As a child, my favorite story was the one my mother told about her twin sister. My mother and I and my two brothers would sit together on the big brown couch in the living room. She’d reach out and pick up a pair of tiny, black high top button shoes from the end table where they were always displayed. She’d hold them on her open palm. “These belonged to my twin sister, Margaret,” she always began. “She died when she was only eighteen months old.”
The year was nineteen fifteen. Both baby girls, Margaret and my mother, Catherine, had pneumonia. Antibiotics didn’t exist. Neither was expected to live. The doctor came to the house several times and finally, told my grandparents there was nothing more he could do. “It’s useless for you to spend the money for my visits,” he said and walked away with slumped shoulders, carrying his cracked leather bag that didn’t contain the miracle my mother’s parents had hoped it would.
When I remember my Irish grandmother, I think of walled off places and rough abrasive textures. She was a small, sharp featured, practically illiterate woman whose heart was tiny and dry as a peanut shell. She spoke of duty, but never of love. She was flinty and canny and more than a little scary.
After the doctor left, my grandmother stood looking down on her feverish, fussy, sick babies for a long time. When I knew my grandmother, she wore cotton house-dresses, either plaid or printed with flowers, and stockings rolled below her knees and bedroom slippers. Her hair was gray and kept in a knot low on the back of her head. But at the time of the story, she was a young mother. The twins were her first children. Fashions were different. I pictured her in a long dress and grown-up, high button shoes. Her hands were still smooth and white. I tried to make her pretty, but it was hard because the scowling face with the ice hard eyes I knew kept getting in the way.
My grandmother marched to the bathroom and came back with a bottle of caster oil that was always kept in the medicine cabinet. She began to dose the babies with caster oil every several hours. In the end, Margaret died, but Catherine lived. My mother always brought this story to a close by saying, “Thanks to caster oil, I survived.” We’d clap and smile, grateful to that oily liquid for without it she wouldn’t be our mother. It didn’t occur to us then that, without it, we wouldn’t be at all.
As children, that story satisfied us. Our mother’s recovery made it a happy ending. We didn’t think to grieve for young Margaret. We didn’t think to wonder about how that death changed our mother’s life. We knew our mother was a believer in the power of caster oil to combat any ailment, but we didn’t know what she felt about losing her twin and because she never told us how she felt we didn’t know what to feel either. When she told her stories, my mother became a distant narrator, untouched by the events she related.
I was married to my first husband for eighteen years. He died clutching both of my hands so hard I thought my bones were going to crack, begging me to hold on, hold on, not to let him go. I held on, but he fell away anyway. That’s how I came to know how sudden and unconquerable death is and what a scar it leaves on those who continue to live. Like a shooting star it drops out of nowhere, carves a searing, unforgettable path across the sky, and then is gone, but its path remains a hidden surge of electricity forever throbbing in the memories of those left behind.
It was when I was moving through the withered, bleak landscape of my grief that I realized the story about the twin who lived and one who died had soaked into my pours, melted into my blood stream and waited all those years for me to be ready to know it for the stark and uncompromising tragedy it was. I had to be the one who watched someone die, but whose own heart kept beating, the one who eventually laughed again and loved again before I could begin to imagine the secret, untold part of my mother’s story.
When I imagine her story, I begin with water and silence and cells dividing and reproducing until they have become two female babies who wear the same face. They undulate and drift like seaweed inside my grandmother’s womb. Their limbs twine together. They suck each other’s thumbs. There is no separation between them, no place where one stops and the other begins.
Margaret is born first. She drops from between my grandmother’s legs into the hands of the mid-wife who hands her quickly off to my grandmother’s sister. The room is cool and unpleasant on the baby’s skin. Instead of soft darkness, there is the harsh skein of light brushing against her eyes when she opens them. She screams until her face is mottled blue and purple. My mother pushes her way out next. She whimpers and scrunches up her face like an angry old lady. The women quickly sponge the twins off, wrap them in the same quilt and lay them together in the crib they will share until Margaret dies. The twins curl together. Margaret stops crying. My mother breathes evenly. Her face relaxes. They sleep.
My grandmother tends to them, feeds them her milk, bathes and dresses them, but she doesn’t sit in the rocker and sing to them. She doesn’t keep them in her arms after they have drunk their fill just to look at them, to touch their thick, baby hair, or put her nose close to smell their new skin. They don’t miss not having any true affection from their mother because for both of them there is always the other. When they’re in the crib or learning to crawl, or taking their first steps, the other is always there looking out of the same wide gray eyes, sharing the same rhythm.
One day Catherine wakens alone in the crib. She lies quiet waiting for the other to come back, not certain how to be without her. She waits and waits, dry eyed and alert. Where is she? She falls asleep that night waiting. She wakes up the next morning waiting.
I don’t think my mother ever stopped waiting. When I was a child, she used to sit for long periods of time smoking cigarettes one after the other, a cooling cup of coffee in front of her, and stare out the window. I didn’t know what she was seeing, but it hurt to look at her. Her eyes turned pale as pearls behind her glasses and her face was closed up like a gate pulled down to keep something hidden and secret. Sometimes I’d touch her arm or lean against her, but it was as if I were a ghost girl she could neither see nor feel.
All my mother knew about love was rooted in absence. She loved my brothers and me. I know she did. But that love was small and frail, unnourished by words or touches. It came from a twin sized hollow spot inside of her and was itself hollow and silent.
During the last ten years of her life, my mother lost all of her stories. For a while her old life hummed deep in her brain without words like pond frogs in spring, all frenzied sound, but gone when she tried to find them. Gradually her memories grew silent. She could no longer hear them or speak them. I used to sit with her then and stare into her cloudy eyes, and retell her stories to her hoping for a silver flash of recognition, a sigh of pleasure. One day I lifted the black high button shoes from her dresser where I had put them when she first went to live where she could be taken care of. I balanced them on the palm of my hand like she used to do. “Do you remember these?” I asked. At first, she shook her head, but then she reached for them. She sat for a long time staring down at the shoes.
Finally, she raised her head. “My twin,” she said. “I lived. She didn’t.” She laid the shoes in her lap and patted them over and over again as if they had come alive and she was soothing them. “What happened to her?” she asked. “What was her name?”
Her hands felt like fluttery, moth wings when I took hold of them. “Her name was Margaret,” I said, giving my mother back the forgotten name like I would give her a piece of sweet chocolate. She smiled then and I inhaled the essence of that smile and tucked it into a tight pocket in my heart, so I’d have it when my mother’s face no longer remembered how to smile.