A Carlson Septuplets Story
A mini-van bearing a distant state's license plate pulled into a parking space along Main Street. The side door rolled open, and a small boy climbed over a large bag and hopped out. "I am so tired of being in the car!" he cried as he stretched his arms.
"Ohmigosh!" came a squeal from inside the car. A girl jumped out, shoving the boy out of her way. "We're really here! In Westfield, Michigan! I never thought I'd actually get to come here!"
The boy folded his arms and frowned. "It's just some stupid suburb. It isn't even where Aunt Linda lives. I can't believe we had to come out of our way just to see some dumb little town, just because some stupid babies were born here—"
The girl let out a yelp. "Stupid babies?! They're not stupid, and they're not babies anymore either! And today is their birthday! How could we have come through Detroit and not at least driven through here, on July twelfth of all days! This is so cool, I can't believe we came through here today!"
The boy looked around. "It's not like we're going to see them."
"Just to say we were here, though, that's cool enough!"
"Okay then, so we've been here. Can we just get back in the car now?"
"And who was the one who kept asking to get out and take a break all through Ohio?" said their mom, shooting a look at her son, whose name was Brian.
"But we're almost there now...." He shoved his hands in his pockets and sulked.
"So, Stacey, what do you want to do now that we're here?" asked her dad as he looked around. Main Street wasn't very big; cute little shops selling useless knickknacks lined one block along the two-lane road. Beyond that it trailed off into houses.
"Well, there's an ice cream shop up there," said Stacey, pointing. "How about we go and get ice cream in honor of their birthday!"
Her brother looked considerably less sulky at that suggestion.
As the family approached the shop, a blonde lady a plastic bag in each hand hurried out of the door. The light shining through the translucent plastic revealed three individual pints of ice cream in one bag and four in the other. Stacey happened to notice this.
"Hey! Mom!" she said in a loud whisper, tugging on her mom's shoulder. "That lady just bought seven separate containers of ice cream! Maybe she's doing it for their birthday!"
"Really?" Her mom glanced at the woman. "Do you think that's Mrs. Carlson, then?"
Judging by the excited look on Stacey's face, the thought had occurred to her. As the woman walked away, though, she shook her head. "No, on second thought, Robin Carlson has brown hair, not blonde."
A small bell rang as they stepped in the door. A middle-aged man stood behind the ice cream freezer in the front of the store, waiting to scoop ice cream for them. Brian was the first to select a flavor, and after he got his scoop of mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone, he wandered around the small shop, looking at the clippings of newspapers that were framed on the wall.
Laursen's Dairy Voted World's Best Butter Pecan Ice Cream, read one headline. A picture beside the article showed three Asian men in business suits sitting at one of the tables outside, all eating what looked like butter pecan ice cream.
Laursen's Dairy Still Family Run After 45 Years, read another headline. The man who had scooped their ice cream was in the picture next to the article, along with what looked like his wife, and an older looking couple, and five children.
Best of Metro Detroit: Laursen's Butter Pecan Ice Cream. This one had a huge picture of a dish of butter pecan. Well, if they already said it was the world's best, then you'd think Detroit's best would be a given....
He looked at the next article. Laursen's Dairy Opens Main Street Shop. Not particularly interested in any more articles, he was about to go bother his sister some more when he caught a glimpse of the photograph.
Seven little girls, all the same height, all looking just alike, and all eating ice cream cones, stood in front of the shop, with the same guy who had scooped their ice cream.
He blinked at it for a moment. Then he called, "Hey! Stacey! Come see this!"
"What?" She had just received her cone of peanut butter fudge when she noticed the article. "Oh my gosh! That's them! They were here, at this ice cream shop!"
The man behind the counter laughed. "The Carlson girls, you mean? Yeah, they come in here pretty often."
"Really?" Stacey's eyes widened. "This is so cool! Mom, we're at the same ice cream shop that the Carlson Septuplets go to!"
"I take it you've been following the Carlson Septs in the news?" the man asked.
"Oh, yes!" said Stacey, her voice getting louder each time she spoke. "In fact, they were born just a week and a day before I was, so my mom and dad saved a bunch of articles about their birth in my baby book, and we always save everything that's been in the news about them since. Today's their tenth birthday, you know—mine was last week!"
The ice cream man chuckled. "Oh, yes, I remember the day they were born. So many TV people set up trucks in the center of town out there that you couldn't even drive down the street. Ten years ago today...my goodness, time sure does fly."
"Hey!" cried Stacey. She was reading the article and not paying close attention to the ice cream man. "It says here that this is their favorite ice cream shop!"
The man laughed. "Well, I've always been quite proud of that, yes. Peter Carlson grew up in Westfield, you know, and he tells me he's been coming here since he was little. So naturally he brings the girls in, and we do make all of our ice cream ourselves."
"This is so cool!" said Stacey again. "Hey! Would you sign this?" She pulled a scrap of paper out of her pocket. "I tore this out of the USA Today Mom was reading on the way here. It's an article about the Septs turning ten."
The man looked surprised for a moment, but then he smiled and pulled a pen out of his pocket. "I'd be happy to, if an ice cream man's signature is worth anything to you. No one has ever asked me for my autograph before, not even when these articles on the wall came out!" He signed his name, Ronald Laursen, and then Laursen's Ice Cream, Westfield, Michigan just below the text of the article.
Stacey's dad looked at his watch. "I hate to drag you away from such a tourist attraction, but if you want to look around the town any more and still get to Aunt Linda's house to catch that special on TV tonight, then we'd better get going now."
"Oh! Right! There's a special on the Septs on TV tonight, in honor of their birthday," Stacey explained to Mr. Laursen. "We've still got a while to drive before we get there, so I guess we'd better go. Thank you very much for the autograph!"
"Don't mention it. Have a nice time exploring the town!"
