Happy Birthday to the Best “Almost-Twin” Ever

Jul 23, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Bob, Mary, Cindy. Backyard. My “twin” has her hand on me. Always looking out for her goofy little brother. (Click on any image to enlarge).

Saturday is my sister Mary’s birthday. On July 25, 1955 our mother Taffy gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl. All was right with the world. That gave my parents four kids, two boys and two girls, and they had artfully spaced out the births to make things easier around the house for my mom, who had to handle nearly everything for as much as eight or nine months a year when my dad was gone to play, coach, or manage baseball. Each child was three or four years separated in terms of birth order. Del Jr., Rick, Cindy, and Mary. It was all good.

Then, just a couple of months after Mary was born, my mom found out she was expecting again. By “expecting” I mean pregnant. She surely wasn’t actually expecting to be in such a state, and it’s funny that the word can be used in both senses there. The next June, on the 19th, I was born. Just 11 months younger than Mary. There was a colloquialism about such back-to back births at the time. We were called “Irish Twins” and I can only assume that referred to the fact or myth that those fun-loving Irish Catholic folks produced a lot of kids. Whatever you called us, we were so close in age we were everything up to but not quite actual twins.

We grew up together. We shared baths for years and when we became a little too big to do that we shared bath water. Guess who got the cool dirty water? I got used to it.

At the tail end of the group of siblings, we were our own little sub-unit of the Wilber family. Cindy wasn’t too much older, born in 1951, but Rick and Del were both senior enough to be a bit detached from us. We got to see them play high school football as if they were men, not boys. We watched them both go off to Big 10 schools to play quarterback. Cindy cooked for us a lot, and pushed us to try new things, like the guitar (FAIL) and art, whether it be pastels, pencils, or water colors (again, FAIL) but Mary and I found ways to keep each other company, keep each other laughing, and keep each other sane (to some degree.) By no means were those art failures Cindy’s fault. She tried. She was creative. She was a phenomenal big sister. But we just didn’t have the natural inclination (also known as talent) to succeed in those pursuits.

We were very different. I was the same insomniac as a kid as I have been for most of my life. She went to bed, put her head on the pillow, and fell asleep. That always irritated the hell out of me. I was sick all the time, and pretty frail for many years. She was as healthy as any kid could be, while also being strong and athletic. I was a goofball. She was a bit reserved around anyone but me. She was “right down the middle” smart, good at all subjects when we went through Mary Queen of Peace grade school. I was generally hopeless at math and science but a bit of a prodigy in terms of creativity, writing, and other such pursuits.

I might have been 14 before I ever beat her at H-O-R-S-E

We rode the school bus together for many years, having to cut through our backyard to walk up to the corner of Woodlawn and Quan to wait for it, whether it was raining, snowing, or single-digits. We sat on Santa’s lap each year as little kids, and accompanied our mom to the various Stix, Baer & Fuller or Famous-Barr department stores around St. Louis. Once there, Mom would head off to do what moms do and Mary and I would invade the toy department. She’d look at the Barbie dolls and I’d scour the shelves for a new battery-operated tank or a cool new plastic army helmet.

In a lot of ways, we helped raise each other. But that wasn’t a 50/50 proposition. She definitely looked out for her little brother. She guarded me, taught me, and protected me. I tried to keep her laughing.

Each year, just like this one, I’d catch up to her in age on June 19, but every time I tied the score she’d take the lead again on July 25. Her record for doing that is remarkable. She’s the Lou Gehrig of older sisters.

We played basketball in the driveway, under a solitary spotlight mounted on the front of the house on Woodleaf Court, until they made us come inside. On warm nights, we’d lay in the grass and stare skyward to marvel at the uncountable number of stars.

We played kickball in the street with other kids from around the neighborhood, but that group was always in flux and changing. There were only a few other kids, in all of our years in that house, who were our age or anything close to it. When we were very young, we were fortunate enough to have some teenage girls on Woodleaf Court, who were great babysitters with a wide selection of Doctor Seuss books to keep us occupied. When we entered our pre-teens and teens, the demographic of the street changed to younger families with much younger kids. Mary made a small living looking after those children just as we’d been looked after ourselves when we were younger.

Sheesh… High School

We were cursed by only one thing: Our birth order. Had I been the fourth and Mary the fifth, we would’ve had no problem introducing each other to suitable friends once that sort of thing became interesting. As it was, few of her high school friends wanted to date a boy who was a year younger, and most of my friends were intimidated by girls a year older. We made it work a few times, at least for a while.

High school was a really important time for us. Mary went off to St. Joseph’s Academy when I was in eighth grade at MQP. I was on my own at school, but I lived vicariously through her stories about what the next level was like. St. Joe’s was an all-girls Catholic school, and I was determined to follow my brothers to St. Louis U. High, an all-boys Jesuit institution. The two experiences were parallel in many ways.

