My father is one of seventeen children. When I first tell people about that side of the family, I see questions forming behind their eyes, rapid calculations and tabulations on fingers. I tend to stave them off with short explanations: My grandparents are Roman Catholic. It’s a Midwestern farm family. Yes, all from one marriage. Nope, no multiple births. How many first cousins? Oh, about sixty. (By this point, I’ve begun to count on my fingers too, trying to remember how many babies have been born in the past year.) And yes, really, the local high school awarded my grandparents a plaque when the last of their kids graduated.Grandma and Grandpa still live on that farm where those seventeen kids grew up, though by now, the surrounding acreage is sold off. We are left with just the house, the garage, enough room for a vegetable garden, and some space to play backyard baseball or burn brush. The entire family descends in the summer for one glorious, chaotic weekend. The house hums, from 5:30 AM when an elite group of early-rising aunts and cousins makes the first pot of coffee to, well, 5:30 AM, when the last poker or euchre-playing holdouts finally get to sleep. The intervening 24 hours are something of a sensory assault.
Gangs of scraggly kids roam around. By the end of day, approximately two of them will have sustained injuries, say, stepping on a nail in a barn, or slicing open their arm jumping down off a rusty old Farm-All. They will be briefly assessed for whether or not they need a tetanus shot. We eat meals in shifts, youngest to oldest, herding 10-and-unders to the table in groups. Someone (probably one of the poker-playing holdouts) naps in a corner, oblivious. An enterprising crew will do something actually useful with their time, installing a railing on the front porch or fixing a burner on the stove. Some of the rest shoot the breeze on the back deck. Little ones squall, are fed, squall again, are changed. The black coffee keeps coming, until late afternoon when some of us switch to beer.
At night, we sleep where we can, outnumbering beds ten to one, and outnumbering linens by only a slightly better ratio. Families with the youngest babies get priority for rooms with beds and doors that shut. This leaves the rest of us to our own devices. Some pitch tents and camp. A group of ten-year-olds has somehow wedged themselves into a cupboard in the laundry room, telling ghost stories until they pass out in a tangle of sugar-induced comatose little bodies. If you stay up too late, there is a distinct possibility that the only space you will find to sleep is a 2-foot-square area of floor where the living room carpet meets the kitchen linoleum, and the only blanket you can find will be a threadbare pillowcase. You will make do. You will wake up in the morning with your niece putting stickers on your face.
This is all normal and good. We are used to it and love it, those of us bound by some combination of blood and marriage and initiation. We’re used to the water that’s so hard it tastes like iron and sulfur and doesn’t really ever wash the conditioner out of your hair (if you’re lucky enough to find a clean towel), used to the floor-sleeping, and used to the orchestration that sitting down to lunch requires.
But it is a bit much.
Which is why, a few months back, when Ben and I went to the farm, I was glad it was just the two of us.
Grandma promptly sends us down to the basement to fetch some milk. I suppose it’s not too unusual have an extra refrigerator, or maybe a chest freezer in your basement. At the farm, though, there is a large furnace room that has not only an extra refrigerator and a 19 cubic foot chest freezer, but also six-foot-high shelving along three walls that are filled with canned goods, dry goods, and everything my grandmother finds at a bargain price: Cereal. Soup. Crackers. Bouillon. Pasta sauce. Cookies. It’s a bit of a marvel and also a little bit crazy, depending on how you look at it.
Ben and I poke around for awhile. A flat of half gallon Ball jars is labeled, “Beets ‘05”. Next to it: “Beets ’06”, “Beets ‘07”, and “Beets ‘08”. (No beets appear to have been canned in ’09.) I giggle over this. We joke about the possibility of a vertical tasting of beet vintages. We take the milk upstairs.
My great aunt Lorraine has arrived. A.Lo, we like to call her, is several years older than Grandma and stands a head below her. She calls Grandma “Shorty”. She plays bingo several times a week, religiously, and drives a Caddie. She deserves her sassy moniker.
A. Lo is setting out a deck of pinochle cards on the kitchen table. She and Grandma play constantly when they’re together, two-handed, but welcome the challenge of another pair. Ben has never played, so they go easy on us the first few hands. They still trounce us. We start another game.
Grandma and A.Lo settle into the easy chit-chat of sisters, sarcastic when they slip up and congratulatory when they take a trick. Soon they’re reminiscing and telling stories, partly for our benefit and, partly, it seems, to nail down details, arguing over who-did-what-when. Some of the stories I’ve heard; some I have not.
They’re mostly Depression-era tales, of hobos hopping off the rails, trailing through the fields, and showing up at my great-grandmother’s door for a meal; and of the mark they found out had been scratched into their door to show other hobos there was food to be found. They’re stories of scarcity, of the secret family code “FHB” used when guests came to dinner: “Family hold back”, a signal to let the guest have all that he wanted and for the family not to take too much.
They progress into more recent stories. A few years ago there was a fire at the house. “Remember, Shorty?” A. Lo says. “I was over here to put up beets when that happened.”
“Speaking of beets,” I have a chance to interject. “There are a lot of beets downstairs, Grandma. Like five years’ worth. Why do you have so many?”
She looks at me, a bit confused by the question. “Well, I expect they needed to be put up,” she says, matter-of-factly. She and Lorraine go back to talking about the fire.
I can’t get to sleep that night (after Grandma and A.Lo have soundly whooped Ben and I in another three games of pinochle). It’s the beets. I am being kept awake by a root vegetable. I tiptoe back to the furnace room and look again at Grandma’s cursive on the jars.
The generation that sees abundance and whose first instinct is not “consume” but instead “plan for later” is all but gone. We might make jams, we might submerge our jars of beans and our fig preserves in hot water baths, but we stand apart from those who marked their days, who remember life events, by when they were putting up this or that vegetable. I have never known scarcity, never had to look out over fields of corn and soy and worry about too much rain or too little rain, never had to stock my larder with anything beyond what I want to have on hand.
I like to think, though, that our sprawling clan has been imbued with a little of the hard-earned grace that comes from being daughters or grandsons of farmers. We’re grounded. We’re resilient. We see the storm clouds coming, but know that there’s nothing to be done but meet them the best we can.
Most of all, we are fiercely grateful for our tenuous place in this big world. We hold onto each other with all we’ve got.
// Grandma turns 80 today. I’ve been thinking about her, and about the family she bore and raised, along with my grandfather, all week. They are extraordinary.
Living legacies are all around us, folks. Let’s listen up.