"Margene and Her Brothers"
by Paul Saevig, ‘67
Margene LouRae Kimball was born first, in Latter Day Saints Hospital, Salt Lake City. Immediately her doctors diagnosed her with mild cerebral palsy, and her parents accepted the news with an adamantly positive attitude. Eleven months later the twins came, Verl and Deloy, or Del. They were healthy boys, identical, and nine pounds six ounces each, with thick blond hair already and strong bodies. Well before any of them could speak, the boys adored their sister, would not let her out of their sight, and glared at strangers who approached her.
She was a happy girl with periwinkle eyes, cornsilk hair, broad cheekbones and a warm smile. She picked up the habit of clapping when she was pleased, and because of her disability, could not always bring her hands together flush. That was endearing to the twins and her family.
Mother kept having babies until there were six, and in 1953, Dad accepted a position with his older brother’s moving company in Whittier. His wife Afton was an especially religious woman from the small town of Fairfield, and felt uneasy about the proposition of moving. Her husband Lem promised her they’d return to Salt Lake when they retired, and she trusted him as the best of husbands. They bought a house near the college, a house Margene and the twins loved, like their siblings. But in 1957 with four more babies, they needed a larger home, and found one in Sunny Hills, on Rodeo Drive.
Margene’s speech was difficult to understand and she would need a wheelchair soon. The twins helped her in every way they could, and learned to understand and interpret her garbled speech. She was a pretty girl now who liked to wear colorful shirtwaists and smocks. She watched her siblings play sports and clapped in delight. She even turned out to be a good swimmer as long as she was careful and supervised.
There was a family meeting, by and by, where the older kids and their parents talked about where Margene could continue her education, for she was a smart girl and enjoyed school. Her father mentioned a school for the handicapped in San Bernardino, reluctantly enough, and the others protested anonymously that was way too far. They discussed private tutors, maybe a lady from their church, and then Mother asked about the Catholic high school for girls that recently opened across town.
“She would be required to go to prayers and Mass like the other girls, and take Religion class. But there are a couple other disabled girls there, and quite a few Protestants. The benefit is a first rate education,” Mother said.
While the twins were surprised, Father listened carefully. Margene could live at home that way, keep her neighborhood friends, and be home every day by 2 PM. He’d met the local priest and many Catholics in Kiwanis, Soroptimist and Lions Club lunches, and he could talk to the nun in charge of the school. He and Mother told those present they’d look into the idea.
Verl and Del spilled the beans, though, and Margene cried piteously. Mother held her and persuaded her the school was beautiful, on a hill, with good, kind people. She’d meet new girls and make friends.
The twins were already strapping fourteen year-olds who played junior varsity water polo at Sunny Hills High School. “We won’t let anyone bother you, Genie! Promise!”
Mother invited the nun to dinner the night after next. She was a stocky woman in a brown habit and had a clear, frank face. It turned out she’d earned a master’s degree in secondary education at the University of Chicago before she entered the order. Previously she’d taught in Ecuador, Japan and the Philippines. She was also a Dodgers fan, and both Mother and Father liked her immediately.
Over rainbow trout — because Mother knew Catholics ate fish — Mother Miriam asked Margene what subjects she liked. When Margene answered along with her translating twin brothers, the nun smiled and said, “I taught at a speech pathology clinic for a while, too. You said geography and animals, Margene. Right?”
That response sealed the deal. Marlene attended all her brothers’ water polo matches and swim meets, including some away, and even brought some of her own classmates along. She maintained a B average and became vice president of the Geography Club.
The twins, meanwhile, became exceptional athletes. They were already six feet six inches tall, with the broad shoulders and deep chests of the best swimmers. Verl showed more interest in academics so far, and Del spent more time with his girlfriends, five in four years. About fifty major universities recruited them, and that was a problem for these young men so close to the their families. Margene was usually home first and saw the letters from UC Berkeley, Stanford, San Jose State, Princeton, Texas, UCLA and others. She tried her best not to panic.
The boys spread all the university letters and brochures around their room, with the caps, pennants, pens and other bribery sent. They talked about each place with Margene and listened to her impressions. She resolved to speak objectively, and argued for Stanford.
She saw Verl liked the idea, but would hate to be so far off. Del decided on USC right away, and hinted he planned to join Father’s business some day. That was more palatable to Margene, as USC was only twenty-two miles away, and she could go to his matches.
At first, Mother and Father were dead set on Brigham Young University, but saw the advantages of the California schools. “You don’t have to go to BYU to be a Mormon,” Mother said, surprising Father as always.
So it all worked out, and Verl went on to medical school at USC. His twin Del studied for a Master’s in Business Administration there, and joined Uncle Durwood’s moving company as assistant general manager. Margene lived in her family home and pursued her interest in geography, animals, and in a sequence, an organization to save wild horses, whales, Surfrider, creating websites, and online troubleshooting. The family had a weekend home in San Clemente and they often met there, too.
Time passed. Verl accepted a position as an Obstetrician/Gynecologist at St. Jude in Fullerton. He chose a home on Avolencia for his family and his wife Alma bore four daughters. Del eventually became president of the moving company, sold it to Bekins for $27M, and surfed every day, although he lived with his family on North Richman Knoll. A day never went by that one brother or another didn’t see their sister Margene.
Yet experience changes thinking. Soon after entering Stanford, Verl began to question the Republican Party and their President Richard M. Nixon. With his LDS sense of fair play, he became incensed at Watergate and the various Nixon tapes. By the time he finished medical school in the huge barrio at Lincoln Heights around LA County USC Medical Center, he applied for residencies in ghettos across the United States. That was where he wanted to learn what he’d missed. The match system assigned him to the new hospital between Compton and Watts. When his twin Del heard the news, he said, “Verl, are you insane? That’s Jungle Country!”
They were still two big men, and there was clear and present danger in how they glared at each other.
There was a family barbecue the next year in which Verl informed Del the S.D.S. at Stanford held a yearly Fascist of the Year Contest for a penny a vote, and Reagan had won going away for four straight years. By now a millionaire, Del smiled wryly, and an hour later when they played basketball with their younger brothers and nephews, he offered Verl some earth-shaking screens. They fought for rebounds, hacked each other dribbling, and when Verl tried to block Del’s shot and accidentally slapped him hard, others had to separate them before they could throw any blows. Subsequently Father bawled them both out, and they had to shake hands. Fortunately Margene had been in the kitchen with Mother and her sisters. The teenaged nephews even placed bets on who would win a twin fight, and Verl got covered more as someone who still worked out.
A rapprochement came when Del’s wife Sariah found a lump in her breast. She was scared and told Verl her biopsy results before she told her husband. They were positive and Verl guided her through a successful lumpectomy with an oncologist he knew at Hoag Presbyterian in Newport Beach. When Del called him in a paroxysm of scarlet rage, Verl explained this man did more of procedures than anyone else on the coast. He explained everything to his brother, who finally thanked him. Sarah was exultant, and the procedure didn’t even scar her breast.
When Del and Sariah bought a house on Linda Isle, Verl often came down with Alma and Margene. She had a way of bringing them all together, and both twins could impersonate every player on their old Sunny Hills teams, as well as Coach Carhart and Coach Skain and Coach Barnett for good measure. Their reunion committee got wind of their skill, and the Kimball twins performed at the next reunion, to roaring cheers.
Margene enjoyed robust good health, and then someone told Verl she’d acquired a bacterial infection of her lungs. Her family thought a week at St. Jude would resolve the problem, and then after a brief stay at home, she went back in, again and again. The illness stretched to six months, and she grew pale, emaciated, listless and unable to breathe on her own.
Del offered to send her anywhere in the world for treatment, to bring in any specialist anywhere. He worried so badly he had a mild heart attack, and appealed to Verl to “take over”. Verl felt as if he already had, by translating all the medical news and bad news to their family, as hopefully as he could, even when he had to cross his fingers behind his back.
The younger brothers and sisters were no mute witnesses, and some of their family gossip widened. A sister in Laguna Niguel phoned a sister in Palos Verdes Estates while they did their washing, and one said circumspectly that Verl sometimes thought he knew everything. Likable as he was, they were all Reagan conservatives, and agreed his head had been turned at Palo Alto and in Watts. They loved him but with a hitch, and Del could even seem to be the underdog, wealthy as he was, and now with a bad heart, even though he’d been too heavy for a long time. He had his family supporters, Verl, but they lived in San Ramon, Seattle and Rancho Mirage. Three of them had even left the church.
Father and Mother had been spending more time at San Clemente, and came home to stay when Margene got so sick. Mother prayed all the time, and Dad liked to read Zane Gray western novels, even for the fifteenth time. Verl began feeling he was to blame in everyone’s eyes, and at sixty-seven, he reduced his surgical schedule by three-fourths. His own daughters were at Harvard and Columbia, places he worried about. He admitted to his own family doctor that his erections were more and more difficult to sustain. Twice he took Alma to Jackson Browne concerts, went backstage to introduce her, and came away feeling worried about Margene. He could not imagine what would happen if something happened to her.
By the first week in February, she sat up in bed and began eating more. She asked for a book of NY Times crossword puzzles, the hardest of all, and worked her way through them. Her doctors were cautious, but admitted she was improving. Mother and Father’s home turned joyous, and they went to Brea to square dance for the first time in decades. Del and Sariah decorated a room at their home on the bay just for Margene, and she’d have everything she wanted.
On March 1st, the hospital released her, and she wanted a chocolate fudge sundae from Baskin Robbins. Del hired Steve Noonan to come and sing for her, and the home show was a smash. Verl danced with all his nieces and they had to admit he was pretty sharp. The twins came together and hugged with passion, and tears streamed down their faces. Equilibrium and even harmony had returned.
Then Barack Obama was elected President after Del had contributed $75,000 to Romney. Verl could not hide the smile on his face the next Sunday at their usual reunion. Even their father articulated the litany of charges against Obama: that he was born in Kenya, was a Muslim, plotted with the evil Chicago minister, had no experience at all as a leader, was a confirmed Communist and would turn the US into a socialist regime. Verl tried not to get involved and huddled with a niece who wanted to apply at Stanford. Their lawyer brother down from the Oakland Piedmont and their sister the high school economics teacher from Seattle prepared themselves for the ancient type of family bickering over fallacies and misunderstandings, and the three senior vice president brothers gloated to hear a liberal denounced. The younger siblings who paid little or no attention to politics sat silently together looking sad.
“Well .. portrait d'une famille conservatrice mormone,” Arden the San Francisco securities attorney murmured to Verl, who had to smile at the truth of it.
“You’ve got a big mouth, Arden, and you always have!” Del told him, and everyone looked at them.
“Oh, come on, Del,” Madelyn the teacher urged him, “Cool your jets!”
Mother’s voice silenced them all.
“Would you care to translate your remark, Arden? For those of us too ignorant to understand?” she said.
“I just said we’re a typical conservative Mormon family, Mom,” he replied, and summoned arguments he’d use.
“And what’s wrong with that?” Del insisted on knowing.
“Wait, everybody,” Verl began. “We’re a family, always have been, always will be. We don’t have to agree on everything, though. Some of us like Hawaii, others Baja, others Yosemite and Yellowstone. If we all understand that and respect each other — which we do — we don’t have to discuss politics. All right?”
“What bullpuckey!” Del said, and the air in the room suddenly changed.
Each sibling looked at the other he or she respected most, whether Verl or Del or a husband, wife, Mother, Father or another. Fear chilled them all.
Mother rose and walked to the window overlooking Horse Road and Bastanchury below. She picked up the youngest grandchild baby and held her comfortably in her own arms.
“I don’t know what’s happened here,” she began. “We always got along so well. When you kids were little, always. Other families fought — Mormon families, too — but we were peaceful. We always talked. There were no grudges, I didn’t think. Were there?”
“No, Mom!” Margene said, and they mostly understood her. Father looked both stern yet ready to cry.
“When did this bickering start?” Mother said, turning to face them all.
“Well, Verl was always the favorite, long as I remember,” Del claimed.
“What?” Father exclaimed.
“How can you say that, son?” Mother said, and walked right up to Del and jabbed his chest with her finger. “How can you say such a thing? I’m an old lady now, Deloy. You ought to be ashamed!”
Verl stepped forward to hold his mother, and Del pushed him away hard, so hard Verl tripped on his sister Martha’s legs and fell onto the ground, hitting his head. Del’s eyes went wild and everyone else seemed to freeze. Mother pulled herself away and started toward Verl.
He sat up and he had a bloody nose, and there was a small cut on the corner of his forehead. None of them had ever seen the twins fight, not physically, not with their fists. The only times were when they wrestled before they were seven years old.
Del stood his ground, raised his fists to belt level, and stared at Verl with a cold, hateful face. Two more of the sisters pleaded with him to sit down and he ignored them.
Verl rose slowly and accepted a handkerchief from his brother Arden. The cut would not require stitches. He did not look at his brother Del until he’d sat down on the couch himself, between his sister Martha and Madelyn. Then he looked up with an expression of kindness for Del.
“Nothing’s going to happen, Del. It’s all right here. It’s your home and I’ll leave if you ask me, though. I’d really prefer to stay and see everybody,” Verl told him.
Del stared and seemed to think it over. Still no one spoke.
“I honestly don’t think I was the favorite, Del. If you think so, we can talk about it. I’m sorry if you do, because that was the last thing on anyone’s mind. We all love you and a lot, always did. Please don’t think that,” Verl added.
More and more of the others were bold enough to nod their agreement, and Del stood where he was, staring at Verl. He looked dead tired, and now confused. Then he turned on his heel abruptly and walked outside. They saw him leave the patio and throw a ball for the dog. When he didn't look back, Margene started crying. Verl and his sisters held her hands.
The weekly reunion continued, more quietly and without its usual good cheer. Very talked to his father about properties in Utah, because Father had decided to move back.
“Will Margene go with you?” he asked.
“Don’t know that yet,” Father said.
For a while, Verl and his wife missed some of the reunions, because it would be more peaceful that way. Most of the family members were conservatives, after all. Even so, they seldom talked about politics much, and mostly about childcare, babies and children, vacations, movies and TV shows. He missed all that.
