SHE SIGNS HER LETTERS “TWINCERELY” OR “QUINCERELY.” Her favorite soap opera is Days of Our Lives because one of its stars is a twin in real life. She has met 13 sets of quintuplets, 68 sets of quadruplets, 3 sets of conjoined twins, and more triplets than she can count. She proudly displays a butterscotch-colored plaster model of quints scrunched together in utero. She knows that Asians have the fewest multiple births, that boys are more often born part of multiple sets but less likely to survive, and that in 1278 Countess Margaret of Henneberg gave birth to 182 males, 182 females, and 1 hermaphrodite.
Welcome to the oddly intriguing universe of Helen Kirk, an 81-year-old Galvestonian who has made her mark in the world as an expert on multiple births—not a scholar, but a kind of super hobbyist. Just as some people collect stamps or autographs, for nearly sixty years this former medical assistant has dedicated herself to compiling a formidable collection of memorabilia and data on twins, triplets, and the like. Along the way, she has earned a variety of monikers, everything from “the Smithsonian of multiple birth information” (the Galveston Daily News ) to a “maven of multiples” ( Smithsonian magazine itself). “She’s a real character,” says Janet Bleyl, the founder of the Triplet Connection in Stockton, California, the world’s largest support group for multiple birth families. “She has collected so much information that it has become her whole life.”
Interestingly, the obstetrical obsession is not fueled by any blood connection. Kirk—who wears her white hair in a pixie cut and, on the day I visited her, padded around her bungalow in a floral housedress with a name tag that read “Miss Helen, Supertwin Statistician”—was born one of three “singletons” (babies delivered one at a time) and had only one child of her own, a daughter who died in 1992. Instead, it grew out of her relationship with a set of quads born in Galveston in 1939—that and her inherent pack rat tendencies. “I’ve always been a scrapbook person,” she says. “I like to collect.” Her assemblage includes thousands of newspaper clippings meticulously filed by last name and number of siblings, letters from families of multiples, picture albums documenting her visits with various broods, and souvenirs, posters, and books featuring famous multiple births. All of them are on display in the two-bedroom house that Kirk and her ex-husband bought in 1942, though space, predictably, is a problem. Six years ago she built an air-conditioned, dehumidified 17- by 32-foot storage room—signs at the door remind visitors that no food or drink is allowed inside—but she quickly outgrew it. Today the only rooms in her house not piled high with boxes or strewn with clippings to be filed are the kitchen and bathroom. “It has grown so big that I can’t keep up with it,” she says.
Since she suffered a heart attack in 1985, Kirk’s pace has slowed. In the old days, she would travel to see new babies, write their families for information and photos, and send out birthday cards—about five hundred a year—to multiples across the country; she would even enclose $1 or $2 in each envelope, depending on how cooperative the families had been at passing along news. “One year in the late seventies, I sent out 9,002 pieces of mail. Postage has always been my biggest expense,” says Kirk, who finances her hobby with her monthly Social Security check and money from her retirement account. “My friends know if they want to give me a present, they should give me stamps.”
These days, however, Kirk spends most of her time at home, where she fields calls from the media and casting directors (she put an ad agency in touch with the Turnipseed triplets from Alabama for an early Texas lottery ad). She also wages a truth-in-multiples campaign: She is positively curmudgeonly if anyone unjustly makes a claim to fame for a set of siblings, who are often tagged with superlatives like “most” and “first.” For instance, the San Antonio Express-News reported that the Bellush quads—born on December 5, 1995—were San Antonio’s second foursome. But Kirk, sitting in her dimly lit living room, flashlight in one hand and magnifying glass in the other, quickly pages through a little black notebook and calls out the names of other quads from San Antonio. “There are the Grishams. The Hansons. The Tysons—they were born three identical girls and a brother. And let’s see, the Rioses, the Quimbayas, the Robersons.” She puts her book down on her lap and sighs in disgust. “I’ve talked to enough reporters that they know I have this information. I get aggravated when they’re so inaccurate.” Recently, Kirk placed several phone calls to Maury Povitch’s TV talk show to correct mistakes. She was miffed, for instance, when guests were billed as the second set of sextuplets born in the U.S. “They’re the second set to survive,” she says impatiently.
When Kirk does venture out, the highlights of her year are the various get-togethers: She has attended all 24 conventions of Texas Mothers of Multiples, 19 International Twins Association gatherings, 20 meetings of the National Organization of Mothers of Twins Clubs, and 3 Twins Days in Twinsburg, Ohio. “I love meeting these people,” she says. “It’s fascinating to be sitting across the table from two 80-year-old twins and see that all their movements are just alike—even if they haven’t been together all their lives. Or to sit and watch twins in a stroller in the same position: with thumbs in their mouths and sound asleep.”
Until her mid-twenties, Kirk led the life of a typical BOI (Galveston shorthand for Born on the Island). After graduating from Ball High School, she did everything from teach dance to sell war bonds, and in 1942 she married Jules Lauve, an advertising executive whose specialty was billboards (many people still know Kirk as Helen Lauve, though recently, more than forty years after she and Jules divorced, she returned