"I can't believe it!" Stacey continued as the family filed out the door. "The actual ice cream store that the Carlson Septuplets go to! Maybe that was Robin Carlson with the ice cream after all—"
With another tiny ringing of the bell, the door closed behind them.
The back door swung open and a blonde lady stepped inside, holding two bulging plastic bags triumphantly in the air. "I got the ice cream. All seven pints."
"Oh, Lila, thank you!" cried the woman standing at the kitchen counter as she mixed a bowl of red punch. "I appreciate your help so much."
"It's no problem at all, Robin, really. I'm glad to help."
Three girls, each with the same brown hair and green eyes, came barreling into the kitchen.
"Hey! Did they have all seven flavors we wanted?"
"Even red white and blue pop rock swirl?"
"They always have that at our birthday, left over from the Fourth."
"Yaaaay! We all get our own!"
"Girls, I thought I told you to go get ready! Where are your sisters?"
"Upstairs, I think."
Robin put her hands to her waist and sighed. "Well, at least some of you listen to your mother. You three get up there too, before everyone else gets here. I put some clean clothes I just washed on each of your beds." She picked up a dishtowel and waved it at them, and recognizing the dismissal, the three girls trampled back out of the dining room and up the stairs.
Two of the girls, Megan and Monica, disappeared into their room at the front of the house, while Mary ran for the room at the back. She climbed up on to her top bunk and watched her two roommates as they carefully surveyed the outfits their mother had selected.
"I was afraid Mom was going to make us wear those outfits that Aunt Nancy had made for us," said Molly, picking up the green T-shirt with a yellow stripe and looking at it with approval. "You know, since she's coming today...."
"What, the color-coded ones with the numbers on them? Oh, please, no!" Meredith's voice rose in high-pitched imitation. "Now, line up, children! In number order, please, so I can keep track of you! In fact, let's just use the numbers instead of your names: it's much easier that way!'"
"Oh, come on, guys, she would never say that," said Megan, peeking her head in the door of her sisters' room.
"Why'd she get us those shirts then?" Molly said. She scrunched her face in disgust.
"No kidding!" said Meredith, but she was laughing. "She all but said it already with those iron-on numbers."
"And she did specifically say that she wanted to see us wear them, since she can't tell us apart," Molly added.
Megan smiled, but her expression was pained. "Well, I don't like them either, but you guys are so mean to Aunt Nancy. You know she can't see very well anyway to tell us apart, and it just makes her feel dumb, I think."
"I guess as long as there're no numbers involved, you don't mind being color-coded?" Mary spoke up from her top bunk. She had been watching Molly as she went to the closet and rummaged through some messy shelves, pulling out an indigo blue baseball cap and putting it on backwards.
Molly shot a narrow-eyed look up to the top bunk. "I didn't think anyone else was wearing their hat."
Megan giggled. "That is the hat that goes with your dark blue number '6' t-shirt from Aunt Nancy, isn't it?" Along with their numbered shirts in seven different colors, each of the Septs had received a matching hat.
Molly tried very hard to look annoyed. When the others all just smirked at her, she shrugged. "Well, it's a cool hat. Just so long as you guys don't wear yours so we aren't color-coded—if it's just me, then it's fine. Besides," she said, taking the hat and adjusting it so it was slightly sideways, "I like hats."
Mary and Megan exchanged knowing glances. They had all finished getting dressed in nice, clean, not-at-all matching T-shirts and shorts when they heard the doorbell ring and, a few moments later, their mother shouting, "Girls! Are you ready yet? Come downstairs and say hello!"
All of them were done getting ready except for Melissa, who wanted to make sure she looked extra-special and stood out from her crowd of sisters. She was looking through her room for just the right necklace to go with her bright orange tank top, and only when she had found it did she hurry down the stairs after them.
The living room was crowded with all the guests who had just arrived. Aunt Nancy was among them, and Meredith, Monica, and Megan had crowded dutifully around their great-aunt, who was looking them over carefully when Robin spotted them.
"Oh, Aunt Nancy, hello!" said Robin, giving her aunt a hug. "Melissa! Mary! Molly! Meredith!" she shouted as she spotted the four of them trying to sneak away into the crowd. "Where are you going? Come say hello!" Melissa shrugged and Mary smiled sheepishly, but all four came back.
"Good Lord, Robin," said Aunt Nancy. "I still don't know how can you tell them apart like that. So that means these three are...Megan? Is this Megan?"
"I'm Monica," said Monica politely.
"Monica has pigtails," Megan explained. "I'm Megan, Aunt Nancy."
"Monica," Aunt Nancy repeated. "And Megan." She gave both girls hugs and then looked at the third girl standing beside them. "And if those four left...you must be...wait, don't tell me, Robin! You must be...Michelle! Am I right? Michelle?"
"Yeah! That's me!"
"Ah! See, I got one," Aunt Nancy said triumphantly. "At least I can remember all your names! Don't think that doesn't count for something, with your parents giving you all those 'M' names. No, no, it's very cute, Robin, I love the names, that's not the problem. It's that they all look alike." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Didn't you like those shirts I had made for you? Honestly, girls, how do you expect all these people here to tell you apart? I thought they'd be perfect for a party like this—"
"Molly's wearing the hat you gave her," Michelle observed. Several of the others chimed in with "yeah!" and "she is!" hoping that would get the rest of them off the hook.
"Yeah, I like the hat a lot," Molly said, smiling awkwardly.
"Well, then, I can tell who Molly is, at least!" said Aunt Nancy. She gave Molly a hug, and then picked the hat off Molly's head and turned it so it faced forward and straight. Then looked at the other three she hadn't yet named. "Well, I can't tell the three of you apart at all. Who are you?"
Aunt Nancy shook her head again. "I'm never going to get this! Let's see. Line up!" The Septs exchanged I-can't-believe-she's-really-making-us-do-this looks, but they slowly fell into a line. "So how can I tell these girls apart? Let's see...you said Molly has a hat on. And Monica's wearing pigtails, right?"
