In the beginning, I had my sister, Deanna and my Mom and my Dad. But that’s not all: We shared our huge drafty farm-house with my uncle and aunt and their three kids. The families would grow and grow, until the farmhouse could no longer contain us all, but it the beginning it was just the nine of us: Deanna, Mom, Dad, and I slept downstairs; Donald, Tom, Linda, Uncle Merle, and Aunt Lucille slept upstairs. We shared the kitchen, dining room, the one and only bathroom – which was upstairs- and we shared the frontchroom. The frontchroom was where we listened to the radio, sat on the davenport, looked at books, and played aeroplane with Daddy. I should mention the wooden stairway between the floors. Not officially a room, that wooden stairway, closed off by a door from the downstairs, was a playroom, a hiding spot, and a place where conspiracies brewed. We also stretched ourselves physically on the stairway: we raced up playing ‘slap the bear’, tried to skip steps, and challenged each other to see who could jump the most steps down while someone at the bottom held the door open. There may have been a few knocks on the noggin with that last game.
I know the upstairs was cold because Mom and Aunt Lucille laughed about the pee in the potty-chair freezing in the winter. Back then they heated the place with coal. There was a big coal-room in the basement; the coal went in through a chute on the side of the house. Once Aunt Lucille and Mom were outside butchering chickens when the Coal-Man came with the winter’s load of coal. I can remember them in their apron covered house-dresses, hair flying in the wind, cutting those chickens heads off with an axe. One would hold the chicken’s feet, the other would wield the axe. Both were always in some stage of pregnancy. There was no money to pay the Coal-Man. Still against what was surely his better judgment, the kind man took one look at the kids in the yard, the chickens, some still running around with their heads cut off (yes, they really do that), and the two pregnant women covered in blood, and either he took mercy on them, or he was too afraid to cross them. At any rate, he delivered the coal on credit.
Later on, Uncle Merle’s family got a place of their own. Their new house was just a basement with a door above ground. Over a few years time, the rest of the house was built. In the meantime, we rented part of the farmhouse to my Mom’s cousin Valerie and her family, then somebody else, whose name I can’t remember but who tried to trick me into walking five miles to the nearest store, and then finally to the O’Briens who stayed with us while they built a house next door. The O’Briens were our neighbors all the rest of my life. There were only three kids in the O’Brien family: Tom, Robbie, and Cathy. Cathy had a room all to herself. In the meantime, I got a whole lot more sisters and a few brothers. Eventually, there was only room for one family, and nobody new moved in. The closed-in porch served as a nursery for a couple of kid goats for a few months, and sometimes we’d have a dog spend a freezing-cold night inside on the rug by the door, but for the most part, just the nine of us kids, and Mom and Dad.
That big, drafty farmhouse had four bedrooms. We were always sharing with someone. There was little room for modesty with one bathroom. Sometimes, there was two kids in the tub, one on the toilet, and someone at the sink. The year I left for college, we re-modeled and added a little downstairs bathroom. We knocked out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room and added the fireplace my Mom always wanted to keep her toasty warm in the winter.
Now that I’m all grown up, I realize when I get right down to it, I’ve never been alone. After I left home, I had roommates in college, then I had a husband and kids, then just kids crawling into my bed in the middle of the night, then another husband and the same kids adding more through marriages, and now a gaggle of grandkids giggle and joust at my feet. There’s rarely as many people in my house as when I was growing up.
My youngest sister, Marcia, lives in the farmhouse now. It’s not as drafty, and it doesn’t seem near as big. The house I live in now is at least as big as what once was a farmhouse big enough for two growing families, and we now have three bathrooms. Yet both houses have these things in common: I’m never alone, and there’s always room for more.
I’ve been a student, a mother, a microbiologist, and Sanitarian, and a Vice President – in a company, not of a country. If I could ask job candidates one question, and one question only, it would be: How many people shared a bathroom when you were growing up? If I could give parents one piece of advice, it would be: Crowd your kidlings. By living with so many people, I learned to share, I learned to plan, and above all else I learned to negotiate and collaborate. In addition to all that learning, living with so many people was a whole lot of fun, too.