“The unsung note can be as important as 20 you sing.” – Mary Black, Irish folk singer
I celebrated my 60th birthday on October 2, 2017. Having lived 60 Octobers now, I assume I am well past the middle of my life journey, and I am accepting of it all. I have no need to linger on the roads not taken. I am present for life, all the good and all the complications, and I have no need to know what is to come – not the details, not the when or where or who or what the mystery of life will present to me. I feel grateful and mostly at peace.
The music I’m listening to as I write this reflection is one of my favorite CDs – “The best of Mary Black, vol. 2.” My ears and spirit are filled by the compelling lyrics, Mary Black’s lovely interpretations in the folk tradition, the emotion of her splendid Irish voice, and the fine musicians. Any resemblance to her storytelling in the rhythm of these words I’m writing is purely coincidental.
As I reflect on my 60 Octobers (61 if you count the partial one that began at 1:51 a.m. on October 2, 1957), the truth is nothing turned out the way I thought it would in this life. Best laid plans and all that.
There was a time I had difficulty with the true face of a thing. I mixed up the mask of a thing with its true essence, and I experienced strange shifts in thought about what things seemed to be and what they really were. My thoughts murmured against one another and I felt like a stranger to myself. I felt an ache I couldn’t explain, and it didn’t go away for a long time. My mother said I had “the melancholy” like her mother.
Perhaps. But I believe the truth is more complicated – layered and textured with the signs of the times, family dynamics, pressure I felt being an identical twin, my innate disposition, confusion about my sexuality, homophobia in our family, hometown culture, and early, mild gender dysphoria. I was a tomboy with a moderate degree of distress about my feminine gender and uncomfortable with many aspects of “normal.”
When it became clear that my tomboyism was not temporary or safely confined to childhood, I really didn’t know what my possibilities were. Having to give up my little sleeveless undershirts to wear a bra when I was a young Girl Scout was traumatic enough. The idea that I would have to abandon my faded blue jeans and button-down shirts for skirts and party dresses as a young adult was frightening to me.
“Oops, there’s another one.”
My relationship to my twin sister outside the womb has been pretty close to what I imagine life inside the womb to have been – some sweet cuddling and handholding, some pushing and shoving, some caring for each other, some disregard, some successful negotiation around the need for space, quiet, closeness, even oxygen, and some unsuccessful negotiation that resolved itself. How extraordinary and fragile our world must have been in the womb, and most fragile during the final countdown to birth. It all must have been complicated by the fact that our parents learned there were two of us just after I was born. Dr. M. A. Mulvania’s announcement, “Oops, there’s another one,” in the delivery room at Lima Memorial Hospital in Lima, Ohio, was the precise moment the Kuck Twins were realized. The countdown to my birth and realization as an individual, though, took much longer than my almost nine months in the womb, and it involved abandoning my twin sister to find myself.
I felt early on that I was different from Carole in some fundamental ways. Carole was pretty, smart, talented, socially engaging, enthusiastic, and seemingly confident; charm and enchantment ran in her veins as easily as blood. I felt boyish, awkward, rebellious, gloomy, fearful, and insecure. I felt pressure living in a world that was consistently trying to make us the same, and the commonplace competition between siblings was not relieved by our being the same age. Being known as “the twins” by family members, friends, and acquaintances alike, I found it difficult to acknowledge, accept, nurture, and celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. While I admired Carole greatly, I knew I wasn’t and couldn’t be her, but I felt pressure to try. I think Carole felt unseen, too, only by different people than I. She responded with bold and daring behaviors of self-declaration and independence. I cowered. It took me a long time to find my courage.
Identical twins may share the same underlying genes, but how those genes interact with the environment helps create individuals. Making myself an individual apart from my previously established twin identity was one of the most difficult journeys of my life, complicated by all the stereotypes that people assume about twins, which are ridiculous and not true – except when they are, I guess. I understand people’s fascination with twins, but the worst part for me was being treated like we were the same person, especially when I was in a position to follow Carole’s lead.
It was the summer quarter of 1977 at The Ohio State University in Columbus. On the first day of class, my American Literature professor read my name from her roster, looked at me, and announced, “Okay, you HAVE to be Carole Kuck’s sister!” I affirmed her proclamation. She said what an excellent student Carole had been, talented, smart, and enjoyable to have in her class. I listened, not surprised by her description, of course. But then the professor said the dreaded, “Are you as good a student as she was?” I don’t know what she saw in my face. I’m sure I smiled in my typical non-committal way in such a circumstance and laughed nervously. I’m also sure I walked away with a bearing and an expression that said, “Oh, shit!” In an instant, I was mortified, reminded of all that pressure to get all “A”s in school, to earn those free baseball tickets to Cincinnati Reds games at Riverfront Stadium, to do as well as all three of my siblings, to be like someone else. For weeks after that, I sat in class like a mouse under an owl’s tree. I hardly breathed.