Because of how close we were, that cursed birth order, and the fact we both went to gender-specific high schools, we often had no social life in terms of same-age kids of the opposite sex. So, we did what Mary and I always did. We kept each other company. We used to say we “dated each other” for much of that time. Movies, miniature golf, tacos, pizza, or sports events. We did most of that together.

Whether it was long walks to explore the woods that still existed in Kirkwood then, epic kickball or “kick the can” games in the street, or nightly “bike cruises” around the tiny cul de sac with whatever neighbor kids were of bike-riding age during any particular summer, we were more than siblings. We were partners. And she still looked out for me.

Once Mary turned 16, and inherited big sister Cindy’s tiny Austin-Healey Sprite convertible, we could add “going for drives” to the list, and we did that almost nonstop. If you traveled west on Manchester Road, the main east/west thoroughfare that ran from downtown St. Louis to well out in the country (we lived only a short distance down Woodlawn to get to Manchester) you’d eventually leave the suburbs behind and arrive at Rockwoods Reservation, a sprawling natural park with winding roads, caves to explore, and walking trails. We must have gone out to Rockwoods five times a summer.

We’d drive out to Lambert International Airport just to hang out there. Coming from a family that traveled so much, airplanes and trains were part of our DNA. We just enjoyed hanging out at the airport. You could do that then. You could even walk down the concourse and look at the arriving passengers as they deplaned. Where did they come from? What is life like there? Why are they here? The questions were endless.

By then, there were numerous malls around us out in the westside suburbs. West County Mall on Manchester Road sat on the same property where the Manchester Drive-In had once flourished. We saw our first movie at that Drive-In, with Mom and Dad, when we were very young. It was the original version of “101 Dalmations.” Crestwood Mall, to the south of us a bit in Sunset Hills, was also a go-to. We could hang out at those places for hours. I’d wear my SLUH letter jacket, too.

Then Mary graduated from St. Joe’s and it all entered an entirely new phase. It really was a “coming of age” moment for both of us. Childhood and the precocious young teen years were behind us.

Mary wasn’t sure where she was going to college, but then she heard that the University of Evansville offered a one-year exchange program with a sister school in England. The rule, at the time, was that you had to enroll at Evansville (that’s in Indiana) for at least a year before you could take advantage of the exchange program, but somehow Mary and my mom managed to get around that. My mom was good at that sort of stuff. She knew how to negotiate. She and my dad got Cindy into Georgetown University as part of the school’s first class that allowed girls, back then. Senators and governors were involved in the endorsement plan.

Anyway, Mary went off to England. I was a senior at SLUH. I really truly missed her. I was 18 and for the first time in my life I didn’t have my “twin” sister around. I sent her letters. I made tapes and sent those to her. But all we could do was correspond by mail. Snail mail. It took a long time for those letters to get from England to Kirkwood, and vice-versa.

Also, somehow my folks thought it would be fine if they traded in Mary’s Austin-Healey to get a new car for me. I mean, she was all the way across the Atlantic and they always thought that tiny car was dangerous, so why not? I ended up with a brand new powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle. Mary ended up hitchhiking around England.

And she met a guy. A tall Scottish musician named Alan Learmonth. He was dashing, funny, smart as hell, and from Scotland. What’s not to love? Well, that last word is appropriate because they fell in love. Alan came back to St. Louis with Mary after her schooling was over, and they got married at the historic Old Cathedral in downtown St. Louis, right on the same grounds as the Gateway Arch. Alan wore a formal kilt. A bagpiper played instead of an organist. Stan Musial and other former Cardinals were there.

Soon thereafter, they ended up moving back across the ocean, to the tiny seaside village of Arbroath. They had two children, and named them suitably as Scottish kids. Rhiannon and Ewan.

After a few years, for whatever reasons (definitely including home-sickness, I’m sure) Mary and Alan split up, got divorced, and she brought the kids back to St. Louis. It was a really hard time for her, and she spent a lot of it over in Edwardsville where I was going to college at SIUE. She met a cool guy named Lonnie Smith, who played tennis and came from a small town in central Illinois. That blossomed, Lonnie became one of us, and they got married. Kimberly, Leigh, and Lauren soon rounded out the family.

Mary is clearly dressed for Halloween. This was a great time in our lives.

Those were halcyon days for Mary, in many ways. She and Lonnie found a great ranch-style brick home in a fabulous neighborhood in the suburb of Creve Coeur, just north and west of Kirkwood. The best part of the home was the fact it was actually the caretaker’s house for a small park that had three tennis courts. They could live there rent-free if they oversaw the park and kept things cleaned and organized. It was a heck of a way for the kids to grow up, and Lonnie turned me into a tennis player. He was a great player, and I was terrible. The best way to get better at any one-on-one sport is to play against someone way better than you. That’s great for the student, but not so much for the teacher. Lonnie was fantastic, though. And by the end of one summer he had me playing real tennis. I even came within one shot of taking a set from him once, but I choked and hit the overhead into the net.