The next year he retired once and for all, and sold his practice. He’d planned in advance to stay busy, and had already begun to study Plein Air painting. He helped coach water polo at Sunny Hills High School, and enjoyed the difference in the kids. If he missed medicine, he remembered the paper work and the insurance companies.
He was as surprised as anyone when Donald Trump was elected president, and tried to be optimistic about it. He figured the office changed a man, and Trump would have to conform and be like his predecessors. His brother Arden told him Del donated $100,000 to the Trump campaign, and met the man several times. Verl shrugged it off. Del was Del.
Of course there were many other things to think about. Verl read on his high school alumni website that already eight guys on the Key Club with him had already died. His sister Madelyn’s husband got killed by a drunk driver up on Seattle, just like that.
Mother told Father they were too old to go back to Utah now and he was secretly glad to agree. They loved the ocean, and most of the kids were here, and they’d miss their friends. But at 3 AM the second Sunday in July, Father had a pulmonary embolism and died in a minute. He’d been 92 years old.
Verl and his wife invited Mother and Margene to live at their house after the services and burial in Salt Lake. Margene spoke less now, and read nothing except church books. She’d watch Dodger games on cable with Verl, but it didn't seem to please her like in the old days.
He asked her if there were anywhere in the world she’d like to visit, and he’d take her. She thought for a long time before she said, “No. But I would like to see you and Del be friends again.”
“So would I,” Verl admitted. He talked to his twin on the phone sometimes now, always about sports or real estate or family, never anything more. They spoke as old friends, but not necessarily any more, Verl feared.
The day came when Del’s youngest grandchild played his first Little League game, and Verl made sure to be there with Margene and some of the others. Sure enough the boy was blonde and muscular, just like his grandfather and great uncle, and he even had a cocky way of walking around on the field. His name was Ralph and he played center field, batted cleanup.
Del and the family sat under umbrellas at tables behind third, drank iced tea and lemonade. Verl and his twin did not have to remind each other of the Little League games they played at Lion’s Field the year it was built, so many years ago. From moment to moment, they experienced deja vu.
Young Ralph caught fly balls gracefully and scooped up ground balls clearly, with a good throwing arm. Verl sensed Del’s pride and felt it himself. He could even forget their differences for a moment or two.
When Ralph stepped up to the plate in the first inning and on a 2 and 1 count, stroked a line drive home run to right field, Verl and Del leaped up themselves like seven year-olds to hug each other and exchange High Fives. They smiled at how the boy ran the bases, just like a modest Big League slugger.
He hit two more doubles and a second home run in the 6th, and his team won 12-9. He ran up to his Great Aunt Margene and presented her with what he said was the game ball. They all felt surging family pride inside themselves.
Back at North Richman Knoll, four of their sisters had prepared an old fashioned fried chicken dinner with corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, whole wheat biscuits, melted butter and honey or jam, coleslaw, dill pickles, and a choice of boysenberry, apple, peach or rhubarb pies or chocolate brownies. With the sun setting, they all ate outside, and someone had the idea they should sing. There were three siblings — two sisters and a brother — with enough confidence in their singing voices to begin a series of Beatles songs, and they all joined in, even Verl who was tone deaf.
They sang though desert and coffee, they sang like a bunch of loons, as another family might say. Even the weakest singers took solos, and when keys slipped, they celebrated with laughter. Margie seemed to love it most of all, and tried with her unsure arms to wave time. They sang until they all wept with humor, and then started slowly inside.
What happened next was cat-quick and banal.
As they crossed the patio and entered the living room screen door, the full screen color television played a video of President Trump on the White House lawn. Del grabbed Verl around the neck and said, “There’s your guy, The Commander in Chief!”, not meaning anything rude. Verl reacted with instinct, however, and threw his twin brother Del onto the carpet where he rolled against a cabinet and stopped.
Margene wheeled herself to him so fast she lost her balance and fell herself. Verl got down to help Del up and apologized with tears on his own face. He knew he’d gone far too far.
Del told him with a shaky voice to get out and never come back. He spoke with such wrath and indignity his lips quivered. Verl had no excuse except long repulsion for what he’d done, and had no alternative but to obey. He walked by himself down past the trail and up the hill to Avolencia, where he sat down by himself by the gazebo and held his head in his hands.
Alma gave him a full hour before she walked out to join him with a bottle of Bianchi wine and two glasses. They talked quietly a while and came inside. They ate scrambled eggs with Greek cheese and started to watch a PBS special.
Exactly one hour later, Del’s wife Sariah called, and Verl answered by habit. She told him his sister Margene had rolled her wheelchair into the deep end of the swimming pool and drowned. No one had been able to resuscitate her. She was so sorry.
Verl was seventy-one years old, and Del six minutes younger. Their sadness had just begun.