"That's right," said Meredith and Melissa.
"And Mary's got a ponytail, and Michelle's got a braid," added Megan.
"Well, that's four of you. How can I keep Melissa and Meredith and Megan straight, then?"
The three indistinguishable ones looked at each other and shrugged.
"See! You need something like separate colors, or numbers, like the shirts I had made for you! How can anyone tell seven ten-year-olds with the same faces and same hair cut into the same brown bangs apart?" She threw up her hands. "And I only see them so rarely, I haven't got a chance! Well, if I want to talk to one of you, I'll just call a name and you girls can figure out who I'm talking to. And I'm never going to remember who it is with the braid and pigtails and such." She shook her head again, and then waved them off. "Shoo! Go play! I'm going to talk to your mother."
All seven girls readily obeyed. They ran off through the festively decorated dining room and onto the back porch, stopping to say hello to more aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way. They could see their cousins playing games in the Carlsons' big back yard. Just as the screen door slammed shut behind them, however, they heard their mother's voice again.
"Girls! Mammoo's here!"
"Mammoo's here!" echoed Megan. The whole bunch of them turned and raced back inside again, followed by a few of their cousins from their mom's side of the family.
A large stack of presents hid the face of the lady who was standing in the Carlsons' front doorway, but they could hear a familiar voice saying, "I only did as much for each of them as I would have done for one if one's all you had."
"But Mom, I told you—"
"Kyle, come and help me with these boxes, won't you?" said the voice, ignoring Robin's lament. Their grandmother's face emerged from behind the box of colorfully wrapped gifts as their cousin Kyle took a stack of boxes off the top. "Girls!" she said once she could see them. "Happy Birthday!"
"Mammoo!" cried all the Septs at once, running over to hug their grandmother. Failing to suppress a smirk, Robin took the boxes from her mother and put them with the other gifts, in a pile in the corner of the living room. The addition made the pile nearly double in size.
"Melissa! Hello!" said Mammoo, giving a hug to the first of her granddaughters she could reach. "Megan, dear, how are you? And Molly—I see you ever week, and it still seems like you've grown six inches every time I see you." She went on with each of the others, and considering the lack of corrections and protests, it seemed she got each of the girls' names right.
"I know they're her grandchildren and not mine, but how she does that I'll never know," said Aunt Nancy, commenting on this aside to various other relations. "Even if she does see them every week."
After Mammoo, a few more relatives arrived, and that completed the guest list. Usually for the Septs' birthday, a few friends from the two schools between which the Septs were split would come by for a party, along with some neighbors—and Mammoo too, of course. This year, however, marked a decade since the Carlson family had been turned upside down by the birth of the world's first and only set of septuplets. That inspired many relatives to hint that they might just be able to squeeze some time out of their busy schedules to come to visit, if by any chance the Carlsons happened to be holding a party. Always one for a family gathering, Robin had decided it would be a wonderful chance for everyone to get to see one another, and declared that she was up to the task of holding a huge family birthday party for her seven daughters. So all the out-of-state aunts and uncles and cousins drove in, and all the in-state ones said how nice it was that the Septs' tenth birthday happened to fall on a Sunday, and they would be able to come, too. (The Septs had invited a few friends as well, though the poor kids had gotten somewhat lost in the crowd.) And so, the Carlson home, already used to being somewhat crowded with its nine residents, was full to bursting with thirty-nine.
Peter, the Septs' dad, spent most of the next hour and a half flipping hot dogs and burgers on the grill in the backyard, while Robin saw to it that everyone had enough lemonade. The mob of cousins ran about the back yard with Super Soakers, blatantly ignoring Aunt Barbara's shouts that they had better stay clean. There were nine cousins, and only siblings seventeen-year-old Paige, fifteen-year-old Virginia, and twelve-year-old Colin were older than the Septuplets; the rest were all boys, all between the ages of 3 and 9. The four girls whom the Septs had invited from their schools hung together on the edge of the yard, watching the mass of little boys drenching each other.
"Isn't anyone else from school coming?" asked Lindsey, looking nervously at the other girls.
"No," said Kimberley. "Just us."
"Hey! Are you sure you don't want a water gun?" Mary said as she ran up to them, her shirt half-soaked, and offered them her neon green and yellow Super Soaker 50. "We have enough for everyone. Kevin and Alex brought a whole bunch of them."
"No thanks. We'll just watch."
Mary shrugged and ran back into the action, chasing after one of the boys.
The four girls sat down in the grass, not saying much to each other. Only Lindsey and Kimberley knew each other; the two of them went to a private elementary academy a few suburbs away with Megan and Monica—Kimberly lived down the street from the Carlsons; her parents always drove Megan and Monica to school along with Kimberley, which helped make Robin and Peter's life a little more manageable—while Sarah went to the local Montessori school with Mary, Molly, and Meredith, and Jenny went to another local independent elementary school with Michelle and Melissa. When Peter finally called the kids over to come get their dinners, the four girls were very relieved, for the Septs sat with them, sprawled on picnic blankets on the ground, while the cousins sat elsewhere.
"So are you guys really going to a different school next year?" Jenny asked as she squirted ketchup onto her hamburger.
"Yeah, we're going to Pennington Elementary," Melissa explained.
"The public school?" Jenny frowned.
Meredith nodded. "Our mom and dad thought we should start going to school all together, before we start middle school."
"Why'd they think that? What's wrong with New Horizons?" New Horizons was where Michelle and Melissa went with Jenny.
Michelle shrugged. "Too expensive, or something." Melissa shot Michelle a sour look. "I mean...we always were going to go to public school eventually," Michelle stammered, "but, uh...mom and dad didn't want us to, at first."
"Well, my parents don't want me to go to public school, either. And they didn't just change their minds."
