I don’t even know where to begin with this entry. I actually just said that sentence out loud, scrubbing my face with my hands, then decided that’s as good a start as any.
Well. The first and most important thing I want to say is that there is no blessing more wonderful than to meet relatives for the first time that are not only kin, but kindred, IMMEDIATELY upon meeting them.
Bill has had very little – practically no – contact with his dad’s side of the family. Including, over the last twenty years or so, his dad. There is no fault here. Bill’s dad was the black sheep, that side of the family lived in another state (several, actually), and as Bill and his sisters grew up there was very little interaction with various aunts, uncles, and cousins on their father’s side. Bill and his sisters became adults, had families of their own, and while they knew of the extended family there was no bridge to establish connections. Then Bill’s dad went to prison for ten years and… well, let’s say he wasn’t the best correspondent. He got out a year or so ago, and communication with him had been sketchy at best as he fell back into the type of behavior that landed him in jail in the first place.
So, when Bill’s dad passed away and we learned that all of the details of his passing would be left to us to finalize, we were completely at sea. We knew he lived in Laramie, Wyoming. We knew that we had a LOT of family in Laramie and Cheyenne. We started establishing tentative connections with them, and made plans to head up to Wyoming for a week to clear up the details. We were invited to stay with one of Bill’s dad’s cousins, an offer that we gratefully accepted.
With very little clear in the way of what we should expect, we (me, Bill, and Bill’s sister Karen) hit the road at 6:30 in the morning on New Year’s Day. The first leg of the trip took us over eleven hours north for an overnight stay in Salt Lake City (which was exactly the route that kicked off our epic road trip of 2009). Fortunately for the three of us, we get along like gangbusters. We talked non-stop, listening to 80’s music and snacking on chips (salt and vinegar kettle chips became the staple for the trip). Karen took the first leg and got a speeding ticket just two hours in, poor thing (a happenstance that was just in keeping with the way her life has been going over the past month or so – we drove her rental car because she’d been in a bad car accident the week before that totaled her car. Thankfully she’s okay!). Bill took over from that point, then I spelled him for a bit, and he took us the rest of the way into SLC. We got to our hotel (the Little America in the downtown area, which was lovely!) at about 7:00 in the evening. We hit the hotel’s restaurant for a quick dinner, then pretty much collapsed into bed.
We were back on the road again by 8:00 the next morning, for the six hour drive to Laramie Wyoming. We had a brief and delicious breakfast at the Main Street Artisans Cafe in Evanston WY, and marveled at how much we really enjoy finding wee little off-the-beaten-path jewels in the various tiny towns across America that we’ve been blessed to find.
On the main drag in Evanston. I look like I have no arms.
(Before I go further I’d like to note that all of the pictures from our trip – 54 as of this second and I’m not even CLOSE to being done post-processing, so there will be many more in coming days – are posted here.)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the best way to appreciate this country that we live in is to drive across it. We saw snow-covered mountains, herds of antelope and deer, wide open windswept fields, desolate desert, breathtaking sunsets, and vast stands of forest during our drive. The ever-changing landscape provided fascinating entertainment and never-ending sources of conversation. Bill, constantly on the lookout for wildlife, slowed and exclaimed as a bald eagle flew over our heads with a rabbit clutched in its talons. He pointed out antelope so many times that it actually got to be routine. Even domesticated livestock got a second look as we proceeded carefully through free-range territory.
We finally pulled into Laramie and, after a quick bite to eat, arrived at the cousins’ house at about 4:00 in the afternoon (this is Monday the 2nd for those of you following along at home). I confess that we were all a little nervous. We didn’t know what to expect. We hoped Bill’s dad’s transgressions, coupled with years of estrangement, didn’t translate into a chilled reception. We hoped, but were afraid to hope, for a connection – the NEED for which we didn’t even comprehend ourselves at the time.
Any and all worries were completely obliterated within a half-hour of our arrival.
Peggy and Bill Joyce (yes, another Bill Joyce – apparently there is going to be a family reunion for JUST the Bill Joyce’s this year, there are so many in the family) welcomed us with literally wide-open arms and hearts. The very first thing Peggy said to us was, “You’re not guests, you’re FAMILY, so this is your home while you are here.” And it was. Immediately. I just fell head over heels in love with these people. What struck my heart the most though, in those first couple of hours, was watching Bill just soak it all in. You’d have to understand his entire life’s history with his family – particularly his mom, his father, and his youngest sister – drama and negativity have accumulated to the point where he simply didn’t believe that any family connection could be a positive one, outside of what he has with me, the kids, and Karen.
