Maybe he’s right. In fact, maybe that’s precisely why I have trouble writing about it. It marks me as unusual…different…odd. It makes me uncomfortable. I have spent a lifetime struggling to fit in — to go unnoticed for peculiarities like having an outlandish number of siblings. Why bring this fact to light now?
When I think of my childhood, I think of a rich vein of yellow gold surrounded by dark soil. There are treasures there, but I have to dig for them. Sometimes my shovel glitters, and sometimes, I get nothing but dirt. Usually, there’s a mixture of both.
My sister and I have embarrassing memories of being called down to the office at our grade school to try on donated clothing. We were considered “poor,” I guess. Although I certainly never felt poor and indeed was wealthy in the things that really mattered — good home cooked food, a loving family, a brain that helped me succeed in school and plenty of God-given talents.
By the time she and I came along, there were no more children. We were the last of the litter. We were the lucky ones. The older siblings doted on us, and we were given attention that the middle siblings never received.
Growing up on a semi-farm with 14 siblings meant that we didn’t spend a lot of company with other children outside our family. There was no need. We had a built-in baseball and football team and someone to play with whenever we felt the desire. For a while, it seemed like family gatherings happened every weekend, and there was always a new face around the dinner table.
I remember bonfires and volleyball games that seemed to last all night. I remember singing around the campfire, while my older sister and brother played guitar. I remember sleep-overs at my Godmother’s house every summer. I remember peanut butter milk shakes made in the old blender with broken buttons and coming home from school to see my dad shaking out the strands of homemade pasta so they would dry, and we could sell them at auction. He was proud of the fact that the pasta he made and my mother’s apple pies and Italian bread would always sell for a good price.
I never knew where that “auction” took place. It is only in later years that I realized how much they depended on getting a good price at auction for our livelihood.
My mother was a practical sort. Her days were spent baking bread, canning vegetables, spanking our bottoms and keeping my dad happy. I think the only time I caught her reading a romance was when she was recovering from flu and read the novel excerpt in her Good Housekeeping magazine. She recounted the entire story to me the next day, until I was so curious that I found the same magazine and read it, too.
I never remember her reading to me. She was far too busy for that luxury. When I started school, I could not read well. It would take some encouraging teachers and hard work on my part before reading became a pleasure and not a chore. But somehow I learned and when I graduated from eighth grade, I was given the language arts award.
And that really is how I remember most of my childhood. Few handouts, lots of hard work, eventual rewards.
I remember sitting around giant metal tubs filled with carrots, usually with another sibling or two. Our job? Scrape each carrot clean, cut off the ends, and add to another giant metal tub. It was canning time.
To mask the drudgery, we would play games like charades or tell one another riddles. There was always something to talk about and someone to talk about it with.
When the chores were done, my mother would call us in around the piano. We were each asked to sing a part. I was soprano, my sister, alto, and the boys would be tenor and base. One of the frequent songs was called, “Tavern on the Green.” If you ask, I can still hum the soprano melody today.
I don’t remember how I learned to play piano. There was no money for lessons. Like most things in my life, playing the piano just kind of happened. One day, I looked at the music, and I recognized the notes.
A few years ago, my father, who is now 90, decided he would learn to play the piano, too. He began to practice daily and soon he was picking out small melodies. While I was visiting one weekend, I sat and played a little of the open songbook he had been working on. He turned to my mother and said, “Why she’s quite good. I didn’t know she could play piano. How did she learn to play like that?”
In a family of 15, the accomplishments of any one child went largely unnoticed. My younger sister was in 7th grade before anyone noticed she could draw. My oldest brother broke his leg and had to be homeschooled before anyone recognized his high IQ. Under the extra attention from my mother, he blossomed, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Chemistry.
Attention is something you longed for but never quite got. In a family our size, you learned early not to expect a lot of fanfare for accomplishments. You had to be your own cheerleader, your own life coach, your own dreamer.
I guess you could say being raised in a big family builds character. It certainly built mine. People have labeled me a work-horse, determined and persistent. If I am any of these things, I am grateful. I will need them to succeed in my writing journey.
One thing is for certain, I don’t spend a lot of time looking for or expecting handouts.
And that, dear reader, is the sweet sound of my shovel striking gold.