"Our mom and dad just didn't want us to get too much attention at the public schools," Melissa explained, making it sound very simple and matter-of-fact.
"Yeah, you know, like this kid Brandon at mine and Molly's and Mary's and Sarah's school," Meredith said. "His dad plays for the Tigers, so they didn't want him to go to public school, cause they might give him special attention—you know, bugging him about his dad and stuff."
Jenny looked skeptical. "You think he'd get special attention for being a baseball player's kid?"
"Yeah, cause his dad's famous."
"Well, I've never heard of him."
"Do you follow baseball?"
"The reason our parents didn't want us to go to public school at first," Michelle cut in, speaking firmly and glaring at Melissa and Meredith as she spoke, "was because then we'd all have to go to the same school together and they thought that would be difficult for us, and for the teachers, cause no one can tell us apart. That's all."
"Maybe that's part of it...." Melissa muttered. The group fell quiet. Sarah looked confused while Michelle and Melissa shot quick icy glares back and forth at one another, then looking down at their half-eaten hot dogs and hamburgers. In the silence they could hear the conversation at the next picnic blanket, where the rest of the Septs were sitting with Sarah and Jenny.
"My mom told me you guys were going to be on TV tonight, since it's your birthday," said Lindsey. "Are you really?"
Megan nodded. Monica added, "It's just a birthday special."
"Just a birthday special? What are you talking about? That's so cool! Are we going to get to watch it?"
"Yeah, I think we were going to put it on."
"When is it?"
"Uhh...." Megan looked at her pink plastic wristwatch. "It's at eight. And it's a little after six now...."
"Oh!" cried Lindsey, her eyes widening. "So I can see it before my mom comes to pick me up at nine! That's so cool!"
Mary and Molly exchanged glances. "It's not a big deal," said Molly. "It's just a bunch of boring stuff, really."
Mary nodded. "They spent a lot of time talking about when we were younger—like, babies and toddlers. Only the second half has us when we're older in it. It was really kinda boring."
"All we have of when I was a baby is a book of baby pictures and some cards people sent my mom in the hospital!" said Lindsey. "No one would put that on TV!"
"You should have seen all the trucks that were parked around their house when they filmed part of it here," said Kimberley, who was quite in-the-know as the friend who lived right down the street.
"Are we having cake soon?" asked Megan suddenly, before any more words could come out of Lindsey's open mouth.
Apparently Megan wasn't the only one thinking of sweets, because at that moment they heard Peter call over the noise of the mob of Septuplets and cousins and friends, "Who wants cake and ice cream?" Immediately several of the boys jumped up and ran for the screened-in porch, ready to grab a slice of the enormous sheet cake that was prominently displayed on a folding table. "Hang on, hang on," said the Septs' dad. "We haven't even sung happy birthday and blown out candles yet!"
The Septs heard their cue and filed into the back porch. All the cousins crowded around, eager to get to the cake as soon as it was finally cut, and then all the adults crowded around them, so the porch was holding more people than anyone would have imagined it could. Their dad lit the candles—seven little wax sticks around the large wax numerals "1" and "0"—and then the crowd began to sing.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to...."
Here the chorus singing in unison broke into a cacophony of solos.
"Megan, Melissa, Mary...."
"Molly, Megan...uh...Michelle...and, uh...Molly...."
Their Aunt Barbara's very powerful voice suddenly cried out above the rest, "Now finish it!"
The chorus united for the last line: "Haaaappy biiiiirthdaaaaay to yooou!"
The large crowd of relatives that gathered round the table gave themselves a large round of applause for getting through the song, no matter how badly they did it. Mary giggled, Monica shrugged with a half smile, and Molly rolled her eyes. "We need to have them practice or something."
Melissa nodded. "You'd think after the first nine tries—"
"—that they could get it right!" finished Michelle with a laugh.
"Okay, girls, now blow out your candles!" said their mom. "Spread around the table, can you all reach? That's good, now, on the count of three—one...two...three!"
The Septuplets all took deep breaths, and the ten candles flickered and died in the enormous gust of wind that followed. Everyone cheered again, and a few small camera flashes flickered as the girls stood around the cake and smiled, looking quite pleased.
Peter pushed through the crowd of party guests and disappeared inside through the back door; when he returned to the screened-in back porch a minute later, he was holding five of the individual pints of ice cream in his arms; one of the Septs' cousins followed him with a pint in each of his small hands. "Who wants ice cream with the cake?" shouted Peter over the crowd.
"I want some!"
"Which of you picked the pop rock kind?"
"That was Mary's, it's so gross though, exploding ice cream!"
"You don't like it? It's no grosser than chunks of uncooked cookie dough!"
The sound of a doorbell echoed through the house and out the back door. It was barely audible over all the kids excited discussions of ice cream flavors, but Robin caught it.
"Who could that be?" her daughters heard her asking herself as she made her way carefully through the crowded porch. "Everyone who said they were coming is already here...."
As Peter assembled slices of cake and ice cream for the many cousins who had crowded eagerly around him, his daughters took their paper plates and followed their mom into the house, curious to see who else had come to their birthday party. They listened carefully and heard Robin's voice:
"Look, sir, I'm very busy right now, so if you could please take your truck and leave...."
Both Meredith's and Melissa's eyes widened. They ventured into the living room, and there they saw their mom standing at the front door, frowning. A man they didn't recognize was at the door.
"I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am, it's just that we were told to get a bit the Carlson Septuplets for tonight's local news—"
"Oh, you were, were you?" Robin's eyes narrowed. "Who told you this?"
"Our boss at the station. We were told that you were okay with this, since you're going to be on a special on the national network tonight, and it's airing directly afterward. It's only local news, after all—"
While their mother continued talking to the local news representative, Melissa and Meredith crept up and peered out the front window. A van with a large number '4' on its side sat in the street in front of their house, and a large camera was already set up in their front yard. A cameraman was already using it, filming all the relatives' cars parked up an down the street, and the mailbox in front of the house to which a large bunch of balloons was tied.
