My vacuum cleaner broke, and even I had to admit that it was too old to repair. I bought it in 1991, the year my father died. This wasn’t a coincidence. After our dad’s death, all his children received some money. My twin sister and I were 30 years old. She bought a round-the-world airplane ticket. I bought a vacuum cleaner.
My husband and I had just set up house and we happened to need a vacuum. The saleslady asked a few probing questions and found out that my mother owned a model called the Filter Queen.
“I think I know your mother,” she said, in a thick German accent. She pulled out a model called the Princess and sprinkled sand on the carpet. “Go! Go!” she commanded. “Vacuum! Vacuum!” So I went. I vacuumed. And I left the store with a vacuum cleaner that cost, unbelievably, almost a grand.
Meanwhile, by the time my twin sister got to Australia she found traveling by plane too restrictive. She bailed on the ticket and started finding passage on sailboats, the better to explore the island archipelago of Vanuatu. Over the years she spent time in Indonesia, Thailand and Brazil. She learned languages — Mentawi, Portuguese and a smattering of Thai — and made friends all over the world.
Two decades later she is still traveling. A recent message read, “We have arrived in Pago Pago. That’s not where we were heading. We had a terrible storm and were blown off course. We had to heave-to for three days in force 8-10 winds. Please let Mom know we are here.”
I don’t know what “heave to” means, but I can guess it’s a lot more dangerous than running a vacuum cleaner. And I’m pretty sure force 8-10 winds are a lot scarier than the weather in Portland, Maine. How did we turn out so different — me always nesting — her always flying the nest?
Growing up a twin means being in a never-ending push-me-pull-you turf battle. We lived in the same house, went to the same school, had the same friends. There was no “if” about getting together and no “when.” There was always. We were “the twins.”
Part of me loved the special treatment, the extra trip to the photographer wearing matching outfits on school picture day, even our title: “the twins.” At the same time, my sister and I needed to stake out our own unique turf. Being half of “the twins” meant we had to push and pull a little harder.
From an early age, my sister was horse crazy, and by the time we were in school the occasional pony ride had become regular riding lessons, ultimately on her very own horse. I tried a few lessons but horses were so big and sometimes they kicked. I preferred to stay home and read.
You want horses? “Black Beauty.” You want survival sailing? “Call It Courage.” She could have her horse and then her sailboat. I’d take the couch and then a house. Turf claimed: She was the adventurer and I was the homebody.
Now, whenever people learn I am a twin, they have two questions. First: Are you identical or fraternal? That one’s easy. Fraternal. Second question: Are you close? That one I struggle to answer. Close can mean similar. We aren’t. Close can mean being nearby. Ditto, not.
But no matter how not close my twin sister and I are, I still feel that push-me-pull-you connection. It’s like a rope pulled taut. The length of the rope has gotten longer and longer. It’s unfathomable to me, how long it’s gotten. How far away we are. I can’t say we’re close, not anymore. But I can’t let go.
After the storm with the force 8-10 winds, my sister and her boyfriend sailed to American Samoa, then Tonga, and then charted a course for Vanuatu, the place that marked the beginning of her journey by boat. How long does it take to sail around the world? In my twin’s case, about 20 years, which, as it turned out, was also as long as a Princess vacuum cleaner lasts. Who knew? And who knows what she will do next?
Maybe I should go see her, before her journey ends. All those years, I didn’t go. At first I had a baby, and then a baby and a toddler. And then I just didn’t go.
I try to use the stern voice of the vacuum saleslady. “Go! Go!” I tell myself. “Go see your twin before it’s too late.”
And I think I should. I really should.
If only the house didn’t need cleaning.
Gail Donovan writes novels for children. Her next book, “The Waffler” (Dial Press), is about twins. She is married to Telegram Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich.