“No mistaking where those two girls came from!”
People never wait for Mother’s Day to point out the mother-daughter similarity in my family. When the girls were small, folks called it to my attention so often I started saving them the trouble by introducing Helen and her little sister, Becky, as “my clone kids.”
Twins born in different years—carbon copies exactly like me, they said. While triplets inspired amused curiosity, and same-day maternal twins sparked attempts to tell which name went with which baby, we got sidelong glances as though I’d never gone to the maternity ward but out to the garden to generate pods.
“Cripe, are you sure you went through labor and didn’t just crank out a duplicate?”my dad asked, gazing down at his second tow-headed granddaughter in her hospital bassinet. It was his first meeting with half-a-day-old Becky and, as usual, he couldn’t help but mark potentially poignant family moments with stand-up comedy.
“Yes!” I asserted with a bit too much postpartum fervor. “She’s exactly 11 ounces smaller than her big sister was, and three inches shorter. Besides, she’s got a little birthmark just below her right wrist.”
As Becky grew and the mirror image of her sister and me as babies didn’t fade, I felt tempted to show people how they both had crooked left incisors and bits of red in their hair just like their dad. But before too long, I just nodded at folk’s clone comments, taking full credit, hoping someone would alert the National Enquirer so I could sell my story for the girls’ college tuition.
There was never any arguing who gave birth to either one of them. They got their mother’s blonde hair, their mother’s brown “Oreo cookie” eyes, and I got the road map of their gestation where I used to wear a bikini. But those who swore we were just “three peas” straight out of the pod never saw Helen riding a bicycle at age six or Becky bending her dad to her will just by bringing a tear to her eye. I was never able to do either.
“I’ve been riding Katie’s bike,” Helen said casually at breakfast one long-ago May afternoon.
“Where?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“On the road by her house down the big hill.”
“A two-wheeler bike?”
“With training wheels, right?”
“No training wheels down the big hill?” I didn’t know how that could be. She was much too young, too little. By the time I learned how to balance a bike, I’d stripped the rubber off my training wheels and had been riding them for months on the rims.
“Who’s been teaching you how to ride, Helen?”
“Why should anybody have to teach me? I just hopped on and went!”
Who, I remember wondering, was that person previously inside my 40 pounds of stretching-by-the-minute baby skin? Whoever she was, she was somehow wearing my face from long ago but didn’t need to bother asking for assistance before plunging headlong into life. No child of mine! And who exactly was the two-year-old little sister version shoveling in cereal next to her who could engage passersby with a grin and then entertain them with one of her three personalities? None of my doing!
With both my baby girls, I played the producer’s role to the hilt. Laying in my hospital bed, I accepted the flowers, ate most of the chocolates and let their father wait on me as much as possible. Every muscle in my body told me I deserved it. As soon as I began to walk again without wincing, though, the exclusiveness wore off. Could flesh of my flesh be so perfect? Six weeks later I’d be puzzling over such mysteries, the origin of symmetrical ears and other flawless features, when their newborn smiles appeared out of nowhere.
“Hi honey,” I whispered. “Where in the world did you get that beautiful smile?”
Certainly not from me. I was a face full of furrows rarely smoothed by sleep.
By the time the girls were gooing and gaaing and semi-upright, I’d attributed most of their milestones to ancestors other than myself. Fruit of my womb would not bounce repeatedly while suspended from a Johnny Jump Up spring inside a door jamb for half an hour and love it. Then, far too soon, Helen just bounced right past me without any support—soaring full speed ahead until my safety net was nothing but threads—showing the way for her little sister. On her first day of school, she created a time warp of sorts for one veteran teacher. She told Helen she’d been at school for my first day, too, greeting a dark-eyed girl with the same sun bleached hair and much the same dress. When Becky showed up four years later, the poor old teacher felt like her classroom was stuck in a parallel universe. I guess she saw a legacy where, some days, all I saw was an inherited passion for peanut butter off of a spoon.
“Mommy, how did I get in this black and white picture?” Helen wanted to know soon after when she came across my first-grade school picture.
“That’s not you, that’s Mommy,” I said, examining the image for the first time in 25 years. “That’s me when I was your age.”
Later, Becky saw the photo propped on my desk when she came to say good night. “What’s Helen doing in that picture?” she asked. I brought her into my lap to tell her what I’d told her big sister. But when she swung her legs around me and bunched up to nestle under my chin, I kept quiet. Even back then, I wondered where the time had gone since my girls could curl up against my heart without adjustment.
With their growing-up years now a bright but hazy blur, I know for sure my daughters are passing through me more than coming from me. Because of them, the sun has shone over “my hair” in so many incredible places and “my eyes” have seen far beyond where I stand. Meanwhile, they’ve certainly done their dad’s DNA proud, too. Especially during science fairs and athletic events—anything requiring eye-hand coordination and more common sense than God gave geese—they’ve made it increasingly apparent how much they do take after Tom.
And now that they’re in their 20s, they’ve brought me to a place where I feel I need to broadcast my connection just in case there’s any question. Turns out, those newborn smiles were just the beginning of what they had in store.
“I’m Helen’s mom!” I announced recently to anyone I figured would wonder what the heck I was doing at the poshest party this side of Manhattan. It was Helen’s cast party and I’d just witnessed, front and center, how she put on a stellar production at the Portsmouth Music Hall Loft featuring costumes she designed. Just as I was flashing back to her as a fairy princess—the last homemade Halloween costume I mustered—there we were in a penthouse overlooking Market Square, eating miniature Beef Wellingtons and toasting my daughter’s success. When did this beautiful, red-headed woman teach herself to sew? How did she take flight when, if not for Super Glue, I couldn’t have managed to give her the golden fairy wings she’d asked for so long ago? Her true origins still remained a mystery on that magical night, until we made the exact same yummy dessert face over Kahlua cheese cake and it was plain as day.
There are still times with Becky, too—especially when I’ve matched my blonde to her particular shade—when our resemblance elicits comments and a bit of confusion. “That’s your mom, right?” one of Becky’s Bahamian friends asked. “For a second I thought she might be your older sister!” Slurping on my second rum punch at the dive resort where Becky worked, I knew I was probably starting to act like there wasn’t 31 years between us…but look like her? Not even in paradise on my best day! “Bless you, I’m her Mumma!” I gushed. Even though leading shark dives was her specialty—and when she wasn’t doing that she was teaching kids how to navigate Class Five rapids on the Colorado and scale the same canyons featured on I Shouldn’t Be Alive—people can see we’re cast from the same mold.
Coming across my old first-grade picture again the other day, I had to admit I saw it, too. Years faded into one sweet memory of holding each daughter next to my heart. Who knew? The three of us had probably been in the same portrait even way back then, long limbs and all, waiting to unfold.