"Hey!" said Melissa. "It's Channel 4!"
"Cool!" cried Meredith, who ran past her mother and out the front door.
"Meredith! Melissa! You come back here!" shouted their mother, chasing after the two girls. They were grinning in front of the camera, which had instantly swung around to capture their image. Their five sisters, meanwhile, peered out the front window, eager to see what would happen.
"Channel 4? Is Channel 4 really here?!" came the voice of one of their cousins, nine-year-old Paul.
His seven-year-old brother Kyle was behind him, carrying a plate of cake and ice cream. "Cool! Can we be on television, too?" The two of them dashed outside and joined Melissa and Meredith in front of the camera. The two girls were doing as the cameraman was telling them—that is, running and playing in the front yard, trying to look like they didn't know the camera was there and doing a rather poor job of it. The two boys then ran out and waved to the camera shouting, "Hi! Happy birthday to our cousins the Carlson Septs! Hi Mike! Hey Nick! We're on TV!"
Michelle and Mary were just barely hanging back in the open front door and looked about ready to join the others outside when their mother's voice reminded them why they were hanging back in the first place.
"Meredith! Melissa! Get back inside this instant or you will be in serious trouble!" She stepped in front of the camera. "Sir, turn that camera off immediately." The cameraman frowned but obliged, clearly not wanting to face Robin Carlson's wrath. She turned to her daughters, who were standing behind her, smirking. "I mean it, girls. Now!" Flashing quick guilty grins at each other, they turned and ran back into the house.
Robin turned to the man who had come to their front door, who had followed her off the front porch. "You got your shot of the house and the girls, and that's all you need. Now you are leaving."
"Yes ma'am, thank you very much—"
He looked as though he were going to say more, but Robin's look was enough to cut him off. The Channel 4 crew hurriedly packed up their van and drove off, while Robin stood in the front yard watching until they had gone. Paul and Kyle stood there watching, too, never having seen a local news van so close up before. Only when the van had turned the corner at the end of their street and disappeared from sight did Robin turn to the her nephews, saying only, "I'm very sorry about that, boys. Now please go back in the back yard and don't make a big deal out of this to the rest of your cousins, okay?"
The boys nodded and ran off around the house toward the back yard.
Watching from inside, Melissa scowled. "Why don't they get in trouble, too?"
"Yeah, cause you know you're going to," said Monica.
"Mom's going to kill you," Molly whispered through her teeth as the screen door opened and their mom stepped inside.
"Meredith Cecile and Melissa Courtney Carlson," said their mother, pulling out the middle names to go with her very strictest voice.
"What?" said Meredith, her voice sounding a bit too innocent.
"You know what."
"But Mom," said Melissa, "Why can't we be on Channel 4 if you let us be on 20/20?"
"Yeah, what's the difference?"
Robin frowned. "20/20 was planned for a long time. But we don't just let people come to our house and start filming us any time they like. Do you think they should be able to do that?"
Meredith and Melissa were silent for a moment, glancing at each other. "No," Meredith finally said. "They shouldn't."
"Good. I'm glad you think so. Now go finish your cake and ice cream, and don't make a big deal out of this."
"Like we ever do," Melissa said quietly.
"Some people do more than others," said Molly, with a glance in Meredith's direction.
"I do not!" said Meredith.
Molly shrugged and dropped the subject as they rejoined their friends and cousins on the porch. Their mother gave a heavy sigh as she watched them disappear through the back door.
Two hours later, the party guests crowded into the Carlsons' living room. The Septs sat on the floor, some distance from the screen; their friends from school sat in front of them, excited to see what was going on. Aunt Nancy hurried in and took Peter's favorite channel-surfing recliner, situated for optimal view of the screen.
A commercial ended, and as the screen faded to black, someone gave a loud shushing hiss and everyone quieted down. On the screen flashed a scene of cars driving by a green sign surrounded by neatly manicured shrubs. The sign read "Welcome to Westfield: A Great Place to Grow."
"Today, it still looks like any ordinary American town," began the announcer's voice. "But tonight marks ten years since the little Detroit suburb of Westfield, Michigan earned its place on the map."
"Is that so? We couldn't find it on the map when we were driving in yesterday...haven't we got a new map in ten years, honey?"
"Shhh! Quiet, Jacob!"
The picture of the Welcome to Westfield sign dissolved, to be replaced by a picture of a pink-skinned premature baby in a plastic hospital basin, wrapped in some gauze and delicately attached to an assortment of tubes. The camera moved slowly, scanning over six more babies, similarly pink, breathing visibly, their eyes closed tightly.
"Which one's you, Megan?"
"You still can't tell em apart...."
"Ten years," continued the announcer, "since the town of Westfield was turned upside down by one historic event—even, as some were too cautious to say ten years ago, an event of miraculous proportions."
The neonatal intensive care room faded out to be replaced by the grinning face of a ten-year-old girl with large green eyes, slightly crooked teeth, and neatly combed brown bangs and shoulder length hair. The camera then panned over six more faces, all looking just alike—at least as far as most people were concerned.
"Girls! You of all people...be quiet!"
A family shot of the seven girls with their parents appeared on the screen for a moment, followed by a "20/20 Special" logo. Then the announcer herself came on the air.
"Good evening, everyone, I'm Sandra Skore. Tonight I'm in Westfield, Michigan, celebrating the tenth birthday of some very special little girls. For the past ten years, we've all watched them grow, sharing the joys and struggles of one family unlike any other. Though we can't tell them apart, we can all certainly recognize these seven faces: I'm speaking, of course, of—" and here she slowed down and spoke very carefully, "Megan, Melissa, Mary, Michelle, Monica, Molly, and Meredith: the Carlson Septuplets. It's been ten years tonight since their birth as the world's first and only set of surviving septuplets, and I'm here in Westfield to hear their amazing story. Later we'll get to meet the girls in person, but we start tonight with a look back."
