RIVERSIDE, CALIF. - Terry Probyn took a brush to her daughter's blond hair and slowly combed through it -- a tender ritual she had not performed in 18 years, when her girl, Jaycee Lee Dugard, was just 11.

Reunited with Jaycee last week in Northern California, Probyn got to play mother again to the girl who was snatched away from her, touching her hair, kissing her face, delighting at the sound of her voice.

Tina Dugard, Terry's sister and Jaycee's aunt, sat and watched disbelief mingled with joy.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, she's French-braiding Jaycee's hair for the first time in 18 years,'" Tina Dugard said.

The reunion of Terry Probyn with her daughter -- and her interactions, for the first time, with Jaycee's two daughters, 11 and 15 -- played out in private as the chilling tale of Jaycee's alleged abductor, Phillip Craig Garrido, seized headlines worldwide.

Tina Dugard held a brief news conference Thursday in Los Angeles, coming a day after her interview with the Orange County Register. Jaycee Dugard has not spoken publicly about her experiences, and her aunt's statements were the first accounts of a family member who has seen Jaycee Dugard since she was rescued on Aug. 26. She spent five days with Probyn, Jaycee and the two girls.

"There's a sense of comfort and optimism, a sense of happiness. ... Jaycee and her girls are happy," said Tina Dugard, who was 13 when Jaycee was born.

Darkness and despair lifted

Terry Probyn lived with her sister for 10 years before recently moving out.

"People probably want to think that it's been this horrible, scary thing for all of us," Tina Dugard said of the past several days as the family sought to reconnect in cloistered rooms, with law enforcement officials and counselors hovering -- and media from around the world trying to interview them.

"[But] the horrible, scary thing happened 18 years ago, and continued to happen for the last 18 years. The darkness and despair [has lifted.]"

Dugard pointed to a Barbie doll, still in its box, sitting on a table in her living room.

It was a Christmas present for Jaycee the year she disappeared, 1991 a present Dugard never was able to give her niece.

Instead of ripping open the box containing her Happy Holidays Christmas Barbie, Jaycee was thrown into her own airtight container: the squalid Antioch, Calif.-area back yard of a convicted rapist and registered sex offender who would go on to father Jaycee's daughters, according to authorities. Garrido, 58, and his wife, Nancy, 54, were arrested last week and charged in the kidnapping, rape and imprisonment of Jaycee Dugard. The Garridos have pleaded not guilty.

Tina Dugard would not comment on aspects of the ongoing investigation, such as how Jaycee and her daughters were treated by the Garridos.

She said Jaycee's daughters "know what's been going on," but they have not been allowed to watch television or read any coverage of the Garrido story.

She said she has not pressed Jaycee and her daughters to discuss life in the cluttered back-yard collection of tents and shacks.

"Right now, it's about reconnecting," she said.

While in captivity, Jaycee was able to teach her girls to read and write. Dugard said she's not sure how, although photos of the compound show the three had access to books.

"They are educated and bright," she said of Jaycee's children, whose names have been reported as Starlet, 15, and Angel, 11. Dugard would not comment on whether those names are accurate.

"It's clear they've been on the Internet and know a lot of things," Dugard said. "It's clear that Jaycee did a great job with the limited resources she had and her limited education."

During her five-day visit, Dugard recalled staring up at the sky on a starry night with one of Jaycee's daughters, who proceeded to point out the names of constellations.

Another daughter happened upon a plant. "That's a nasturtium!" she blurted out. "It's edible. Do you want to eat it?"

Tina Dugard said Jaycee and the girls looked healthy -- although she declined to detail their appearances, saying she wanted to respect their privacy.

"She does seem like a 29-year-old woman," she said of Jaycee. "She's fabulous, and she's beautiful."

Dugard declined to speculate on how Jaycee and her daughters will fare over the coming weeks, months and years -- though she said counseling will play a part.

"The fact that [Jaycee] is home sinks in in little pieces. ... she's there, and we know she's there, but sometimes you're just taken aback by the joy, and it bursts out."

And for now, Dugard doesn't want to dwell on the dark, horrible things that authorities believe happened in Garrido's back yard.

"I may never know what happened [to Jaycee]," she said. "But she's home."