by Jennifer Margulis
This essay first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.
“My nieces!” my twin sister, Nenny, squeals when she sees my daughters. “C’mon over here and give me some sugar!”
Hannah, who is 5, and Elizabeth, 3, rush into Nenny’s arms and hug her tightly, giggling.
Nenny is bold, sassy, and sweet. She talks loudly in a Southern accent and looks exactly like me. But she acts very differently.
While I insist on whole grains and healthy snacks, Nenny lets my girls eat junk food. While I eschew makeup, Nenny wears loads of beauty products and is happy to share them with my daughters. While I’m something of a tomboy, Nenny swaggers her hips like Mae West and is petrified of spiders. My girls love her.
I don’t really have a twin sister.
“Mommy, can Nenny put us to bed tonight, please?” Hannah and Elizabeth beg.
“I’ll go see if I can find her,” I answer agreeably on a good night. I walk through the house calling, “Nenny, oh, Nen-ny!”
Then I go outside and stand on the porch in the cold and ring the doorbell. In the moment it takes for Hannah to answer the door, I shed my mommy self. Gone are the impatience and short temper; the frumpy, spit-up stained clothes; the bags under my eyes; and the feeling that there is little in the world outside my small family.
When I walk into the house as Nenny I’m not annoyed by the toys strewn all over the living room or the crayon scribbles on the coffee table. After all, I don’t really live here, I’m just passing through.
“Your mama told me to get your teeth all brushed,” Nenny says, “and then I reckon I have jus’ enough time to give y’all a manicure and a pedicure and then skedaddle on to the restaurant because I don’t want to keep Hank waiting, now do I?”
Nenny has a busy social life and a penchant for fine dining. She is glamorous, well dressed, and fiercely single.
“Brother-in-law, oh, brother-in-law, yoo-hoo!” Nenny calls to my husband as she comes in.
Unlike my children, James doesn’t immediately warm up to Nenny. He rolls his eyes at her, though he does allow her, grudgingly, to kiss the air beside each of his cheeks.
The girls giggle through their teeth brushing, jump into their pajamas, and sit on the bed wiggling in delicious anticipation.
“May I have a manicure, a pedicure, and a makeover?” Hannah asks politely.
“Me too!” shouts Elizabeth.
I – I mean Nenny – pretends to put lipstick, blush, mascara, and eye shadow on my daughters’ unblemished skin. Nenny polishes their toes and fingernails in the colors they request.
“Blue, yellow, pink, purple, and pink,” Elizabeth says as she touches each fingernail to specify where each color should go.
We talk. They tell Nenny secrets that they don’t tell their mother, and Nenny regales them with stories of her boyfriends, cruises, and the high life.
“It’s 20 to eight,” James calls from the next room, reminding me that it’s way past the girls’ bedtime.
“Oh my,” Nenny responds. “I might be late for my date! I’ll see y’all again soon. Now you be good, y’hear? Mind what your mama tells you to do.”
As abruptly as she comes, Nenny has to leave. Nenny is my alter ego, and as I walk back into the girls’ room as myself I miss her for a minute.
Hannah and Elizabeth excitedly show me their faces, fingers, and toes. They smile happily as I chide Nenny for putting pretend makeup on them.
“That sister,” I scold.
Then we snuggle under the blankets for our bedtime books. A hint of a Southern accent creeps into my voice as I read.