Mares (that’s what we all still call her) and I spent so much time together then. It was marvelous in a whole new way. I became so close to the kids, and enjoyed being around the Smith family as often as possible. What was possible was a challenge, because I was traveling almost constantly, first as a baseball scout for the Blue Jays and then as a rep for Converse Shoes. But, whenever I was home you’d likely find me at the Smith abode, tennis rackets in hand. Between the fact that brother Del was president of a racket company called Snauwaert at the time, and I had access to all the Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert Converse tennis shoes we’d need, we were pretty decked out. (To this day Lonnie complains to me that I never should’ve left Converse because the limitless shoes were such a benefit for guys who played as much as we did.) My parents also adored Lonnie and all five little Smiths, and holidays were often celebrated in that brick ranch home by the park.

At one point, as the kids progressed through Creve Coeur schools, the upscale suburb didn’t suit them as well. Lonnie felt the pull to move back to his original neck of the woods, and Mary agreed. They left the park and tennis courts behind and moved to Carlinville, Illinois in a stately old home. It was a wonderful place for the kids, and Lonnie’s career with Diebold was taking him places. It was just hard to get up there to see them very often.

By then Ewan had sprouted to about 6-foot-9 and was a great high school basketball player. So they decided to move to nearby Shelbyville, where the school had a better basketball program, in the hope college recruiters might see him play and be interested. To this day I’m stunned and amazed by how easily the other kids made that transition from Carlinville to a cool old farm house in Shelbyville. They were, and remain, a phenomenally close-knit group. They just pulled together and made it happen. I wonder who instilled that sort of maturity in them… ┬áMaybe their mom? I’m sure of it.

Lonnie was winning all sorts of performance awards at Diebold by then, and those often included all-expense paid trips to various islands in Hawaii. Mary and Lon loved those trips, and eventually settled on Kauai as being their true vision of paradise. All five kids grew up, became wonderful adults with different pursuits and interests but an unbreakable bond as siblings. You will not find better “kids” anywhere. And Rhiannon and Ewan have long since reconnected with Alan and his two girls, Eve and Rachel, getting to know and love their half-sisters and establishing a new bond with their dad. It’s all good.

After moving to Florida for many years, originally near Orlando and then in Sarasota where both Mary and Lon were real estate agents and where Mary became the primary point-person who oversaw the care given to our mom and dad as they declined in health at the end of their lives, it was time to put it all behind them. They had bought a small condo in Kapaa, on Kauai, sight unseen and fixed it up enough to make it a rental property.

They then decided to sell or give away nearly everything, packed two bags each, and moved to the condo. They renovated it to their style, and have been there ever since. It’s paradise. They are the most popular people in Kapaa. I know this for a fact. I’ve seen it and experienced it myself.

Happy New Year on Kauai, from a few years back.

And with that, Mary and I have had a much deserved renaissance after so many years apart. We still don’t get to see each other enough (this year’s trip had to be cancelled due to Covid-19) but we correspond a lot and talk on the phone. When we are together, over there in paradise, it’s as if we’re still in high school. The bond is unbreakable.

When I’m there, or when Barbara and I make Kauai our preferred vacation destination, Mary and I can sit and talk for hours, never having a moment when you’re searching for how to keep the conversation going. We’re still “Irish Twins.”

We walk the trails, visit their favorite joints, drive around the island with Lonnie at the wheel, from the “end of the road” in the north, past Hanalei, to the “end of the road” in the west, beyond Waimea and Kekaha. (See, Mary and I still like to go for drives, just like visiting Rockwoods Reservation in the Sprite.) We whale watch. We relax in a way you just can’t relax anywhere else.

So, it’s a big birthday for my sister. I won’t spill the beans but I just turned 64 and the math isn’t that hard, even for me.

I wish I could be there to celebrate with her. I wish this virus hadn’t squashed our plans from earlier this spring.

Mary just a few weeks ago, sporting her Covid quarantine “long” hair.

Happy Birthday to the smartest, kindest, most compassionate, most fearless, and most fun-loving sister any guy could ever have. And thank you for looking out for me for so long.

Love you, Sis!

Writer’s Comment: None of this is hyperbole. If anything, it understates just how amazing Mary is. She’s one of a kind. She’s an incredible sister, and a phenomenal mother and wife. And she’s my “twin” forever.

I’ll see you all next week for yet another blog installment.

As always, if you just finished this blog and found it even the least bit entertaining, please click on the “Like” button below. That might kind of signify that you like Mary Smith, my Irish Twin.

Bob Wilber, at your service and missing my sister.

 

 

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