The saving grace was that my literary analysis and writing style were distinctive from Carole’s, and the professor saw the difference. At mid-term time, she asked to talk with me after class. She marveled at our different approaches to identical essay assignments and our unique interpretations of the same novels. She clearly heard our individual voices in our writing styles. And she wanted me to know that. I believe it was more to express her own surprise and fascination with our being twins than to intentionally help heal my psychological wounds and insecurities. How could she know. What mattered most to me was that she recognized me as distinctly different from my talented, smart, and creative sister, but not lesser than, not second-best.
At that time, I had been carrying a hurt for over a year, left over from high school graduation day. On that notable June day in 1976, Carole and I joined three other classmates and friends – all girls, by the way – to represent our class and speak at graduation. We were the Top Five academically, based on our individual grade point averages. Carole was valedictorian, and I was the second-highest-ranked graduate.
After the ceremony, I overheard someone say to my father, “You must be so proud.” There was silence. Then the speaker added, “Both of your girls top-ranked in their class,” said as though to prompt my father into recognition and acknowledgment of his daughters’ achievements. With a sense of humor that I did not appreciate, my father replied, “One always was slower than the other.” It hurt, and I hated him for it. It was hard for me to look at him or speak kindly to him until the day before we left home for college, about three months later. On that day, I asked him directly if he was proud of me, and then I cried. Of course, he was proud of me. I think he spent the next two decades trying to prove it. I forgave him, many times.
That slower-than, second-best syndrome haunted me. It tapped into my deep well of insecurity and got in the way of having a healthy relationship with Carole and with my father. It was bad enough that I felt I was a hyphenated person with a hyphenated name: Cheryl-n-Carole, Carole-n-Cheryl. His comment solidified my place. First-born twin but second-best in everything else. Obviously, I had issues. With resolve, I repressed my identity, needs, and desires and did my best to conform and live up to expectations—both internal and external, real and imagined. Some coping mechanisms worked better than others.
And I grew tired of feeling “different.”
One of the first people to notice something unusual about me was Mrs. Gracely, my first-grade teacher. She was like her name – kind, loving, full of grace – and I grew to think of her as my guardian angel, fairy godmother, and quiet champion. From first grade on, she wrote me a letter every time she saw my name in the paper for making the Honor Roll, playing sports, winning an award, or other achievement. She came to my high school graduation, and we kept in touch for years afterwards.
Mrs. Gracely found the little notes I sometimes wrote and placed strategically between the lid and the cubbyhole of my lift-top classroom desk. Placed just so, they’d fall out when she made her regular inspections. I borrowed classmate Roger Clabaugh’s extra-thick-leaded pencil to write them because my No. 2 wasn’t bold enough. They sometimes read, “Help me.” Something was wrong, but I couldn’t say what it was.
Concerned about me, Mrs. Gracely made at least two home visits that I’m aware of to talk with my mother. Pressing my ear to my bedroom door, I tried to catch their conversation. Decades later, Mom and I talked about those notes and Mrs. Gracely’s goodwill visits. Mom said that through the sixth grade, my teachers reported I was dramatically inconsistent in my reading test scores – sometimes scoring in the 90th percentile and sometimes below the 5th percentile, indicating a serious reading problem. It was a conundrum: The only way to draw conclusions about my inconsistent test performance was to conduct more tests, they thought.
According to my mother, she and Mrs. Gracely pondered whether to put my pencil back in my left hand, where I had indicated a slight preference as a toddler but had been nudged into right-handedness in Kindergarten. My mother noted that in those days there was some stigma attached to left-handedness and everyone thought it would be easier if Carole and I could learn things together with right-handedness. She added, “Besides, you were just as happy to carry your diaper in your right hand as your left.” Yes, like Linus and his security blanket, as a toddler I carried a cloth diaper. Mom and I also laughed that in terms of skill, I colored outside the lines just as easily left-handed as right-handed.
I do wonder if left-handedness and right-handedness were somehow negotiated between Carole and me in the womb – if, as we shared space, we somehow developed not necessarily preferences but dominant behaviors that simply enabled us to move and communicate with each other in that confined space. But the space between us grew significantly in elementary school.
