One of my brothers visited recently, and a friend asked how many brothers and sisters I have. “Wow, big family, huh?” was her reaction.
Six kids? Not a big family where I came from. Long Island, mid-baby-boom, mostly Irish and Italian Catholics. Six kids was pretty average. I felt sorry for “only” children (mom always said that as if the kid had cancer, whispering, “He’s an only child”). Two or three seemed really limited, like they were just practicing. Big families? That title was reserved for those with 10, 12, 15 kids.
I remember going into Bert & Edie’s candy store one day and seeing 7 or 8 of the Ruddy kids sitting up at the counter, their policeman dad standing behind, proudly watching them enjoy their Cokes and egg creams. I thought at the time, “That’s like my whole family up there, including my parents – and it’s only half of his!”
This was waaay before the Duggars and their quiverfull. (Those famous and prolific Duggar parents were themselves born after the baby boom.) If you were Catholic in the 50’s, birth control was not an option – at least not an approved one – and probably not readily available anyway. I imagine that quite a few moms (Catholic and non-) daydreamed about family planning when surrounded by piles of dirty non-wash-and-wear clothes, or stacks of dishes before dishwashers became commonplace.
Fortunately, moms back then, although they surely did have what I would consider a daunting amount of work to do, didn’t try to do all of it themselves – they enlisted the troops… meaning, of course, us!
One family on our block had a dishwasher, and we were soooo jealous. When we begged to get one, my mom would say, “What do I need a dishwasher for? I have six of them.” (And we would have thought – but not said to her at the time – “So funny I forgot to laugh”.)
The six dishwashers joke wasn’t entirely true, since my sister Peg and I had a corner on that market – we could have opened a dish-washer-and-dryer training academy. Dad, with his Frank Gilbreth-like efficiency, would have been CEO. When we were having too much fun in the kitchen, lining up suds-filled shot glasses on the counter so we could play saloon, Dad would march in and grab the sponge. Barking, “Let me show you how it’s done,” he’d run through his Big-John-Approved-Method-of-Dishwashing, which we smirkingly admired. (Ask any one of my siblings how to wash the dishes today, and they’ll be happy to give you the lowdown: Glasses first, then dishes, followed by silverware, and last, greasy pots and pans. And don’t forget to clean the sink, wipe the counters, and empty the sink strainer.)
Seemed like I vacuumed acres of flooring, washed thousands of board feet of woodwork (and the kitchen ceiling – I’ve never met anyone else who had to do that, and freaked out my college roommates when I did that job before we painted our kitchen!), ironed yards of handkerchiefs and pillowcases, changed countless diapers, and walked miles pushing a baby carriage. And this was all before I became a teenager! The entrepreneur in me kicked in on that last task – my younger brother was born with six toes on each foot, and I would charge other kids a nickel – the cost of a big candy bar – for a peek under the carriage robe.
My brothers generally did yard work – mowing, raking, snow-shoveling, and preparing the front lawn each spring, which involved digging it up and removing all the rocks (using a two-person, Dad-designed strainer constructed from two-by-fours and heavy screening), then scattering grass seed. To keep all the neighborhood urchins out, this arduous process was followed by planting green metal stakes along the perimeter, threading them with twine, and tying strips of white rag at regular intervals, presumably to alert gangs of children, careening along on roller skates, about the presence of the trip-wire.
The boys also were responsible for taking out the trash, and lining the kitchen garbage can with an ingenious (and recycled!) trash bag constructed by way of some elaborate newspaper origami. When each boy reached an indeterminate age at which, I guess, some special degree of motor control was attained, Dad took him down in the cellar and instructed him in the manly art of garbage can liner folding. When he had it down, the expectation was that after the trash was emptied, the current garbage boy would disappear into the basement and return with the can expertly lined. “And make it snappy,” my dad would add, to preclude the origami-artist from wasting time reading the intended liner material. Imagine how delighted we were years later to hear from an uncle how my dad, as a boy, would get in trouble for reading the newspaper intended for the can liner!
I personally thought my brothers were getting away with murder having only to take out the trash and line the garbage can while I slaved away, seemingly for hours (my own doing, with all the fooling around), over the dishes. So I spied on them as they fabricated the liners, then practiced arranging and folding myself until I was sure I could produce a reasonable facsimile. One day, I triumphantly approached my father with my perfectly engineered trash bag, and said proudly, “Look, Dad – I can make a liner just like the boys – can I line the can now?”
“Sure,” he answered. “Just as soon as you finish the dishes.”
Not exactly what I had in mind.
I have only two kids, myself, and although I love them to death, can’t imagine having (and having birthed) six or more. It must have seemed like army maneuvers on a daily basis. Although I did actually use cloth diapers for my kids (diaper service, of course!), any thoughts I may have harbored in a previous life of being a living-off-the-land Earth Mother were quickly dispelled, and we’ve taken advantage of all the modern conveniences otherwise.
I’m sure my kids will thank me.