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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Family with four sets of twins praises one jewel of a mother

There were two different realities in the 1960s in the old Victorian house on Goundry Street in North Tonawanda, where the nine children of Vivian and Joseph Volk came of age. Big families were hardly unusual at the time, and the five girls and four boys were accustomed to a jam-packed station wagon and all the jostling that goes with lots of kids.

Yet if they spoke of “womb mates” they meant something far more unusual, a fact of life that set them apart in a way that was, well, 100 million-to-1.

Their mother, Vivian Volk, was lucky she loved twins. She gave birth to four straight sets.

Our Jay Tokasz recently wrote of a family in a similar spotlight in Western New York. Brighid Rosputni of South Buffalo – who already has seven children, including twins, with her husband Thomas – is now expecting triplets. If anyone can fully understand both the wonder and the work involved, meet the Volks.

“It’s a tough way to get to be famous,” said Vivian, who left North Tonawanda about 15 years ago for an independent living complex in Tinton Falls, N.J. Three of her grown children – Lauren, Janice and Nancy – live nearby. Three more, Tyler, Kristin and Sandy, were part of a group that took Vivian out for dinner this month on her 93rd birthday.

Vivian and her husband Joseph, who died in 2007, had their son Tyler when they lived in Pennsylvania, then got started with their string of twins. The first set, in 1952, was a surprise; in an era before sonograms, a nurse called a startled doctor back to the table to deliver Thomas, who no one knew was coming until Lauren made her entrance.

With that, the unlikely became routine. After moving to Goundry Street, Vivian gave birth to three more pairs of "womb mates." There was Kenneth and Kristin in 1953, Nancy and Janice in 1957 and finally Sandy and James in 1959, which means the youngest twins will turn 60 this year.

Vivian Volk, at her 93rd birthday celebration. Her son Tyler, the only "non-twin" in the family, is in the background. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

The idea that the final ember of the 1950s is almost 60 years away is a kind of how-did-this-go-so-fast statement on the entire baby boom. In October, conscious of swiftly moving time, all nine siblings got together with their mother, in New Jersey, for the first time in years. Three months later, for Vivian’s 93rd birthday, a smaller group of children and relatives gathered with her at a restaurant in Neptune City.

“She’s such a happy soul,” said Sandy Volk Silky, a teacher in Central New York. “She’s been my rock, my support, my role model. I put her on a pedestal, and I always will.”

In the 1950s, the family lived about a block from DeGraff Memorial Hospital. On at least one occasion, while in labor, Vivian walked there to check in. By the time she gave birth to the fourth set of twins, a reporter was telling the family the statistical odds were 100 million-to-1.

Triplets on top of twins makes 12 in house of South Buffalo's original triplets

The "womb mates," throughout childhood, triggered civic fascination. The Volk children “grew up in the newspaper,” as they put it, with Tyler, now a professor of biology and environmental studies, typically cast as the patience-of-Job older brother – a role his siblings say he absolutely earned. At one point, they had appeared in print so frequently that a newspaper ran a quiz to see if readers could identify each twin, based on a photo.

It was such a part of life that Sandy assumed most children came in twos. “I thought everyone had a twin,” she said of the day she arrived at kindergarten. Still, whatever biological lightning caused the phenomenon seemed unique to Vivian. While she is a grandmother to 13 and a great-grandmother to 6, no one in subsequent generations has given birth to twins.

Despite homes that are often far apart, some of the links built on "twinship" never waver. Kristin Volk Funk, a counselor in St. Paul, Minn., said her twin brother Kenneth, a professor in Abu Dhabi, always sends her flowers on their birthday. The siblings recall how at every milestone – the first day of school, their First Communion, high school graduation – they felt comfort in a familiar presence at their side.

"You had a buddy in the family who went through so much with you together," Kristin said. "There was a special bond, and we stayed close. I don't remember ever being in an argument with Ken."

Janice and Nancy, the only twins of the same gender, said they always believed they could sense major change in the other's life. Their favorite tale involves the time Janice, a physical therapist, called Nancy on the phone with a question, convinced Nancy was pregnant. She denied it.

As it turned out, she was.

The Volk children, 1961: Tyler is standing, center. He is flanked by Lauren and Thomas, both 8; Nancy and Janice, at 3, are on each end of the middle row, while Sandra and James, center, are celebrating their second birthday. Kenneth and Kristin, both 7, are at bottom. (Family photo)

About five years ago, Nancy, a nursing professor, left Central New York to find a new job in New Jersey. She did it for a fundamental reason: She missed being near her mother.

“She sacrificed a lot for us,” Nancy said of Vivian, “and it’s a thing you don’t fully realize until you get older.”

Their father was director of a research division at National Gypsum, and sold real estate on the side in order to pay the bills. While Vivian eventually returned to work as a school nurse, she said her focus for years was at home, on a houseful of toddlers.

Tyler recalls how the couple made it a rule to save 10 percent of what they earned, and their only loan was the one that paid for their house. Unless the Volks could pay cash, they went without, which meant they hardly indulged in luxuries.

Even so, the children say, they had plenty of fun. Their mother, a dancer as a child, loved music. They took day trips to Crystal Beach and Niagara Falls. Birthdays came with angel food cake, loaded with strawberry jello. In a tradition inherited from their grandmother, they would all stand together, linked by pinky fingers, and offer a silent wish before the candles were blown out.

Their uncle Ben Volk, who at 93 lives in the same complex as Vivian, recalled how the couple kept up with cloth diapers by using two washing machines, one a classic wringer they had to work by hand. Ken Volk remembers that his mother did not use an automatic dryer; their clothes dried on lines, strung between apple trees.

Education was paramount. When Sandy was pregnant with her first child, she asked her mother if she had one piece of advice. Vivian thought about it. Teach your children to do their playing downstairs, she replied. Their bedrooms should be sanctuaries where they can go to read and sleep.

During their collective childhood, the Volk twins were a high-profile part of the civic tapestry in greater Buffalo. As adults, one by one, they gradually moved away, until only Jim is in Western New York. Even from a distance, the siblings and their spouses are all close, a connection they credit to their mother, who at 93 still gets up to play the organ every day.

“I’ve had a great life, a great bunch of kids,” Vivian said. “I couldn’t ask for any more.”

At the birthday party, Lauren, an accountant, brought out an angel food cake with strawberry jello she made for the occasion, and everyone at the table agreed it did fine honor to Vivian’s. They gave their mother a series of congratulatory hugs, before they joined pinky fingers and made a silent wish.

They were all looking at Vivian, birthday tiara sparkling in her white hair, who leaned forward to blow out the candles.

It was easy enough. Of course, there were two.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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