School policy at the time Carole and I were in elementary school required that twins be separated from first grade through sixth grade. Imagine the shock to each of us – two people who did not like to be apart, accustomed to protecting each other with an intense loyalty to and affection for each other – suddenly to be separated. Mom said that separation did not serve either of us well, socially or academically, but she had had faith we would outgrow our separation anxiety and school officials had been convinced that separation would be good for us. Pfft. Hmpf. I can still see Carole standing on the opposite side of the school’s glass window, waving to me, her face mirroring mine with a look of sadness, longing, confusion, anxiety, and fear. Sweet little girls, little twin sisters, each with a broken heart.
The simplest explanation for our difficulties as young girls was we didn’t know how to be, or who to be, without each other. As time went on, we didn’t know how to be with each other either. It was complicated and remained so for many years.
“Mom, I’m different.”
On the south bank of the Auglaize River in Wapakoneta, west central Ohio, as an adolescent I sat in solitude and watched the wild things grow. By imagining myself a tree, I learned to mask my anxiety and identity issues. Pulling up weeds, wildflowers, roots, and vines from the black, cool, moist earth, I examined them with all my senses, with smell and taste making the most intimate connections. Feeling satisfied and empowered, I re-planted their secrets, covered them with the gravelly clay topsoil, and smiled at my discovery of their mystery. I raced back home to our house at 8 Hamilton Road and cocooned myself in my room, poring over our family library books in search of their names. Finding comfort in the water willow, lizard’s tail, wild onions, wild carrots, Queen Anne’s lace, and river grass that grew on the wooded lowland riverbank, I did eventually improve my test scores, even them out, and excel in school.
Ironically, my improved reading scores and good grades led to my being bullied for scoring high on tests and “ruining the curve” for students who didn’t do as well. Adolescence isn’t an easy time for anyone, and I sulked through it – reading, writing, studying (too hard, I think), and listening to music.
When I was 13 years old, I came home from school one day, confused and distressed. A flowered apron wrapped around her waist, Mom was standing at the stove stirring her homemade vegetable soup. I eased up beside her, keeping my eyes on the pot of soup, and said, “Mom, I’m different.” She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, stopped stirring the soup, put down the wooden spoon, wiped her hands on her apron, turned away from the stove, and without looking at me said, “Come here. Follow me.” Dutifully, I followed her into the small bedroom she had transformed into a den and library – the room she retreated to every night after dinner. She reached up to the third shelf, grabbed a paperback book, handed it to me, and said, “Here. Read this. You’ll like Jo.” It was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which centered on the story of tomboy Jo March and her sisters.
Mom told me that when I finished that book she’d give me another. And so she did, one book after another – wonderful stories I could get lost in, or rather, find myself in. They opened up possibilities. Over the years, my dear mother introduced me to Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Johanna Spyri, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, W. Somerset Maugham, Mary Anne Evans, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and other writers and poets who featured characters and themes she thought might appeal to me. We exchanged books and talked about their stories for the rest of her life.
My mother guided me to writers who, through their female characters and poetic voices, acknowledged that girls and women have identities, needs, and desires deeper than my mother allowed herself to know and wider than I could articulate for myself. She wanted me to know all possibilities. I never wished for happy endings to the stories and poems I read; I just stepped into them – perhaps only for a few minutes, perhaps for a few days or weeks, perhaps for years. And then I stepped out of them again. The stories went on.
I chose which parts and characters I would imitate, more often the beginnings and middles than the endings. For example, Jo March in Little Women, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Sylvia Scarlett in the movie by the same name were far more captivating and achingly relatable to me before their tomboyism was rerouted to more feminine norms by the end points of their stories – stories that to me weren’t quite what they seemed on the surface. When Jane Eyre famously announced, “Reader, I married him,” that was not cause for celebration to me. I did not expect Jane to get much fun out of life.
During my second quarter at Cal Poly, Pomona, I wrote an essay about the fact that I found the dangerous, intense, sad, emotional, and rebellious aspects of Jane’s story much more provocative and interesting than the traditional marriage plot. I imagined a different plotline for Jane. In another essay, I wrote about Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the fact that it was her tone rather than her words I remembered after reading her poems. I explained how I longed for such spontaneity, awareness, perception, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and clarity in my own life. I longed for Dickinson’s voice of freedom to speak to others, not just to myself.
