Sometimes people ask how many siblings I have, and then act like they wish they hadn’t asked. No matter how matter-of-factly I answer, in how soft of a voice, or how I ease the blow by casually saying seven brothers and leaving a thoughtful pause for them to adjust before mentioning the nine sisters.
The eyebrows jump straight up a few inches off their usual resting place, like a cat that has been batting nonchalantly at a still mouse it assumes is dead, when the mouse suddenly gives the reaction it has been prodded for.
The mouth unhinges for a moment, offering a nice view of the teeth, tongue, uvula and pharynx, and sometimes a case of muteness attacks for a few seconds after this anatomical display is closed.
The eyes – well, you have seen the cartoons where the eyeballs nearly leave the face because their saucer-like size makes it hard to fit between the other features. Like that.
Then the comments. People are amazingly quick at putting us into a box, a category – no matter how obviously empty their category for Extremely Large Family has been up until this point. They assume my parents must be uneducated, or Mormon, or hate the environment, or hate their children who obviously are harmed by having to share a bedroom with brothers or sisters.
But sometimes people are cool enough to ask the right kinds of questions, ones that reveal that yes, they may think it is all a little crazy, but they are interested in how this kind of crazy works for a real life family. One of the best questions I’ve heard was from a kid, about a week ago. “But how do you all use the bathroom and take showers in the morning? Do you have to get up in the middle of the night to do it before everyone else?”
I laughed. But the more I thought about that one, the more ironically true it was. My sisters have some kind of system worked out among themselves so that they all end up with shiny clean hair every day, and when I go back to visit I have to either wait until an hour after breakfast when everyone else is done and off doing chores and the water has had time to heat up again, or grab my shower before bed each night – but then I have to fight my brothers for a chance at the hot water and towels.
There are too many things about life in a big family, too many even about this family in particular, for me to answer what it’s like to be part of it in just a few sentences of conversation. It has been a life, not merely an experience. But I still try to explain what it has been like.
There are not enough bathrooms. There never have been, but at least there are 2 now. Standing in line at the bathroom door warps all sense of time, proportion, common kindness, and etiquette. People have been known to accuse others of taking hours in the shower when it has been far closer to a quarter of an hour in reality. People have been known to knock, go to the other bathroom and knock there, then go back and knock on the first one again in case that might help. Some of our number have tried to cut in line and been forcibly removed or seriously chastened for their cheating. Brushing teeth is quite a community affair, since you are extremely selfish if you clean your pearly whites with the door shut all alone when 6 or 8 people can pass the toothpaste and coordinate movements around a sink and be so much more efficient.
There are so many dishes. You would not believe the heaps. A mother would never get them done if she didn’t have so many people to help clean them up. So maybe it evens out. Just don’t keep thinking or you might realize that if she didn’t have that many people to clean up after, she wouldn’t need that much help with the cleaning up. But then we would miss the crazy after-dinner mess that is Mom making coffee and a couple sisters clearing the table and someone rinsing the dirty dishes on the counter where Naomi is trying to mix up cookies; and Lydia is emptying the dishwasher of lunch dishes and reaching in front of whoever is at the wash sink to put the glasses away while Elsi is trying to sweep the floor for the night, and the damp towels, and the splashed water, and the bumps and dodges as you step back to make room for someone to pass and right into someone else working behind you, and the conversation that never stops and the collaborative love and labor that warms us all.
Sometimes we want to play Monopoly but there are too many people. But that just means we play Monopoly and Rummy and Battleship and War all at once, and what a din around the crowded dining table.
You are never in the house alone, which means you can usually find someone to do an activity with you or answer a question for you. This is why, sometimes, a little brother will come up with an extremely pitiable look on his face, stand there so quietly and then ask in the sweetest, pleading voice, “Will YOU play chess with me?” This also means you can never BE alone in the house, which can be another problem altogether (unless you go in the bathroom, lock the door, and ignore whatever knocks, shouts or desperate pleas you hear from the other side).
I didn’t grow up doing sleepovers with friends (though I seem to remember one of them). I don’t think I missed it, though, because I shared a room with enough friends already, and we could never go to sleep without sharing our lives (Bible readings and frustrations, uproarious laughter and books like A Damsel in Distress, thoughts on movies we’d just watched, and the talent and attractiveness [or lack of it] in the actors, and all kinds of stories).
We didn’t have to invite a bunch of friends over to play volleyball.
We didn’t always fit into our vehicles. Actually, that isn’t right; I mean we didn’t always have the correct number of seatbelts for the number of passengers. We used the CJ5 jeep until we fit a Chevy Blazer and had to upgrade to that, used the Blazer until we fit a 12-passenger van, and used *that* until we were just the right size for the 15-passenger van, which we stubbornly used even when (for a while) we could have used a couple more seats. But seatbelts can be shared, and policemen thankfully can’t always count heads as the cars pass on the street, and no one was ever injured or ticketed for the way we traveled around.
Eating meals out was a rarity with that many mouths to buy plates for. Such a rarity that was almost nonexistent. This meant that we thought stopping to get hamburgers on the way home from Spokane was quite the treat, and when we did, we made it a party that I’m sure the employees were quite astounded at.
We don’t draw names for Christmas shopping, which means there is quite a pile of gifts under our tree – or perhaps I should say around our tree, for they certainly don’t fit beneath the branches no matter how fat a tree we can find, and they have been known to pile up to a ridiculous height. Sometimes it is the better part of wisdom for 2 or 3 of us to partner up and buy gifts for the other 14 or 15 of us, and sometimes one ends up buying one gift for the older girls to share, one for the boys, and one for the little girls, but there is none of that nonsense of Which sibling am I actually going to give something to. Every one is a face and two hands at Christmas, and there is almost nothing better than watching the eyes of a little brother as you approach him with a wrapped box, and place it into hands that can’t wait to pull the paper away and drop the card and pull out what you chose for him because you know him.
It means a lot of gifts. It means a lot of birthday cakes around the year, including 5 in January alone. It means heaps of laundry and two baskets full of unmated socks. It means sharing chores, and laps, and time with parents, and so many good times. It means a lot of coordination, and budgeting, and loving one another in the day to day. Just like any family.
Seventeen is a big number. But we are not numbers from the inside of the family. That is why I don’t realize how shocking it is for people to meet us. And that is why I think of a family of 7 children, and a family of 9 children, and sometimes even families of 5 children, as ‘big families’ without a thought to the difference in headcount from my family. We number 17, and it is unusual, and it is amazing that our parents have done this with their lives; but we are actually just siblings and friends, like you and your brothers and sisters probably are. And the craziness is good, and the goodness is crazy. This is my family.