Sometimes in life a person gets overwhelmed by all the noise and confusion—a lot of it internal. That’s when it is very tempting to immerse oneself in an absurd and pointless version of Hide and Seek— “If I just stay here in this nice safe dark little corner I know that I will eventually find myself.” Well, that just wasn’t a game you could play in the family of my childhood— no matter how high you counted! With eight kids in an age range spanning eleven years, there were very few dark corners where a warm little body with a runny nose wouldn’t find you and snuggle in — just to let you know how much you mattered. You knew just who you were in life, because you saw it so clearly, in the love that was reflected back at you in their big blue eyes.
Our Mom has always been a very loving and caring mother, a hands-on parent some would say, but still, the sheer volume of work to be done just to cover all the bases called for practicality. In the early years, as soon as anyone showed the least initiative to help with some of the simpler tasks of parenting younger ones, Mom was delighted. Each of us had certain things that we particularly enjoyed doing. Keith was the one who ran along behind Jimmy’s and Donny’s wobbling bicycles for the first time, and Marsha was the one to teach Jeannie her piano scales, and Jeannie, with her sweet clear voice, was a natural at teaching younger sisters the latest songs learned in music class at school.
The task that I enjoyed most was helping to settle Jimmy and Donny down for the night. Sometimes Janice and Kathy would join in too, as we all giggled our way towards the land of Nod. I liked to use as many puns and plays on words as I could possibly think of and whatever wild suggestions they gave me for characters in my stories. So the Bananas were always appealing, the Cabbage was the head of his class, and the Grape always let out a little wine. The youngest four were once entirely convinced that the city of Montreal was given its name because everyone there always ate plenty of celery before singing their city’s anthem— “Munch! Munch! Munch we all!” Each of the little ones in the family knew that they needn’t have any fears at bedtime. We were all safe to fall asleep in our big yellow brick farm-house, surrounded by the darkening fields. After all, the potatoes had eyes, and the corn had ears and they would let Daddy know if anything dangerous was in the neighbourhood. If so, he would head out to the garden to gather a bushel basketful of ammunition to squash any trespassers with.
I was amazed when recently one of my sisters reminded me of these stories that I had long ago forgotten. Thinking back on it, it’s a very good thing that I didn’t ever share with them the version of how we all came to be, that I was first given by a zealous ten-year old neighbour. It had to do with sex. “You know it’s like this.” Kenny said. “There are tractors, right?”… “Y-e-s.”… “And wagons, right?”… “Y-e-s.”… “And they have hitches right?”…” Uh-huh” …“And so they get hitched together, and that’s how it all happens! Just the same for people!” Of course, even then I knew he was a big fat liar about that whole hitching together thing. Otherwise there would be all sorts of little baby wagons and baby tractors everywhere and nobody would ever need to buy them at the tractor store. And besides, we all knew that Mummy always got our babies from the hospital where she picked them out. It was too bad though, that it always gave her such a bad headache that she had to stay there for a while. That’s what Grandma Mum told us about it all anyway, and we all knew our Grandma never lied, (even though Kenny’s probably did!)
Our bed times were always staggered by half an hour for each twosome, according to age from the youngest to the oldest. There was never much to complain about as we headed off to our bedrooms to laugh and talk brother to brother or sister to sister until we fell fast asleep; that’s how things were for Marsha and me, Kathy and Janice, and Jim and Don anyway. For Keith however, it was a far less satisfying experience. As he tiptoed into his room to avoid waking up his two sweet little roommates he would often let out a yelp as he stepped on the wreckage beneath his feet. Those quiet little boys we thought were fast asleep were, instead, dismantling his model airplanes, tearing pages out of his favourite books, and putting the choicest specimens from his arrowhead collection into their pyjama pockets before they finally turned the lights off again.
Jeannie had her own struggles with junior roommates. Her blankets and chenille bedspread were frequently yanked off her bed for the construction of tent houses over bedposts, and tunnels between beds. Sometimes she couldn’t even get into her bed at night at all until she made it up all over again, with bed covers inevitably covered in dust bunnies from being smoothed across the floor under her bed. Janice and Kathy obviously thought that they needed both an upper and lower story then— one for each of them. Squandering good farmland for a sprawling house was apparently much too costly even then, in rural Caradoc Township!