Happy Birthday to us. That's right, my sister and I are twins celebrating our birthday tomorrow. Identical girls, now identical middle-aged women, born like clasped hands - I head first, she breech - at a time long before fertility treatments when twins were an uncommon and riveting novelty.
As the result of some expert jockeying in the womb, I'm the elder twin by 10 minutes. It's a position that was set in stone on Aug. 11 several decades ago, and believe me, there have been many occasions when I wished I had had the prenatal good sense to hang back so that once in a while my sister could have been the one to test the waters.
You see, in the incessant and never quite successful struggle to impart strict equality and fairness, which seemed at the time so critical to twinship, it was decreed in our family that, as the "elder sister," I was entitled and/or required to do things first. In practical terms, what this usually meant was that I was dispatched to have my tonsils out, ushered into the dentist's chair, lined up just ahead of my bug-eyed sibling for polio shots - first.
I also got married first, became a mother first and a grandmother first, if only by months. My sister was the beneficiary of my detailed evaluation of each experience. Clearly, I never grew to regard this priority birthright as the privilege it was meant to be, as evidenced by the way I previewed childbirth for my sister when she was days away from delivering her first child: "Think Joan of Arc after they lit the torch," was how I neatly summed it up.
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We grew up when the prevailing wisdom was to treat identical twins as similarly as possible. To that end, we shared a bedroom, were enrolled in the same class at school, dressed alike and were expected to split everything down the middle, from chocolate bars to closet space. "One divides and the other chooses" was the alternating system our lawyer father instituted to cut down on the squabbling.
Family lore includes times when as infants, our sleep-deprived parents mixed us up, inadvertently bathing us without our identifying bracelets. Those early errors required embarrassing trips to the doctor to sort out who was who by our footprints.
Although close family members soon learned to tell us apart, few others could. And it didn't help matters that our mother, a talented dress designer, kept us outfitted in matching smocked pinafores, embroidered skirts and other ensembles that she would run up in duplicate on her sewing machine while we were at school. When I look at pictures from our childhood, even I can't always be sure whether I'm on the left or the right. We occasionally wore the same clothes, often in different colours, until our late teens.
Needless to say, we pretty much stopped traffic whenever we were out in public. A bit of a sideshow act, really. Sort of like the Dionne quintuplets writ small. And when we weren't fighting, it was a great gig. Wherever we went, people felt free to amuse themselves by attempting to "tell which was which," an often alarming and time-consuming practice that involved solemnly counting the freckles on our noses or otherwise inspecting us in search of some distinguishing characteristic. A few gave up and, despairing of addressing us by the correct name, applied the default moniker Twinny.
Naturally, we relished all the attention, and weren't above upping the ante. When our mischievous next-door neighbour almost severed the tip of my sister's thumb in the infamous "cap gun incident," we began telling other kids that we had been born conjoined and were separated at the site of her scar.
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Nature? Nurture? Our Grade 13 final exams settled that debate. They were written anonymously under a number instead of a name. Our results, however, were practically the same. We both won Ontario Scholarships, and the marks were released on Aug. 11. "Birthday Honours For Twins" said the headline (below the fold) on the front page of the Toronto Telegram the next day, accompanied by our yearbook pictures and an interview with our proud parents. That I barely squeaked onto the scholarship list and that several students at our school earned higher marks than ours weren't newsworthy details.
The fact that we continued to look and sound alike as we grew older ensured the twin thing would persist. Each of us can recall several occasions when, walking down a street or through a shopping centre, we uttered an astounded, "What are you doing here?" to what turned out to be a mirrored wall.
But as we got older, trading on our genetic currency began to lose its allure. Today, we're happy to see a fresh approach, as parents of identical twins celebrate their children's individuality, dress them differently and enroll them in separate classes at school, thus damping down the inevitable competition between two people so closely matched. And it took adult perspective to appreciate how our older brother must have felt as a young boy while we danced through life at the centre of attention.
These days, although we still look remarkably alike, we focus on the real essence of being twins - the sheer depth of the sister voodoo. Our brains, for the most part, operate on the same frequency. It's something mysterious and ethereal that far exceeds sharing the same family history.
My twin knows me in ways that no one else does - not spouse, not children, not friends. She understands the essential me, divested of every other of my life roles and their accompanying expectations. She knows all my secrets and never blows my cover, mostly because I know all hers, too. Of all the blessings twinship bestows, this is the one we treasure most. It's a magical bond that I hope and pray will endure for many years to come. Happy birthday, wombmate.
Lesley Marrus Barsky lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Tonia Cowan.