And then we met Peggy and Bill (Bill’s dad’s cousins). And Ellen and George (more of Bill’s dad’s cousins). And Maryann and Joyce-Ann (yet more cousins!). And Samantha and Casey and Carter and Ella (offspring of cousins with their offspring!). And Becky and Ocean and Reef and Skye (first cousins once removed, first cousins twice removed, second cousins something removed? great first and second cousins? Anyone????). And Great-Aunt Jeannette, who is 94 years young and still sharp as a tack.
Family. Family EVERYWHERE. It was like coming home. They welcomed us – every single one of them – as if they had just been WAITING for the day when we would arrive at their doorstep. As if they’d been LONGING to have a relationship with us. As if they just KNEW the day would come when we would find the bridge that would bring us all together.
It was… breathtaking. Every night we were there, Bill and I had whispered conversations in our bed, marveling at how wonderful it all was. I’ve rarely seen Bill this astonished – and happy. Oh, I can’t even begin to describe how it all made my heart feel.
Anyway. Back to our arrival. Peggy took us on a tour of the house, and we stopped frequently as Bill or Karen remembered memorabilia from the brief handful of visits they experienced when they were very young. We got an encapsulated history of the Joyce family and their journey to establish their Wyoming homestead back in the 1800’s (and as one of Laramie’s founding families, there is a LOT of history). Up to and including the fact that this branch of the Joyce family is indeed directly related to James Joyce (ironic, when you consider Bill’s opinion of reading), with connections in Ireland and Australia. Then within an hour of our arrival at Peggy and Bill’s (who will henceforth be referred to as Bill-o, his nickname, to differentiate from MY Bill), Ellen and George arrived. They threw dinner together and we all sat at the dining table. The conversation that ensued didn’t even feel like “getting to know you”. More like, “catching up”. Then Peggy, Ellen, Karen and I hung out in the living room while Bill, Bill-o and George stayed at the table. More talking, more laughing, more revelations. As long as the day had been, we didn’t go to bed until almost midnight.
A stained glass window crafted and donated by a founding Joyce to one of the first churches in Laramie.
A wheel from one of the wagons that took the Joyce family to their Wyoming homestead.
The next morning (Tuesday the 3rd) we formulated a game plan. We talked to an attorney in Cheyenne over the phone, who was awesomely helpful. We coordinated the retrieval of the death certificates and remains with the local funeral home, who were awesomely helpful. We met with the bank manager, who was awesomely helpful. We met with the folks that Bill’s dad had been staying with, who were CHARACTERS. And also awesomely helpful. We retrieved Bill’s dad’s belongings and moved his motor home to Peggy and Bill-o’s (WHOA was that an adventure). We met with the County Clerk, who was awesomely helpful. We met with the Clerk of the District Court, who was awesomely helpful.
Horses on the characters' land.
Following behind the motor home
Are you seeing the trend? Every person that we met with was immediately and cheerfully helpful. Any information we needed, we received. Any advice we asked for, we received. All the source of our stress – that of the unknown, of not knowing how to proceed, of not knowing what we needed to do to finalize the details of Bill’s dad’s life – were relieved in that one single day.
Collecting Bill’s dad’s remains gave everyone a moment of pause. They’d been shipped from a mortuary in Denver (where he’d been hospitalized and in Hospice care), and I guess it was jarring to conceive that this (surprisingly heavy) package contained the remains of such an… animated and controversial person. Then, our morbid sense of humor kicked in. Karen cracked, “If it fits, it ships!” We all started laughing. Thank God we all share the same sense of humor.
That evening we set up camp on the dining room table, spreading out all of the papers we’d discovered and trying to make sense of things (I’m just going to entirely skip over the process of cleaning out the motor home… it was awful awful awful). We had a quick visit at the Eagle’s club, of which Bill’s dad was a member, to meet and raise a glass with his friends. OH the stories we heard! OH the smoke we inhaled! It was strange to see smoking allowed in public places, banned as it is in Arizona.
Then Peggy organized an impromptu family reunion back at the house and before we knew it there was a crowd of new family to meet. We scarfed down pizza and wine, and I wandered around for most of the evening taking pictures of everyone.
Our newly discovered family.
Casey, Carter and Reef
Bill, appearing to be skeptical.
