges, and he disappeared.
We didn’t see him again until I was 16, when my mother and sisters and I took a road trip to San Francisco to drop my sister Susan off at the ballet school for the summer and looked him up – we had a strange, intense, unfulfilling lunch with him, hippie food at a restaurant called (I am not making this up) the Edible Complex. Five years later, my sisters and I found him again when were in the Bay Area. We had another weird, charged lunch with him. He was living like an ascetic Boy Scout in his bare-bones law office, sleeping on his desk. From a pot on a hot plate, he served us bowls of something he called “Lebanese pea soup.” He seemed proud of this concoction, but I think he might have just opened some cans.
Later, when I was in my 30s and married, and the Internet had been invented, my husband urged me to find my sisters. We searched for Thea because I couldn’t remember Caddie’s name. We found her living in St. Paul; she was married, but she’d kept her maiden name. It had to be her. I wrote her a letter and sent it off with a mild, hopeful nervousness: maybe she wouldn’t want to know me, maybe she’d ignore my letter. And I was used to being the oldest sister. Being a little sister was a whole new identity I wasn’t sure I was prepared for.
Caddie happened to be visiting Thea when my letter arrived, so they read it together. Thea wrote back that she was planning to visit Caddie, who lived in Vermont, and they invited me to come up and meet them while she was back East. Her handwriting looked like a combination of Susan’s and Emily’s.
We drove up to Woodstock, Vermont on a bitterly cold winter day in 1998. We checked into our hotel when we arrived – it was very late, almost midnight. My sisters had left a sausage and mushroom pizza, flowers, and a bottle of wine in our room. Caddie had written a note welcoming us; her handwriting looked like mine.
The next day I woke up so nervous I couldn’t eat breakfast. We drove to Caddie’s house and knocked on the door. It opened, and there were my sisters. We all stared at each other. It was like looking into my own eyes in the mirror.
“Oh my God,” I said, “we look alike.”
We gave each other fierce hugs. During that day and night of nonstop talking, I had the surreal feeling that I had always known them, that we belonged together as much as my other sisters and I did. We were birds of a feather, all of us singers, readers, our voices similar, our characters shaped the same way, and they were, it turned out, passionate cooks and eaters. Caddie’s house felt familiar, too. Their husbands got along with mine; we had all married great guys.
That day, Caddie and Thea taught me to cross-country ski. I loved how bossy they were and how they seemed to assume the roles of my older sisters naturally, without any discussion. After dinner, an Italian feast of eggplant parmesan and roast chicken made by Caddie’s husband, Vin, we sat by the fire and drank poire and they showed me photos of themselves as children, teenagers, college students, young women. Thea’s husband, Pop, a singing cowboy, played the guitar; we all sang.
At almost midnight, I realized how late it was and suddenly felt awkward and shy, as if I had overstayed. For the first time in my life, I felt like a pesky little sister wanting to stay up late with her cool older ones. In that moment, my sense of who I was in my family shifted, rearranged itself, and became, in a deep way, complete.
Delicata squash with pepitas and goat cheese
Thea, who is an amazing cook, taught me about pumpkin seeds, among other things – how to roast them, how to add them to things and cook with them. I recently made a loaf of bread with finely-ground pumpkin seeds, which was excellent, and last fall, after a trip to the farmstand, I made the following lunch:
Cut one large delicata squash into 4 pieces and scoop out the seeds. On an oiled baking sheet, bake the squash quarters till soft, about 40 minutes at 375 degrees. Put two pieces face up on each plate. Into each squash cavity, pour a splash of balsamic vinaigrette. Add a tablespoon of goat cheese and top with plenty of toasted pumpkin seeds.