I mention those essays because they changed my life. They caught the attention of a writing professor who was instrumental in my transitioning from a woebegone, aimless Natural Resources student to a hopeful English major. I went on to establish the university’s first English Club, join the editorial staff of the annual poetry anthology Spring Harvest, represent the English Department on the Arts Council, write first-draft performance reviews for the Southern California region of the Shakespeare Quarterly, and develop a Library Studies curriculum for the Shakespeare Festival in Southern California. I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I was getting to know what was under the surface of my life. And I was sharing with others what I discovered there.
I held – and hold – no disregard for women who chose to marry a man and raise children and devote themselves to their family, household, more traditional roles, as well as their own careers. It matters not what Alcott, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Sylvia Scarlett’s screenwriters intended, nor what they may have written between the lines, so to speak. It matters only what I read, heard, imagined, related to, and pondered for my own life. That is art. In Dickinson’s poetry, I heard my secrets. She was subversive and brilliant in her rebellion against patriarchal society. She fiercely observed life, its light and its darkness, but always with a saving smile and a gentle laugh at her own awkward stumbling.
Several years later, well after my term at Cal Poly and during my third round of graduate school – this time for Library Studies – a Young Adult Fiction course introduced me to writers who created female characters without the social class restrictions of a Jane Eyre. I discovered female characters who actually talked to and interacted with each other, not women characters who existed in isolation from each other like so many of the literary classics I had read and my mother had known. It was thrilling to read stories with women characters who had close, important relationships with other women in addition to their relationships with men. These stories also included girls and women as minor characters who assisted their protagonists in meaningful ways or helped establish a setting. The characters were artists, musicians, motorcycle riders, mothers, healers, water bearers, bookstore owners, birdwatchers, carpenters, dancers, archers, wilderness explorers, knights, Tarot card readers, rock collectors, and other beloved heroines. With vivid hearts and minds, they existed for themselves, not as passive characters whose function was to serve as a mirror to a man, or anyone at all for that matter. They helped me dig deeper to find meaning in my own dreams, desires, goals, quirks, thoughts, emotions, and choices. Consequently, they helped me find my place in a larger narrative of my own life.
“Enjoy your life, Sweetheart.”
During my 60 years of life, the world has felt at times too small, at times too big, and at times perfectly fitted for me. I have done a lot of moving around, running away, exploring, adventuring, cocooning, and homemaking on seven rivers across the country: the Auglaize and the Olentangy in Ohio, the Kern in California, the Columbia in Washington, and the Umpqua, the McKenzie, and the Willamette in Oregon. I have vivid memories of standing on the bank of each river, looking across the water and longing to be on the other side. The meaning is not lost on me: I was not content being right where I was.
But I did what I needed to do, found warmth and love where and how I could, and I made my way. Digging around complex obstacles, I eventually found a deeper understanding of myself and the world. With an excellent education, meaningful work, effective therapy, creative expression, outdoor adventures, and people who took an interest in me without any preconceived notions about me, I rescued myself from the confusion and insecurity that stalked me like darkness through a storm. I looked outside expectations and stepped out from the shadows. It took me a long time to free myself not only from other people’s preconceptions and expectations of me but also from my own false beliefs about myself. I learned to smile again after misfortune and loss and to laugh at my own awkward stumbling. And I learned to do as my father wished in his last words to me before he died, “Enjoy your life, Sweetheart. Enjoy your life.”
With as distinctiveness of imagination, style, personality, behavior, talent, social life, and experience as two people so alike can be, Carole and I made it through our unsteady times and created plentiful opportunities to be our own individuals, with our own hopes, dreams, interests, expression, and relationships. I had to leave Ohio and then California to do that. I needed the Pacific Northwest – trees and a riverbank and a community of women who wore the same comfortable shoes I did. I needed to be where no one knew me. In discovering and loving who I was as a separate person from Carole, I was eventually able to reclaim my joy in twinning with respect and empathy. My wombmate and I became friends.
Carole and I are a lot alike and a lot different, and we often pull against each other like two storytellers telling a different version of the same tale with different rhythms, tone, and memory. We sometimes have instinctive annoyance at hearing the other tell it differently. Trying to tell the story together, we struggle to pick up each other’s threads. We just pull in different ways, sometimes in dismay. But there are also glorious moments when we do tell a story together, with compatible rhythms, tone, and memory, in joyful ease. The key for me is not to try to tell a story like her, but rather to tell it with her.
