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MISSOULA — The question comes when people find out they are twins.

“Who’s older?”

“Joan is 16 minutes older than Jean,” Joan Egan said.

“That’s right, Joan is the oldest,” Jean Charney cuts in. “But I’m the oldest because I’m really Joan.”

Huh?

The 63-year-old identical twins, both of Missoula, enjoy telling the story about how each has lived her entire life as the other person.

“I have Joan’s birth certificate, but I’m really Jean,” Joan Egan said. “And she has Jean’s birth certificate, but she’s really Joan.”

Joan and Jean Schuette were born in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1944.

Fairbanks wasn’t just small back then, it was tiny.

“We were the first white twins to be born there,” Jean Charney said. “There were Native twins born, but we were the first white ones.”

The birth of twin girls caused a lot of excitement in a town known for its harsh environment.

“When you think back, it was 1944, Fairbanks, Alaska,” Jean Charney said. “She (mom) had twin baby girls, she didn’t have a washing machine, and no one had heard of disposable diapers.

“She was washing 75 diapers a day on a scrub board, plus clothes, plus it was 50 below outside.”

“The windows would freeze solid,” Charney continued. “The door would freeze shut.”

“Our cribs would freeze to the floor, and they’d have to get a hatchet to chip the ice off,” Joan Egan cut in.

“They had to break open the front door every morning because there was so much moisture in the house from drying all these diapers,” Jean Charney said.

Though it was not an easy life for the twins’ mom, Laura Elizabeth Schuette, better known as “Rebel,” she did not give up those normal moments that document life.

“A friend crocheted lacy, frilly sweaters for us,” Jean Charney said. “And we’d get things caught up in them like our ID bracelets and our fingers.”

The 3-month-old girls despised the sweaters, but mom wanted them in something pretty.

“She took off the ID bracelets to get our picture taken,” Joan Egan said.

That fateful moment, intended to keep the girls happy and smiling for the photo, proved to be the last time for some 30 years that anybody would know for sure who was Joan and who was Jean.

“Our grandmother was there, and she insisted that mom got us mixed up,” Jean Charney said. “She had previously gotten us mixed up five times, or so the story went, but she wouldn’t take us back to the hospital another time.”

Previously, when Laura Elizabeth “Rebel” Schuette confused the girls, she’d return to the hospital to have them properly identified by their footprints.

But this time, “she was embarrassed,” Joan Charney said.

And so Jean was Joan and Joan was Jean.

Their mother would burst into tears any time their grandmother, Anne Hansen, mentioned the possibility of an inadvertent switch.

“It must have been really traumatic because she wouldn’t talk about it ever,” Joan Egan said. “If you brought it up, she’d start crying. She didn’t like the fact that she might have mixed us up.”

And aside from some family intrigue and jokes, none of which was ever told around mom, the twins lived life happily, each with the other’s name.

The girls grew up; Joan, who was really Jean, moved away from Alaska. And Jean, who was really Joan, stayed in Fairbanks.

The story of the possibility of the twins’ switch went around the family, always out of earshot of mom.

“We were in our 30s,” Jean Charney remembered. “I had this friend who was a state trooper.”

After hearing the story, the man offered to take the footprints from the birth certificate to someone who could properly identify them.

“She was just curious to find out if it was true or not,” Joan Egan said.

The twins don’t remember feeling emotional or anything when the results came back.

“They said we were the opposite person,” Jean Charney said.

Despite the low-key reaction, the twins explored the implications a little bit.

“I talked to a lawyer, and he said it would only matter if we were arrested,” Joan Egan said.

“But I don’t see why that would even matter,” Jean Charney said. “Because I’m Jean, and if they took my fingerprints as Jean it would be me.”

At 30, there was no legal reason to straighten up the switch, so Joan and Jean continued to live as Jean and Joan.

Because of the distress it had caused their mother, who died in 1993, the twins never told her they had found out the truth.

“Grandma always said she’d put those bracelets on the wrong babies,” Jean Charney said. “Grandma was right and momma was wrong.”

The twins’ father, who still lives in Missoula, knows the truth, as does the rest of the family.

“Everybody enjoyed the story but momma,” Joan Egan said.

Today, Joan Egan and Jean Charney are as close as ever.

Joan and her husband, Bob Egan, moved to Missoula in 1990. Jean followed in 1993.

The only detectable disappointment that lingers over the switch that occurred 63 years ago concerns a middle name.

“I’m Jean Nettie Charney,” Jean Charney said. “I wouldn’t mind getting rid of my middle name.”

But that’s the rub.

“It’s actually my middle name, and I like it,” Joan Egan said.

The two have that curious twin connection that’s a deeper bond than most siblings.

“When Jean got in a terrible car accident, I knew it,” Joan Egan said, even though the two were living thousands of miles apart.

“Sometimes I would wake up and say, ‘I think there’s something wrong with Joan,’ ” Jean Charney said. “Then everybody’d start calling her.”

The girls dressed alike but in different colors until they were in high school.

For their 60th birthday, Jean and Joan had shirts made that read “I’m really Jean,” and “I’m really Joan.”

Bob Egan, who is married to Joan who is really Jean, said he loves the story.

“But when you meet another man who’s married to twins you just roll your eyes,” he said. “When you marry twins you don’t realize you’re getting a package deal, a whole lot of baggage with it and a strong relationship you don’t want to mess with.”

That baggage comes in all forms, like when the twins pose for pictures and Joan, who is really Jean, has to be on the right side of Jean, who is really Joan.

“I don’t know why that is,” Joan said. “Maybe that’s the way we were in the womb.”

The truly ironic thing is that Joan’s desire to be on the right side of her sister can be documented through photographs and any time the two take a walk together.

“We can’t go five feet before I’m uncomfortable and have to switch sides,” Joan Egan said.

In the original photo that caused the switch Joan, who is really Jean, is on the right side of Jean, who is really Joan.

Perhaps those little clues could have tipped their mother off years ago, but it often takes a lifetime to discover such details.

And besides, the twins are used to telling the story now.

“I’m Joan, but I’m really Jean,” Joan Egan said.

“And I’m Jean, but I’m really Joan,” Jean Charney said. “And that’s just the way it is.”

Reporter Tim Akimoff: 523-5246 or at tim.akimoff@miss oulian.com.

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