A picture of a hospital flashed on the screen for a moment, and then a press conference room, with the words "Sinai Hospital of Detroit" and "Children's Care Center" hung on blue curtains in front of a podium, where a younger looking Peter Carlson stood.
"Dad! Look at your hair! That's so funny!"
"Was that the style then?"
Several different people hissed it this time: "Shhhh!"
The younger Peter Carlson on the screen looked small, his eyes remaining wide even as he stared for a moment straight into the bright lights shining at him. When he finally spoke, his voice was small and shaky. "I just wanted to say...thank you to all the people who have...everyone who has sent us well-wishes...and thank you for keeping us in your thoughts...all the babies are doing just fine...we couldn't hope...that is to say, we couldn't ask for anything better...everyone here at Sinai is great...they're doing so much for us...and Robin is resting comfortably, though she's a bit tired...and I just wanted to say thank you...."
The news clip cut short Peter's stuttering and flashed to a very much younger Aunt Rachel.
"Oh!! It's me! Look how ghastly my make-up is, that's so 1980s, did I ever really look like—"
"We're just thrilled," said the 1980s Aunt Rachel, spitting out the words with incredible speed. "We can hardly believe that something like this has happened in our family, but we're all ready to help, to do all that we can for Robin and Peter and the girls, they're my nieces and I love them and I'm looking forward to spending lots of time with them!"
"But along with the excitement came fear," explained Sandra Skore. The screen turned baby girl pink, and obviously dated graphic technology flashed lines of names and statistics onto the screen.
The Carlson Septuplets:
Melissa Courtney, 2 lbs. 15 oz.
Michelle Carmen, 2 lbs. 7 oz.
Meredith Cecile, 2 lbs. 13 oz.
Mary Colleen, 2 lbs. 1 oz.
Molly Claire, 2 lbs. 3 oz.
Monica Celeste, 2 lbs. 9 oz.
Megan Carol, 2 lbs. 0 oz.
"The Septuplets, whose weights ranged between two and three pounds at birth, were born nine weeks premature. That's much later than the doctors had predicted: that they weren't born even earlier was astounding for a septuplet pregnancy. Still, they were preemies, and every day came with its battles." Sandra Skore went on to explain how Megan and Molly went in and out of critical condition, how the doctors were worried about their lungs developing, and how Megan gave the doctors such a scare that they didn't expect her to make it. As the ten-year-old Megan sat in front of the television, listening to the news magazine tell how amazing it was that she was sitting there that day, she didn't notice the several pairs of relatives' eyes—those that could pick her out anyway—that settled on her.
Eventually, though, as Sandra Skore explained, Megan and the rest of the Carlson Septuplets came home from the hospital in Detroit to that quaint little suburb of Westfield where, thanks to a gift from the state government, they and their parents soon moved into a larger house. The special showed a shot of the home: an ordinary looking two-story house, not dramatically larger than average, and the very house where the party guests sat today, crowded around the television set. Sandra went on to talk about the gifts they were given: a life supply of diapers, vouchers for a local grocery chain, a year's supply of baby clothing (soon to be accompanied by an offer for three years' more if the Carlson family would agree to let the famous Septuplets appear in ads for the clothes, an offer which the Carlsons declined), two strollers specially made to hold three and four children apiece, a new van, and scads of toys that came in from well-wishers as far away, said Sandra, as Auckland, New Zealand.
"Isn't Australia farther than New Zealand? Cause we got some letters from Australia."
"Maybe they started going east from here. Then New Zealand's the farthest."
"Well, that's dumb. Then Chicago would be even farther than New Zealand."
"Mary, Monica, shhhh!"
"The fuss died down a bit in the months following the girls' birth," explained Sandra Skore. "But then something happened that brought it all back, with even more intensity then before."
A clip of a doctor appeared on screen to explain: "We even ran the test again to check. The results do show that all seven girls are identical."
"Yes, it was true: all of the septuplets were as like as identical twins," Sandra Skore continued. "It was a revelation that startled the experts."
"It seems to me," said another doctor, "that the odds that the tests they ran at both clinics, and the tests they ran to double check—the odds of all of those tests giving the same incorrect results are, quite frankly, greater than the odds that all seven girls are genetically identical." The doctor gave a hesitant laugh before the clip ended.
"But as the girls grew, it was clear." They showed a picture of the girls on their first birthday, all with the same mops of brown hair; then a second birthday shot, a fourth, and a seventh. All seven continued to have the same brown hair and green eyes, and all looked just alike, despite the very separate and distinct outfits in which their parents dressed them.
"Previously, the greatest number of identical siblings was five, and that happened only once, with the birth of the famous Dionne Quintuplets in 1934. The story of the Dionnes was one of horrific exploitation and tragic mistreatment, as the Quintuplets were put on display as a tourist attraction—'Quintland'—that rivaled Niagara Falls at its peak."
"It's terrifying," said a younger Robin to the reporters who were pushing their microphones toward her face. "Especially knowing what happened to the Dionne Quintuplets. It was amazing, the attention we received at first for their being born seven at a time, but now there's even more of it. It frightens me sometimes, how we're going to deal with it, how they're going to deal with it. How are they going to handle looking alike when they go to school? What about the attention they get from people who don't even know them?"
"The spectacle of so many look-alike children brought the attention that Robin and Peter feared: there were offers for picture books, look-alike dolls, advertising contracts, even a television cartoon series based on the girls as teenagers, despite the fact that they were not yet two years old. The Carlsons, meanwhile, were facing growing financial concerns. Even when two day care centers offered free nursery school to the family and Robin took the opportunity to go back to work, the Carlsons found it difficult to support their family on two very moderate incomes. So when the girls were three years old, they agreed to two product deals. The Sweet Childhood Doll Company was allowed to make a series of seven collectable Carlson Septuplet dolls, which proved incredibly popular. The non-profit organization, Supertwin Family Outreach, was permitted to use pictures of the girls on a poster and a 1986 calendar. These were sold to raise money not only for the Carlsons, but for multiple birth families across the country.
