Friday, July 13, 2012

700 Hoboes: Sistery Brothery Nabob - She's the Man!

Nancy Jeanne Terwilliger died of polio in 1932, at the age of eight.  Her fraternal twin, Robert Theodore, did not die at age eight.  Somehow, he escaped the wrath of the insidious disease when it invaded Hope Falls, Pennsylvania.  It took Nancy and sixteen other children between the Christmases of 1930 and 1932, leaving Bobby and only a half-dozen other kids alive in its wake.

While it is true that polio didn't kill Bobby Terwilliger, the loss of his twin sister left a hole in his life, a wound from which he never recovered.  Nancy and Bobby had an adoring baby sister, Katherine, who was three-and-a half when Nancy died.  Kat couldn't quite grasp what had happened to her sister; she only knew that she was gone.  The Terwilliger kids' father had been killed in a terrible explosion at the nearby Hope Mountain coal mine when Kat was an infant.  Their mother was a strong, stocky Irish woman who worked as a nurse at the same mine, and she soldiered on as best she could after her husband's death, but when polio came and took Nancy, she turned to the bottle to numb her incalculable pain.

Bobby tried to take on the "man of the house" role after his father's death, but he was just too young.  When Nancy died, he tried again to expand his job description, this time adding the duties of a big sister.  It worked.  He was Kat's big brother, protecting her from spiders and things that went bump in the night and teaching her how to fight and wrestle and spit.  He was also her big sister.  He braided her hair, helped throw tea parties for her dolls and listened to her when she spoke.  He even let Kat call him Nancy.  He took his split role as brother and sister very seriously, and he excelled at both.  When Kat's high school beau broke her heart by kissing some other girl at the Enchantment Under The Stars dance, Bobby had beaten the louse to a pulp and been home in time to meet his sobbing kid sister at the door.  He had stayed up all night with her, as she wrestled with her teen angst and grief and hurt.

By the time Kat had found a husband and moved to Harrisburg, most of Bob's friends had begun calling him Nabob, a name that didn't hurt him nearly as much as they had hoped it would.  When he, like so many of his contemporaries, had finally given up his life of day-labor queues and bread lines in favor of the hobo road, his reputation as the sister-brother man from Hope Falls was stuck to him like flypaper.  And it wasn't just a name.  He was the best man and woman any of his hobo brethren had known, and he made no apologies for that.  He was a brother.  He was a sister.

He was Sistery Brothery Nabob.  And he was fine with that.

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