With seven kids—including a set of quintuplets—gathered around the table, dinner at the Kienast household was seldom serene.

"Someone would always end up spitting milk out of his nose," recalls Meg.

"There haven't been too many of those "International Coffee moments,' " says Abby.

"Or those Massengill commercials." adds Amy, brightly imitating the sensitive mother-daughter ad: "Mom, do you ever feel...not so fresh?"

Yep. this is a real family, all right; nothing made for TV, decaffeinated or terribly self-conscious about them. Which is no small feat. In 1970 mom Peggy Jo Kienast, now 51, gave birth to Abby. Gordon, Amy, Sara and Ted—the fifth set of quintuplets ever to survive infancy. For months afterward reporters recorded the quints' every gurgle and diaper change, and manufacturers of baby products scrambled to donate goods and seek endorsements. Last week, on Feb. 24, the quints turned 21 and took a few moments to look back on childhood—usually happy but also touched by tragedy and always shaded by their peculiar celebrity. "What did we do to become famous?" wonders Amy. "All we did was be born."

That, of course, was enough. Fourteen doctors attended the quints' delivery at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. A small army of neighbors helped with care and feeding when the newcomers joined siblings John, then 18 months, and Meg, 4, at the Kienast farmhouse in rural Liberty Corner, N.J. A local builders association constructed a new wing for the house.

As the quints grew, their dad, Bill Kienast, a salesman, and Peggy Jo instituted strict rules to keep things under control. "No singing and no watching TV at the table." recalls Abby. "And you had to eat everything." Attendance was mandatory on laundry days, when Peggy Jo hosted folding parties, and on shopping days, when there were coupon-cutting parties, Peggy Jo cooked dinner and Bill handled breakfast and school lunches. Rising at 5 A.M., he would set out seven slices of bread in front of seven labeled lunch bags, then get busy. "It was like a conveyor," says Meg. "You got what you got."

"Our parents were great," she adds. If the quints seemed to be getting all the attention. "Dad would go in the other room and talk to John while the others were being photographed."

"Bill almost ignored the quints," says Peggy Jo. "He put all his attention on Meg and John. It was the right thing to do. We always said, 'We don't have five kids, we have seven.' "

Bill Kienast wanted to give all his children all they needed, but found the personal and financial stresses tremendous. After the plastics manufacturing business he started foundered, Kienast fell more than $100,000 behind in his mortgage payments. Press reports that the Kienasts were about to be evicted from their home led New York philanthropist Milton Petric to pay off the debt and set up a trust fund for the family. But Kienast, who had been suffering depression for several years, remained despondent and, tragically, took his own life in March 1984 at age 52.

"People were mad at my father," says Meg, the only family member willing to talk at length about Bill's death. "They'd say. 'How could this man do this to them?' You can't say you understand unless you lived through it. The problem of depression was not as well known as it is now. Just by looking at us, obviously he did something right. I've never heard a derogatory remark from anyone who knew him."

Since Kienast's death, the family has gotten by on Social Security and interest from the trust fund as well as income provided by some of the kids, who work locally at various odd jobs. Older brother John, 22, and quint Sara are off at college now (he's a senior studying commercial art at Baylor University in Texas; she's a junior at Loyola University in Louisiana). The rest, plus big sister Meg, are still trying to decide on college and career plans. Meanwhile they are living at home with Mom, who hopes to sell the house soon—the asking price is $595,000—and move to Charlottesville, Va., where Bill's family lives. Looking back over the past 21 years, Peggy Jo is of two minds. "You wonder. "Where did the time go?' " she says. "But then it seems like forever-like my life began at that time."

Steve Dougherty
Maria Eftimiades in Liberty Corner

  • Contributors:
  • Maria Eftimiades.