My mother was young, poor, and single, and thus unaware that she was carrying twins—my sister and me—until the startled doctor discovered my sister, patiently waiting her turn to be born while the nurse was already swaddling me. While she handed me into my mother’s arms, the doctor said, “Good Lord, there’s another one,” and Jolene slipped weakly into the world.
I was squawking, demanding food, love, attention at my mother’s breast. So enamored was she of my dark curls, my tiny fists, that she was hardly aware of the doctor and nurse rubbing Jolene’s tiny chest and tapping the bottoms of her feet, hoping that she’d pink up some from the dusky blue shade she was born with.
Of course I don’t remember this, but the story has been told all my life; the delivery room nurse was my mother’s Aunt Sue. That my mother’s scandalous pregnancy should result in unexpected twins made for tremendous storytelling potential, all the richer for the differences between Jolene and me.
From that very first day, it was apparent that I had enjoyed more than my share of our maternal nourishment. I was a vigorous, lusty baby with chubby arms and legs and pretty pink skin. Jolene was scrawny, pale, and listless. I seemed to have been blessed with every genetic advantage. Poor little Jolene’s unfortunate appearance endeared her to no one—particularly our mother, who preferred to snuggle me, and often had to be reminded of Jolene, silent in her cradle.
“Isn’t Jasmine just the cutest little thing?” was the theme of our childhood. At the grocery store, the nursery school, the playground—my mother would present her identically dressed twins, delighting as new acquaintances looked from me to Jolene with mild astonishment. How her two girls could look so much the same and yet so unmistakably different was a source of constant amusement for our mother.
“Are they twins?” would come the question, and mother would clap her hands and laugh.
“Of course they are—but they’re not identical!”
Here is the litany of our differences, made greater through the passage of many years: my blessings, Jolene’s misfortunes. My hair is full and shiny; Jolene’s is coarse and dull. My eyes, an unusual golden green; Jolene’s, a similar shade of green but flecked with gray. My nose—slender, slightly upturned; Jolene’s—ever-so-slightly broader. I am tall, slim, graceful. Jolene is as tall as I am, but ironically the years have thickened her figure, and she walks with a kind of graceless plodding.
Jasmine and Jolene—I even got the prettier name.
Our school years were exactly what you would expect. I was the teacher’s pet, the cheerleader, the homecoming queen. My looks and charm I leveraged for grades, or I copied Jolene’s papers without her permission. Have I said that Jolene was as intelligent as I? Perhaps more so—her one saving grace (and mine, especially in algebra).
All of my life, I have used my beauty for gain: for grades, men, career advancement, cars, jewels. People willingly throw such things at a pretty face, a shapely body.
I hate it all.
When I look at Jolene, with her chubby, balding husband and her tousled children, in their tiny parsonage—laughing, always laughing—I hate everything I own.
Here’s what I think. Some mysterious process in our mother’s toxic womb made Jolene and me to be mirrors for each other’s souls. Jolene is me—when I look at her, I see myself, unmistakably, but with the distortions of my twisted character.
I am not a person of prayer—Jolene seems to have been given all of the inclination toward faith. But if God were to grant me one small grace, it would be that just once, I would be able to use my looks for something good. That Jolene would look in her Jasmine mirror and see the beauty of her own soul.
Jasmine walks up the steps to Jolene’s house and knocks on the door. From inside, she hears the children, the dog, her sister at the piano. The music stops—a child says “Mommy! She’s here!”—and footsteps approach. Jasmine runs her fingers through her hair, tosses her head.
The door opens, and Jasmine is enveloped in an embrace. After several seconds, Jolene pulls away and holds her sister at arm’s length, one hand caressing her hair. “Oh, Jazzy,” she says. “You’re so lovely, so blessed. You get more beautiful every day.”
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