Today when someone asks me how alike we are, I say, “We’re a lot alike and a lot different. Carole loves the sun and I prefer the moon. Carole is a speed boat ride and I’m a slow float.” Carole loves sunshine scattering all that blue light over a clear cloudless daytime sky, and I love big white and gray clouds passing over that blue sky, covering then uncovering then covering then uncovering the sun. Carole dreams under a sky dotted with bright stars to wish upon. I dream under a watchful moon. Recently, I wrote a piece, “Cherry Blossoms (for my twin sister)” to honor our twinship, our individuality, and our cherished time together. You can read that here, if you like.
“Peace of mind is worth any chore.”
My mother, more than anyone, understood my need to know me for me, not as a twin. In February 2009, ten months before she died, my mother and I had the last of our many honest, rich, and heartwarming conversations about Jo March, Rosalind and Celia, Sylvia Scarlett, Jane Eyre, our family, herself, and Carole and me. With love, she recited a few of the poems and literary passages she had introduced me to when I was a girl tomboy. The quiet and wholehearted voice in which she spoke to both herself and to me moved me. And then she gave me the greatest gift. She talked to me in a tender and brave way that made absolutely clear her personal acceptance and uncanny understanding of my identity and the things I felt I had to do to grow into my true self. I believe she sensed she was on her way out of this life, and she had important things to tell me. In November 2009, she said to me, “Say your prayers. Take your medicine. You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll feel in the morning.” Virginia Helen Bruner Kuck was a remarkable woman and mother. Her love was such good medicine.
My father, with his clumsy humor on my high school graduation day, wasn’t responsible for what was awkward and unwell about me. Neither was my mother, Carole, my singleton siblings, my classmates, my professors, nor anyone else. I needed counseling to help with my issues of twinship (both togetherness and separation), my individual identity, my mild case of gender dysphoria, my sexuality, my doubts about my right to exist, and my anxiety, or what my mother called “the melancholy,” in general. I got the help I needed and figured things out, but it was not a linear process. I learned how to yield to the continuity of life with my accepted losses persisting.
I do wish there had been more resources, more experts for Mrs. Gracely and my mother to turn to – resources to help them help me. But maybe everything happened in its own good time, in its own complicated way, with everyone doing the best they could with what they had at the time.
Indeed, I am no longer where I came from; yet where I came from is still a part of who I am. I still hear faerie music in the wind, just as I heard it as a child in the park across the Auglaize River. I watch the play of shadows cast by moonlight and starlight and no light at all. I listen to the rhythm of the rain and take sanctuary under the branches of trees.
I am still the girl who goes to the river and the woods to re-member myself, to muddy my shoes and find myself in the current and the wild things – to find, change, and rearrange myself in accordance with my own true spirit. It’s in wild places where I can reflect and decipher the riddles of my existence – and here in my home, in my room, reading, writing, and listening to music. As Mary Black sings, “Peace of mind is worth any chore.”
Walking along the magnificent Oregon coast, keeping my head low from the wind and rain and fog, drawing in the ocean air and the sound of miles of sea, I feel the power, vastness, predictability, and unpredictability of the place, and I am at peace. Hiking on a remote forest trail, holding my head high toward the treetops and mountaintops and sky, drawing in the earth scents and the sound of my boots in the dirt, I feel the magic and wonder of the place, and I am at peace. Riding horseback through a field or forest, feeling the strong animal take my legs with the power of a good gallop, letting the long ride turn my day around, I believe anything is possible, and I am at peace. Drifting quietly in a boat on a lake, watching a willow’s reflection on the water change with the wind and the current, the minnows darting past the boat and the songbirds chasing a crow, I feel the memories of all my worlds suddenly turn toward each other and walk to each other, and I am at peace. Swimming in a mountain river, feeling the warm air fly off with each layer of clothing, dipping my feet in first, then my body, then my face, staying in as long as I can, I feel the cold water on my skin and the rush in my heart, and I am alive.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of and miss my mother and father and their most excellent conversation. There are also several dear women and men I cherish in my memory, no matter how brief our time together. Their hospitality, affection, generosity, and love were humbling. So many good people have made a difference in my life these past 60 Octobers. And today I am fortunate to enjoy the good company, humor, wisdom, and grace of dear and cherished friends, near and far. I have also loved several four-leggeds, large and small, including cats, dogs, hamsters, and horses. My life is chock-full of deeply satisfying endings, hopeful beginnings, happy middles, and peaceful transitions – and yes, sadness, complications, worries, and memories I wade through like deep pools. I do not live in books anymore, although I still have a need for literature. My world is real. My mother said to me, “Cheri, you’re braver than you know.” I never asked how she knew. You, too, dear Reader, are braver than you know.
Composed many days and nights from November 2017 through June 2018 – from one month after my 60th birthday to three months before my 61st birthday