Sandra Skore went on from there to explain how these deals helped the family a bit, though the financial situation still remained tight. She explained how the girls were split into three groups and sent to three separate private schools that offered highly discounted tuition; they showed a five-year-old clip of Robin and Peter explaining, on a previous 20/20 special, that they thought it would be better for the septuplets to go to school in smaller groups because it would be easier on the teachers as well as on the girls, whom they hoped would have more individualized experiences this way.
"Now we've taken a look back," said Sandra Skore, now in the 20/20 studio. "After this break, we'll talk to the girls and look forward, as they begin their tenth year. Don't go away."
There was a rush to get more cake and ice cream during the commercials; everyone made sure they were back in time to see the show start again, except for some of the Septuplets.
"Molly! Michelle!" called Aunt Barbara. "Hurry up! This is it!"
"Don't you girls want to see this?" called Uncle John.
Molly raised an eyebrow. "It's not like we don't know what's going to happen."
"Really," said Michelle. "It's not that big a deal. Everyone's acting so weird about this." The two girls returned with their third slices of chocolate and yellow marbled sheet cake—the perfect solution when seven birthday girls can't agree which kind of cake they want—and sat down just as Sandra Skore spoke.
"This week I took a trip to Westfield to visit the girls in their home town—"
"It wasn't this week! Mom, she was here three weeks ago."
"—and my, how these girls have grown!" The Septuplets appeared on the screen, sitting in the same living room where the crowd now sat watching the show. Two were in a simple dresses, two in jumpers, and the other three in T-shirts and shorts.
"I tried get them to wear something a little nicer, but Molly and Michelle and Mary all refused—"
"Mom, now you're doing it."
"It's been three years since I last visited them, in honor of the seven turning seven," said Sandra Skore's voice-over, unaware she was being interrupted. "Now that they're older, I'm here to chat with them about all the big issues, including all the attention they still get, ten years after their history-making birth." The voice over ended and Sandra Skore came out in person, to sit with the on-screen Septs.
"Well! Thank you for having me over, girls, and happy birthday!"
There came a badly rehearsed chorus of "thanks" and "thank you."
"You'll have to forgive me—I just can't figure out how to tell you girls apart. So I'm just going to be rude and ask...which one are you?" she said to the Septuplet wearing a burgundy dress.
"Megan, right. And which are you?" she asked the next girl. "Or rather, why don't we just go around in a circle and you tell me who's who."
Sandra Skore laughed. "We'll see how long I can keep those straight! You girls still look so much alike. Your parents can always tell you apart though, can't they?"
Several of the girls laughed, and Mary said, "Of course!"
"What about your relatives?"
Off-screen, the Septs' Uncle Drew laughed. "Not a chance!"
"Yeah, some of them can," said the on-screen Michelle.
"And at school? Can your teachers and classmates?"
"Well," Mary explained, "We go to different schools, you know. I go to Westfield Montessori with Meredith and Molly. Megan and Monica go to Amandine Academy, and Michelle and Melissa go to New Horizons. So our teachers only have to tell a few of us apart. It's easier for them that way." She nodded quite matter-of-factly.
"Some of the kids at our school call us the Twins,'" Michelle added.
"Really? Don't they know you're two of the Carlson Septuplets?"
Michelle shrugged. "I think they do. Some of them do. Maybe not all of them, though...." She looked her schoolmate Melissa for backup.
"Some of the kids don't know," said Melissa. Her voice was lowered, as though she knew she was telling a big shocking secret, but if she spoke quietly enough, all her classmates who were watching the interview on national television wouldn't hear her say it. "We're not supposed to make a big deal out of it."
"Why's that? Will your teachers get mad? Or will your parents?"
"Both, I think," Melissa replied. "Plus, if we told people, it might make people bother us, like they do sometimes when we go places all together."
"Tell me about the time you went to the beach," said Sandra Skore. "I heard you had some problems like that there."
All the others turned and looked at Meredith, who seemed to shrink a little from her bold upright posture.
"Meredith, is this your story?"
Meredith was about to open her mouth when Molly spoke for her. "She's the one who told some people who we were."
"Oh, like they couldn't guess," Meredith muttered.
"We were at the Lake Michigan beach," said Mary, jumping in and taking over the explanation, "when this guy and girl came up to me and Meredith—they were teenagers. The others were sort of down the beach a ways, but I guess they could see them too. He asked us what our names were, and you know they always tell you not to talk to strangers and tell them stuff like that, even if you aren't us. But Meredith told them her name was Meredith Carlson, and the girl got all excited and the boy asked us which one I was. I didn't tell him my name but he already guessed, you know, and he said 'You're those Carlson Septuplets, aren't you?' So I dragged Meredith back with me to the others."
Molly seized her chance to say something when Mary finally had to stop for a breath. "And then some people started hanging around behind us and pointing, and when they started taking pictures, that's when mom and dad said we had to go." She frowned. "And that was our vacation, too."
Sandra Skore looked sympathetic and concerned. "But there are good things too, about there being seven of you, aren't there?"
"Tricking our cousins who can't tell us apart," said Mary immediately. The Mary sitting in the audience ducked away as her older cousin Colin reached to grab her and give her a noogie. "I know who you are," he said as she laughed and scrambled away.
"We're never lonely," said Monica. "It's never boring."
"You prepared that beforehand, didn't you?" said the off-screen Meredith to Monica in a loud whisper. "That's just what they wanted you to say." Monica frowned at her sister, who quieted down.
"So if you could pick to join another family, you wouldn't do it?"
"No!" came an almost unanimous cry.