Bath time for Ella
Me and Reef
Ella with her grandma Ellen
Maryann - I swear not all that wine is hers.
Joyce-Ann, Maryann's daughter.
Another long day that we didn’t seem feel the effects of, that wound down around midnight.
The next day (Wednesday the 4th) was spent cleaning out the rest of the motor home, making sense of paperwork, tracking down Bill’s dad’s post office box, and various vehicle-related errands. By this time, the three of us were exhausted. There was just SO MUCH to take in over the short time we were there, I think we were on emotional and informational overload. After hours of staring and puzzling over paperwork, we called it quits and decided to go out to eat. So Peggy, Bill-o, Bill, Karen, Ellen and I piled into Peggy and Bill-o’s fancy van, and had a lovely dinner at Altitude Chophouse & Brewery in downtown Laramie. Afterwards we wound through town a bit, with Peggy pointing out various landmarks and points of historical interest.
Once home, Bill-o stoked up the fire pit, and we all sat in the back yard under the clear winter sky. It was a WONDERFUL way to wrap up the last night of our stay, with yet MORE conversation, more laughter, and toasted marshmallows. We forged a tight bond with these folks over the course of just a few days, and I deeply regretted having to leave in the morning.
Ellen and Karen
Around the fire - it's made from the tub from the inside of a washing machine, and WE'RE MAKING ONE FOR OUR OWN.
The max ISO on my camera works pretty darned well, doesn't it?
We got up at an UNGODLY hour the next morning, packed up the car, and lingered over our goodbyes with Peggy. There’s nobody on this planet who gives a hug like Peggy does. Karen and I were both sniffling in the car as we followed behind Bill-o to the family memorial garden they wanted us to see before we left.
Lots of Joyces and Joyce connections.
Zella is Bill's dad's aunt, Bill-o's and Ellen's and Maryann's mother.
Bill-o, Karen and Bill
From there we made a quick stop at K-Mart for the obligatory purchase of Wyoming Cowboys sweatshirts. Then we followed Bill-o to Samantha’s house to pick up her mom Ellen, who had spent the night rather than make the drive back to Cheyenne the night before. We parted ways with Bill-o then, with more tears shed and, “No goodbyes, just see ya later!” We drove the 45 minutes to Cheyenne, and visited with Ellen and George at their house for about an hour, admiring Ellen’s collections and their charming house. Ellen presented both Karen and I with lovely ribboned hat boxes, which she urged us to use as our “worry boxes”. The sentiment got the two of us all choked up again, we were so touched at her thoughtfulness.
We then followed Ellen and George to the elderly care home that Great Aunt Jeanette (Bill’s dad’s aunt, so Bill’s great-aunt) resides in. This place is TRULY a home, with a lovely dining room for all their meals, recreation, music, and individual apartments arranged to feel like a neighborhood. We visited her for an hour or so, chatting about our stay, Bill’s dad and other family members, and looking at pictures.
Karen, Aunt Jeanette, and Bill
Karen and Aunt Jeanette
After we said our goodbyes to Aunt Jeanette, we followed Ellen and George to a restaurant on a nearby golf course, where we had a lovely little lunch and visited for a bit.
George and Ellen
There were yet MORE tears in the parking lot as we said our goodbyes one final time, with many promises to stay in touch. The eight hour drive from Cheyenne to Santa Fe (where we stopped for a break before making the final eight-hour drive back to Arizona) seemed to pass quickly, with all that we had to talk about. The three of us just couldn’t get over how wonderful it was to be so completely embraced by this side of the family that we’d never met. Karen and Bill kept expressing how meeting everyone in Wyoming, and LOVING them so instantly, made them proud to bear the Joyce family name. It was as if they “gave the name back to us,” as Bill expressed it. A name that they had associated with negativity and their father’s bad behavior is now replaced with a sense of pride and warm feelings of what a family SHOULD be.
We’re already planning our next trip back. This time, with nothing but positive things to do and all the time in the world to visit and sight-see. Honest to God, the Laramie/Cheyenne area is the only place I’ve EVER considered moving to, other than Maine. That should tell you something right there. Just so we could be near our family. Though the area is beautiful, too.
Well. We’ve got a ton of work left to do, to wrap up Bill’s dad’s affairs. I’m going to write an entry specifically on the steps one needs to take to finalize the estate of a person who didn’t leave a will. It’s convoluted to say the least.
So! I hope everyone is well! I hope to get caught up with you all (blogs, e-mails, etc.) soon!