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Twenty Months.

Catherine has taken the children down to New York City, stopping there briefly before heading west. I am left alone in the cabin for the last few days of summer. After Labor Day I will join Catherine in Ohio, where we will spend the final month of Catherine’s pregnancy, awaiting the birth of our third child. In theory this interval of a few days gives me a little space and time to write. I find I am much more disciplined about such things now. Though I am working full-time at the plant nursery, and commuting almost two hours a day to get to work, still having just a few hours in the evening is so luxurious, and the chance to sit and think with my words so pleasurable, that I am sure I will be writing and productive.

But the thing I find myself wanting to write is not the book I am working on. I want to write about my family. I want to write about the twins. I want to write about this moment in my life, because I am aware a new chapter has arrived, and everything will change. For the past twenty months it has been just the two of us with our boy and our girl; and there has been a kind of perfection in it, a balance and a symmetry and a completeness that I have noticed again and again. In the pictures of the four of us there I am with a baby, and there is Catherine with a baby; when we sit down to dinner one baby is on my lap, and one on hers. We are the Family Square, and while Catherine and I both like the abundance of a larger family, there is something archetypal and powerful and desirable about what we have now, and I feel it.

Kuhner Family

Having boy-girl twins has made me feel closer to the fact of female and male; I feel it as a kind of pleasure and richness. It so happens that our twins show many typical features of the sexes. John is taller, and heavier, than his sister; his body is thicker and more muscular, and his voice deeper. Picking him up, his stout, powerful little body is a pleasure to feel against mine; but then picking Mary up is another kind of pleasure, she feels light as a feather, more elegant, as if stripped down to essentials. Though in fact only three pounds separate them, everyone who picks them up notices the difference; it is as if she carries her body in a completely different way. Mary has beautiful hair, in a range of shades from tan to yellow to white, curling at the ends; it is one of the most beautiful substances I have ever seen in nature, refined and delicate, like spun sunlight. John’s hair has yet to get off his scalp; one person castigated me for not letting his hair grow the way we let hers grow, as if I was forcing him into a kind of military masculinity. But he’s never had a haircut: it just so happens that right now nature has made her hair long, and his short.

They are fraternal twins, and hence no more similar than any other brother and sister, which is to say, not necessarily all that alike. Mary loves being tickled, being thrown up in the air, and physical proximity: she does not sleep well without another body near hers. She is mercurial and ever-changing: she cries more than John does, but when she is happy – which might be thirty seconds later – she does it with her entire being. When she is really joyous, she throws her mouth open and shuts her eyes with pleasure. It seems harder for John to have such abandon; he smiles when tickled but seems to enjoy also the moment it ends, when he is back in control. People always comment on how serious his face is. He is capable of longer focus than Mary is, and enjoys inspecting the books of Mitsumasa Anno with me, lingering over detail, while Mary tries to grab the book and zoom furiously from page to page.

I have no idea how any of these traits will affect their later life, or if they will at all: I’ve never been this close to any child before, and I don’t know how childhood translates into adulthood. All I know is that I enjoy being with my children, and I am proud of them and love them. I love noticing things about them. Sometimes I dream about where their personalities will bring them, but I try not to read into things too much.

More than one of my contemporaries has told me something like, “John, you’re not going to believe how much you will love them.” But that I love them hasn’t surprised me. I was ready for that, and I have known what it is like to love people. What seems more surprising to me, and what I’m a bit less used to, is how much they love me. When I come home from work, I whistle as I approach the house and they come to the door, shrieking with excitement: “Dada!” At times I find them looking at me with what seem gazes of absolute love and admiration, of a kind I’m not sure I’ve ever received before, not as an adult anyway. I know it will get more complicated later – perhaps in just a few short weeks, with the arrival of the third child – but at twenty months, I feel I can say, “I haven’t messed this up yet.”

I heard another parent of twins say, “I don’t think I remember anything from the first two years – it was all just a blur.” I don’t think that will be the case for me. In fact, it seems like we have made enough memories in these twenty months for two lifetimes. They were born under the eyes of Mennonite midwives, and then Catherine’s family arrived with a big dinner for us, and the two little babes were passed around the great assembly; they snuggled against us all winter, but their senses began to blossom as spring arrived; and then we went to Italy, where they were welcomed and celebrated everywhere. They climbed Giotto’s belltower and rode in a gondola. We held them up to the Capitoline Wolf and let them splash in the Trevi Fountain. They have been to twenty states – have ridden on swampboats with Cajuns, standing at the prow, feeling the wind; have been to a wedding and funeral in Michigan, visited the Pope’s Latinist in Milwaukee, and sat picking flowers in the largest stand of Phacelia in the world during springtime in the Smokies. They’ve played with the gravel on top of the highest mountain in the Catskills. They’ve spent a week in Bushrod Washington’s mansion. They’ve learned to pick their own blackberries, walking to the bushes themselves and (after about two weeks of training) picking the ripe ones, knowing that red, for blackberries, means unripe. They’ve been to the zoo (they liked the bird house most of all) and the aquarium (“Pish!” they cry out, seeing them in the tanks), ridden the subway and been to the Museum of Natural History. They’ve had two weeks where we spoke to them only in Latin. They’ve camped by the Shenandoah and lived in the woods for seasons at a time. Just yesterday they walked an entire mile to a neighbor’s house, all on their own. I could scarcely believe they made it so far. (We did need to be driven back). But we’ve had them walking a lot. They follow trails in the woods, even obscure trails, very well even without my help, and they can follow my lead through the woods precisely – going around a tree when I go around it, touching a rock with their feet if I do it first. When we say grace at dinner they put their hands together to pray (which they love). They’ve been to mass I think every Sunday of their lives, including one Sunday when the Pope said the mass, and then came over afterwards to bless them both (John slept through the whole thing).