"It just wouldn't be the same," said Michelle.
The camera zoomed out giving a nice shot of all the Septuplets sitting with Sandra Skore, and then switched to a shot of her sitting in the 20/20 headquarters.
"That it certainly wouldn't," she said with a laugh, before going on to say how much she enjoyed her time with the Carlson family and how polite and fun the girls were, turning to her co-anchor and saying how sure she was that they'd grow up to be wonderful, interesting women before explaining what would be on the next edition of 20/20 and thanking everyone for watching. As the credits began to roll, Peter clicked the television set off.
"Well, that was nice, Robin!" said Aunt Susan. "I think they did an excellent job!"
"I still can't believe they showed me with that awful hair and makeup!" said Aunt Rachel. "That was so terribly 1982!" She looked quite puffed up with pride, however, outdated hairdo or not.
"They talked a lot to the girls about things that are hard on them," Uncle Drew observed. "I don't remember them doing that before...."
"That's because we're not seven years old this time," said Molly.
"I guess people think that's more interesting than last time," Monica said. "Remember the last one? Where they spent so much time saying things like, Oh, Monica, you're the best artist, look at those pictures you colored! And Mary, you must be the leader, just like they said when you were babies, since you're doing all the talking!'"
"She still did all the talking," Melissa said, poking Mary.
"I did not! I didn't say any more than you did!"
"Not true! You said more than anyone."
"I didn't hear one word out of Megan the whole time, though" said Mammoo. "Did I miss it, or did you just stay quiet the whole time?"
"She said I'm Megan' at the beginning," Mary pointed out.
Meredith rolled her eyes. "Besides that."
"Mary was too busy doing all the talking for her to get a word in," said Melissa.
"I was not!"
"No, it wasn't Mary's fault, I just didn't say anything," Megan said.
"Why not?" asked Uncle John. "Didn't you have anything to say? I thought that interview lady was going to try to talk to all of them."
"She couldn't tell which of us she had talked to and which she hadn't," Molly noted.
Megan shrugged. "It's okay. I don't mind." She smiled. "Can we have some more cake?"
"Haven't you had enough cake already?" her mother cried. "Oh, go get another piece, it is your birthday. And then you'll make yourself sick and then you won't want it for the rest of the year, which is good because we're not going to need any more sweets around here for a long time."
The Septs and their cousins all took off to finish off the sheet cake.
By the time it started to get dark, the relatives began to depart. Aunts and uncles began collecting cousins from the backyard, where they were running around with the Septuplets and trying to catch fireflies. It was almost eleven by the time all the company had gone. After saying good-bye to Robin's sister Barbara and her family, the exhausted Robin and Peter crashed with onto the couch.
"The girls are going to be worn out tomorrow," Peter said. It was long past the girls' bedtime. He glanced out the window and saw his seven daughters still running around chasing the glowing insects.
"They probably have enough sugar coursing through their bloodstreams to keep them going until three a.m. Give them a few more minutes to run around. Anyway, it's time for the news—turn on the TV."
Peter did so. The familiar opening music of the local newscast began, and the male and female anchors took turns giving the evening's headlines in rapid succession.
"An all-night party store on Detroit's East Side was robbed at gunpoint tonight—police are on the lookout for the suspect and ask for your help in apprehending him."
"A local teenager nearly drowns at a Lake St. Clair beach; officials find illegal alcohol bottles and suspect the teens were drunk."
"Also on 4 tonight, it's the birthday of Metro Detroit's most famous little girls! Tonight the Carlson Septuplets are ten years old: we'll bring you pictures straight from the girls' birthday party." A shot of the girls clustering around their birthday cake flashed on the screen for a moment; none of them were looking at the camera, and the screen around the porch got in the way, making it a rather poor picture.
"I can't believe they just came up like that and took those pictures!" Robin fumed. "They haven't pulled a stunt like that in years."
"I can't say I was surprised," Peter said, frowning. "It is the ten year anniversary of Detroit's local news getting to be at the center of a national story, isn't it? They probably wanted to commemorate having something to cover besides robbers and drunk teenagers."
"Yes, but just coming up to the yard like that with their cameras—"
"It's just like what they used to do, isn't it?"
They were both quiet for a moment, watching the story about the robbery and the near-drowning with little interest. After a commercial break, they showed the footage of some of the girls looking with curiosity at the unexpected cameras, and then they showed the bit of Meredith dancing and singing, "It's our birthday today! We're ten years old! Yay!"
"I told them not to put that on the air," Robin said through gritted teeth. Peter just frowned and didn't say anything. Finally Robin said, "We shouldn't have agreed to do that special. I'm sure that's why they think we're open to the media frenzy all over again."
Peter sighed. "We agreed to that special a long time ago, and it helped pay for the girls' schools. Don't go second guessing the decision now—you'll drive yourself crazy."
"I know," said Robin. "But what are they going to do at school this year? When they all go to school together...."
Both parents were quiet for a moment. After a moment, Robin spoke up again, sounding as though she were trying to reassure herself. "Well, I guess they're going to have to deal with it the best they can. Tonight's special won't make it any harder for them than it already would have been."
"And the longer they go to separate private schools, the harder it will be for them when they have to go to school all together someday. We certainly can't afford to send them all to private high school...."
"Unless we do more specials," said Robin wryly.
"And then it would be even harder for them, even at a private school," said Peter with a nod.
Robin gave a half smile. "It would be, yes." They had discussed this many times in much greater depth over the past year, and it seemed unlikely that they would come to any new revelations now. Now that summer vacation had arrived, though, it was as though they were holding their breath, waiting to see how things would go.
"Would you go bring in the girls?" Robin said finally. "It's way past their bedtime." She watched out the window as Peter went outside and called the girls to come in. They let the fireflies they had caught out of their glowing jars before they came.
"Celebration" © 2004 by Jessie Mannisto.