My sister Janet hosted Christmas dinner for 31 guests. She does it every year, and I’m in awe. All we had to do was show up with Hasselback potatoes and festive socks.
On the way out of our house, I grabbed a bottle of red wine and two bottles of champagne. The Curmudgeon’s Irish clan used to begin drinking champagne at 9 o’clock Christmas morning. By noon, we were all a bit tipsy and in need of naps.
I thought he’d appreciate me bringing two bottles to Christmas dinner in honor of his parents, who died several years ago. His Dad used to have a case of champagne on hand.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “One bottle of champagne is enough.”
Um, maybe if we were using thimbles. We argued for a minute, and then I loaded the bottles into the car. When we arrived, my brother-in-law David volunteered to bring them in.
“Oh no you don’t,” I said, sounding a little like George Constanza when he bought Elaine the big salad. “I mean, it was my idea, and if you bring them in, people will assume you brought them. I’ve got this.”
Several people offered to uncork it, but I held my ground and asked for a kitchen towel. I don’t open champagne often – maybe once or twice a year – and I enjoy it. But mostly I wanted control over the champagne, which could disappear quickly in this crowd. I succeeded until I turned my head in conversation. Someone slipped in, grabbing whatever remained in the second bottle.
Watching food (and drink) like a hawk is my specialty. When my sister-in-law bought a few pounds of swordfish for 12 people to give us a taste last summer, I commandeered the platter. Everything else was served buffet-style except the fish, which I parceled out in 12 even pieces. When someone tried to steal a piece before dinner, I told him he could, but that was his portion. He backed off.
When there are seven kids, someone’s got to be the food general and I assumed the role. My mom served dinner family-style, beginning with my father at the head and proceeding counter clockwise around the table. I was always the second to the last kid to get the food. And though we never ran out, my table positioning made it impossible to get the best piece of chicken, roast beef or fish.
One of my friends suggested I blog about growing up in a house with seven girls between ages 11 and 1. What stands out most is my preoccupation with food, specifically making sure I got my fair share. I’m still a little like this, taking umbrage when someone takes a double-portion of potatoes or a pile of meat before everyone is served.
Growing up in a large family teaches a measure of consideration for others being fed. I was reminded of this when I observed birds on my suet feeder the other day. Each bird takes his turn on the suet block while other birds watch and wait patiently on nearby branches. As far as I can tell, there are no winged hogs, with the possible exception of a large red-headed woodpecker.
Since my friend asked, here are a few remembrances from growing up as #2 of seven:
- Watching the platter of veal cutlets as it rounded the table, silently cursing when someone took the piece you wanted.
- Hiding your heart-shaped Valentine candy box in your bedroom closet, being horrified to discover mouse teeth marks in your favorite chocolates.
- Stealing away with the leftover Chinese fried shrimp from your parents’ night out, then eating so much you’re sick to your stomach. (Not me.)
- Never having the house to yourself.
- Learning the art of a good fight involving hair pulling, scratching, screaming, slamming doors and occasional headlock between thighs.
- Referring to #4-7 as “the babies” even when they were in their teens.
- Referring to siblings by number.
- Having your clothes and shoes stolen before you even wore them.
- Having your grandmother refer to the youngest as “Little Marianne” into adulthood.
- Getting the same sweater in seven different colors from your aunt at Christmas.
I envied my friends with one sibling, preferring to hang out at their calm, quiet and orderly homes. My friend Lizzie had Pinwheel cookies – graham crackers topped with marshmallow and chocolate – because she didn’t share her house with a pack of “wild Armenians.” I asked my mom if we could get them, and she shook her head: “Those would be gone in about a minute.”
My friends liked to come over my house. I think one of my friend’s mothers encouraged her, figuring my mom wouldn’t notice another kid. I don’t think she did. Mom didn’t mind chaos, screaming or inability to find a quiet corner. One of two children, she wanted 10 kids, stopping at seven when her body wouldn’t cooperate.
Growing up, I thought every mom’s pants had an elastic panel to accommodate a growing belly. I’d circle the block on my bike every 18 months or so, waiting for my parents to bring home the new baby. By 10, I could balance a kid on my hip and change diapers – the cloth kind with diaper pins and rubber pants.
Being the second of seven kids meant going places with your father because your mom was busy with the babies. My parents divided and conquered, with Dad handling the oldest three. He took us to Sunday Mass, followed by breakfast at a place with a treasure chest full of of prizes. He hated being alone – except when he wanted to be – and often carted us along to the golf course or an occasional movie.
Looking back on it, I give my parents a lot of credit for traveling in a pack. It’s not easy going places with kids, especially when you’re so outnumbered. Here are some other recollections as #2 of 7:
- Filing into restaurants behind your parents like ducklings and having patrons ask, “Are all of those yours?”
- Volunteering to drive on road trips to South Carolina when you’re 16 because you’re assured elbow room and control of the car radio.
- McDonald’s duty on Thursday nights, waiting for that hamburger without pickles and onions for your picky little sister.
- A mom who is more relieved than worried when you get your driver’s license because you can shepherd the flock.
- Throwing names into a hat and picking them every Saturday morning to assign chores.
- Cleaning the pots every night and cursing your mother for using every one in the house.
- Having people constantly say that your father must have been gunning for a boy, and must be disappointed that he never got one.
I think my Dad wanted a son, but he never said so. I have no idea how he handled the comments, but he never gave us the impression we were second rate. It was other people’s comments that made me feel that we had somehow failed him being girls.
“I feel sorry for your father,” people said when I’d say I was one of seven girls. I often wondered if they would say the same thing to a father of seven sons.
My mom laughed when I asked her about it the other night. She said their friends began betting they’d have a boy after my sister Diane (#3) was born.
“We won so many bets when I had another girl,” Mom said. “Our friends figured the odds were in their favor, so they’d bet us a dinner that we’d have a boy. For my last pregnancy, Uncle Jim was so convinced I was having a boy that he bet us a weekend at the Pierre Hotel in New York City. We had the best time that weekend.”
“Your father loved his girls,” she added. “But he had to deal with a lot of stupid comments from people.”
I’m often grateful that a boy never came along because he would have been spoiled, insufferable and usurped me as my Dad’s golfing buddy. As it is, the youngest in large families are often far more coddled than the older kids, although I do know of exceptions. And perhaps I’m generalizing like #2s tend to do. I’ve found most #2s are quite opinionated and outspoken.