Indeed, when I think back on these twenty months, the amazing thing to me is that they won’t remember it – at all. It’s been so memorable. To me it seems like I’ve poured myself into them for the last twenty months like I’ve poured myself into no one else – probably not even my lovers, for though love always desires this kind of self-giving, we adults are not so available and present to each other as children can be. And yet – after giving myself to them as I have given myself to no one else – if I died tomorrow, all my children would ever know of me, in later years, would be a void – an empty place where a father should have been.

“It goes so fast,” every older parent says to me. “You can’t believe how the time flies by.” I have to say, I haven’t experienced the acceleration of time – to me, the past twenty months have seemed to be about twenty months in length. Indeed, I feel almost the opposite: how slow, how deliberate, how graded it all seems, this process of humans growing up. When they were six months old, they were little philosophers, who wondered at everything, who saw red and stared fixedly at it, trying to discern what redness was; but then philosophy passed at nine months, and they wanted fun: they wanted levers to pull and buttons to push, they wanted adults to make funny sounds and they wanted to push around toys with wheels. Just now, in the past month, they have a new pleasure, the pleasure of words, and knowing what things are: we walk down the driveway and, “Mud!” they exclaim, or “Rock!” Their emotional intelligence also continues to grow: they console each other now, and offer each other things; but there is so much more complexity – decades more of it – awaiting us. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly fast about the process.

But the slow pace of human growing makes it all the more suited for savoring. My mother told me this many times: “You don’t really remember your own childhood; the time you really enjoy childhood and understand it is as a parent.” In the past two weeks, I have been at times alarmed by how much time I have been spending in the blackberry patch – where they want to go pretty much all the time. But it is beautiful to be there with them: probably an economist could come tell me that since blackberries are cheap at ShopRite, I should just buy the kids a few packages of them and go do something more productive. But the economist is wrong. In fact, as I was doing it the other day, I wondered which writers would understand the importance of going out with your children to pick blackberries. Henry David Thoreau, preeminently. Vergil. Homer. Wendell Berry. Probably Dickens. But not many others. Most have had better things to do than attend to little children.

At times, of course, enjoying it all is difficult. There is a lot of work, and it takes a toll. We presume the workload is quite a bit worse with twins – we certainly find having only one child to be pretty easy, in comparison. Looking at pictures of the birth just last night, Catherine shook her head and said, “We looked so much younger then – and that was only a year and a half ago!” I didn’t want to say it, but I was thinking the same thing. We both have a slightly battered look now. Mary in particular is a bad sleeper, and I find myself walking through the woods to get her to sleep (which works, but sometimes, at the end of the day, feels very burdensome). Both are still nursing, and Catherine is committed to weaning them naturally – i.e., whenever they lose interest in nursing. But that shows no sign of happening, and it has grown increasingly taxing on Catherine. I have worried more about money in the past twenty months than in the previous forty years. When I think of all the diapers changed, the putting pajamas on screaming kids, feeding them meal after meal and snack after snack, the constant effort to keep them happy and entertained and learning, the time spent teaching them manners and empathy, the broken dishes, the unexpected messes, the wailing and crying as if it was incumbent on them to mourn for all the grief of the world, the lugging them and their things, cleaning and bathing and everything else – it becomes clear to me that all of us, myself included, are living lives of the basest ingratitude toward our parents. It is an absolutely unpayable debt, and we live in complete ignorance of it until we have children ourselves.

But as parents it is useless to think that way. Raising children has to be its own reward, and indeed it is. God perhaps, or Nature I suppose, gives us this feeling: indeed I feel grateful to my children for the time I have been able to spend with them. I think they are beautiful, and for whatever reason – call it superficiality – I love to be around beauty. I also think they are wonderfully made; I think they understand far more than most people believe, and they respond to intelligent, mature treatment – as long as you understand their limitations. In fact, I am impressed at how energy and ingenuity are rewarded in parenting, perhaps more than in any other field: reasonable, well-expressed excuses are useless with toddlers. But energetic ingenuity can make a day with a toddler a wonderful thing. Sitting at a table in a restaurant for fifteen minutes waiting for your meal, can you turn that one napkin in front of you into an endless source of amusement? Or will you just sit there patiently and wait for them to start throwing the silverware onto the floor? You learn the art of changing the topic – as they reach for the fork, you cry out, “Look at that birdie outside the window!” And as immature and as annoying as they can be at times, they are still well made. Walking with a crying baby in the woods, if I pull up short as if in alarm, they instantly – instantly – become silent, and look where I am looking, to find the danger.

Goethe wrote a most excellent novel called Elective Affinities, based on a set of chemical experiments he had been party to, which showed that two stable compounds, when put in each other’s presence, could each break apart and recombine, as if the elements involved saw a better partner for themselves and elected to take the opportunity. He uses this as a metaphor to explore marriage, personal connection, and, ultimately, fidelity and infidelity. A similar principle is at work with any new addition to a community: all the old relationships are changed by the new presence. We don’t know how the new child will affect our family life: all we know is that things will change. But I feel grateful to all involved – to Catherine, to our twins, to God – for what we have had so far.

3 Comments

  1. Kim

    Beautiful words John. May the adventure continue.

    Posted on 01-Sep-17 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Otilia kloos

    Correct: grace for everything we hold; we cannot wait for others to show us the way, we live the mystery of life, as long as we do not know how the Savior ‘ S presence on this earth affected our species; thank you for sharing.

    Posted on 03-Sep-17 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  3. Lea Schneider

    Such an inspiring, expansive, insightful sharing of thoughts and feelings. It fills me with new thankfulness and awe of God’s creation of all things and relationships. Thank you.

    Posted on 10-Sep-17 at 11:28 pm | Permalink