Whenever I am asked the question “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” and I respond with something like, “I am the oldest of thirteen” I get a look from people that can only be described as completely incredulous.
Growing up in a time and place where large families were the norm I always thought the reaction was rather odd. As I got out into the world, I learned just how rare my family and my community really were even though that first time reaction still catches me by surprise.
When I first starting getting involved with single’s websites and going to single’s get-togethers, I found I was hesitant to say how many siblings I had out of fear that any prospective suitor would be put off. I finally reached the point where my large family was the first thing I mentioned about myself. If knowing my immediate family consisted of more than sixty people and was still growing did not have the gentleman shaking in his boots then I knew I had a keeper.
Usually, one of the first questions I am asked is, “What is it like growing up with that many people and only one bathroom?” Somehow I do not remember the bathroom situation as being a major problem, but then, for quite a while we used an out-house sitting at the edge of the backyard.
What I do remember is going through many phases while growing up. I had my Cinderella phase, where I felt destined to be the ugly duckling of a spinster slaving away, caring for a house full of ungrateful men. I did, after all, have nine brothers and it often seemed the rule book was biased toward the males of the household.
I also went through my enlightenment phase, where I just wanted to take my parents and shake some sense into them. Didn’t they know where all those babies came from, and how to prevent them? Didn’t they know how much it would cost to educate all of them? Didn’t they care that others thought we were poor and deprived? Hadn’t they read about the benefits of population control?
Then, of course, I had one totally embarrassing phase where every time I was out somewhere with the youngest kids, someone would mistake them for mine. At seventeen, did I really look old enough to have six kids? Once, at the grocery store, I had the task of babysitting the little ones while my mother shopped. I lined them all up on the brick ledge in front of the widow by the doorway with some candy. Folks entering the store would often stop and make some comment on how cute they all were, or just shake their heads in amazement. I lost count of how many asked me if they were all mine, so finally I reached my breaking point. The next person that asks that question was told “yes they are all mine and I have six older ones at home besides.” I though she was going to swallow her teeth in shock.
I’ve often read or heard were someone would make the statement that they “grew up poor” or even “dirt poor” well, we many have been poor but I don’t think any of us kids ever knew it. Being the oldest, I was more aware of the financial struggles in the household than the others because my mother tended to use me as her sounding board and possibly confided more to me because she had no one else to talk to. That grew from the frustration and isolation that came from our moving to a rural area when I was twelve, and several years before she was able to drive. Once Mom got her license she became very involved in church and civic groups, and was able to take a bigger part in the daily operation of the family business. Once she was able to make friends among the ladies of the community, Mom stopped using me as her confidant . However, it was not always for the better where I was concerned. The more involved my mother became in outside interests, the more I was expected to pick up the slack at home. But, with my mother’s mobility also came more excursions and adventures for the children. Where my mother went also meant that some lucky kids would be chosen to go along, so everyone’s world got expanded as a result.
The phase that I am the least proud of, and wish I could make amends for was my resentment phase. During this time I was already married and not very happily. My parents were becoming more prosperous and had moved to a larger house in a less isolated area. I was on the sidelines of the family watching as my younger siblings got more freedoms and opportunities than we older ones ever had. It seemed the rule book that governed my childhood had been lost or rewritten as my parents aged. My mother claims that it was just that as they got more experienced at parenting they made fewer mistakes with the younger ones. Regardless of the reasons, I was envious of the opportunities that were coming their way and developed a much less caring and forgiving attitude toward both my parents and my siblings for a while.
Today, as a sixty-ish woman looking back on my life as the oldest in a family of thirteen children, I realize there is little I would have changed and I have much to be grateful for. The hardships and strife of that time helped make me the stronger person I am today. The love and support of my brothers and sisters helped me travel many a rocky road. Each has grown into a wonderful, caring and supportive person and I have been truly blessed. That fact is reinforced each Thanksgiving as I watch the interactions of the large, loving crowd standing around my Mothers dinning room table. Today, being the oldest of thirteen seems to be the perfect place to be.