As a journalist you expect to write stories about the weird and wonderful things that happen in other people's lives.
But you don't expect the stories you write to cause weird and wonderful things to happen in yours.
But two weeks ago that's what happened to me. I'd just moved to Los Angeles, leaving behind my beach bungalow in Ventura, my adorable green-eyed cat, my old friends and my old life.
I'd just written my first story in the Valley Edition, about two Pierce College students who took a class that involved family trees. Through the sharp-eyed observation of their teacher, the two women ended up finding out they were long-lost second cousins whose families splintered decades ago because of a family feud.
It was a good anecdote--which is what I live for. I got that sweet but fleeting high you get from a good story. The day after, I prepared to launch into the next one without so much as a glance back.
Instead, I got a phone call.
"This is Cindy," said a voice I had never heard before. "Your cousin."
I almost dropped the phone.
I knew she existed. She was a West Coast MacGregor, a twin, the daughter of my father's half brother Mike.
There had been no feud in our family, as with the Pierce College students. Just the slow drifting that occurs with time and distance in today's America.
I grew up on the East Coast, the daughter of a Navy submarine captain. We moved endlessly, from Connecticut, to Virginia, to Italy and back.
But we rarely came west.
We heard stories about these West Coast MacGregors--strange, intriguing tales to the family of a career Navy man.
My uncle, it was said, dabbled in Buddhism. Cousin Ian was a surfer.
My father chalked it all up to California craziness.
But I thought having a surfer in the family was the ultimate in cool. I knew there were some twins, and that was pretty cool too.
We even knew their names--along with Ian, there was Courtney, Susan and Cindy. But we didn't know what they looked like, or how old they were. It was hard to even imagine them.
As an adult I finally met most of my West Coast cousins. I traveled up to Santa Cruz and met my uncle and his wife. I met my cousin Ian, the surfer, and his sister, Courtney. I even met Susan, Cindy's twin. But I never met Cindy. She remained a cipher.
Turns out she lives in the Valley, just miles from where I work.
As she picked up her Los Angeles Times two weeks ago my story about the long-lost cousins caught her eye. Then she looked at the byline and recognized my name.
It was all too much of a coincidence, she said, almost like a sign. That's what got her to call me from her office in West Hollywood.
We agreed to meet, soon.
I called last week to firm up plans and someone else answered the phone. It was my cousin's daughter, Christina. She's 15 and was home from school sick. I hadn't even known that she existed. First a long-lost cousin, then a long-lost cousin once-removed. My parents didn't even know about Christina. It was like a family bonus.
"Are you Hilary?" she asked excitedly. "My mom's talked about you! She just decided to go for it and call you. She said, 'We're cousins, why not?' This is so cool. We're long-lost cousins!"
Just driving to work felt different after that. It was an incredible feeling to know I had blood somewhere out there, in this vast impersonal expanse of mini-malls, tract homes and freeways that I speed through every day.
We arranged to meet last Thursday at her home. I was a little nervous, and quite excited. I stood on the curb in the dark under her window and calmed myself. I realized with slight alarm that if I knocked on the wrong door I wouldn't even know, because I didn't even know who I was looking for.
I walked up the stairs and stopped at 4B. I rang the bell. The door swung open and there they were. Two beautiful faces. Immediately I knew I was in the right place.
We squealed and hugged and then stopped to stare at each other, searching for something, anything, familiar.
Cindy was thin and bright-eyed and lively and vivacious, and had the MacGregor mouth. Christina was blond and beautiful and bubbly, and looked less MacGregor-ish but had a slight hint of the family mouth.
It was eerie to stare into the eyes of someone you have never seen and to recognize chins, eyes and voice inflections. But it was even eerier to recognize humor and sensibilities and a very distinctive but elusive MacGregor quality that I find impossible to define but is the very essence of what we MacGregors all are.
They had lighted candles for my arrival, and laid out a mouthwatering array of cheese and crackers and wine.
We sat down and laughed out of the sheer joy of finding each other in this city of millions. We were on the edge of our seats, bouncing up and down. We spoke in excited spurts, then fell silent, stuffing crackers and peanuts into our mouths while we took it all in.
"This is so cool. This is just so cool," we kept saying.
Cindy told her half of the story.
"I was reading the newspaper. I've never seen your name before," she began.