I didn’t hear the conversation my mother was attempting to have. Likely six or seven of the more faithful listeners on the party line did, but their being on their phones listening in was likely cutting into the clarity of the words coming through the line to Mom. With several of us kids milling around in the kitchen curious to know who Mom was talking to, and her shooing us all away with her one free hand as she held the receiver in the other she was looking a little flustered. Her eyes told us “Hey! I’m going to use this hand to do more than shoo you away, if you don’t give me a little space, so the bigger ones of us tried to get control of the crowd so that Mom could hear. Soon enough we heard her say “Anna Mae”, her older sister who was closest in age to her. There were excited and happy outbursts of “Great!” and “Terrific!’ and “I can hardly wait!” and questions too, all spoken in an upbeat and excited tone. “When?’ ” What time?” and finally the question that affirmed all of our hopes,”How many of you will be coming?” Then a short pause as she took a big gulp before saying “All of you!” with a slight hint of panic. Then a long pause and a return to that joyful excited tone again.
If we hadn’t heard Mom say “Anna Mae” with such joy and excitement it could have been any number of people on the phone who would have elicited that same response.Mom had left her home in Pittsburgh when she was 16 to emigrate with her parents and some of her older siblings. They had bought a tobacco farm near Melbourne, Ontario,not far from where we lived growing up, on the advice of cousins who had emigrated to Canada much earlier. Mom met Dad and married him when she was just 18, and had her first child, my sister Marsha a little over a year later. Within a few years her family’s farming adventure had gone off the rails; they had, upon bad counsel, bought a very poor farm and were hopelessly unsuccessful. They had no choice but to all move back to Pittsburgh leaving her behind. I realize how absurd that it sounds to say that they left her behind, because she was clearly never going to go back home without us, and yet there wasn’t any doubt at times that that was exactly how she felt—left behind. She missed her elderly parents terribly, (she was a very late- in- life baby for them) and she really pined for her many siblings, and nieces and nephews too, some who were actually older than she was.
What was so exciting about Aunt Anna Mae coming with, as Mom had said, “All of you,” meant that she wasn’t leaving any of the kids behind with their Dad, our Uncle Virg (Virgil), or with their Nona,(our uncle Virg was Italian.) Nor would they be staying behind with any of their other relatives while Aunt Anna Mae had a sisterly visit with Mom. As these occasions happened more than once, I can’t be sure just how many kids Aunt Anna Mae already had when they came for that particular visit, as some of her last kids were a bit younger than ours. It would have been quite a houseful in any case as Aunt Anna Mae and my Mom each had eight kids in quite close succession.
All summer long people would come up from Pittsburgh in various combinations, our grandma “Mum” while we were blessed to still have her, would come with one or two of her children. And aunts and uncles and cousins, and uncles with friends of uncles, and aunts with just each other would take their turns at visiting. Later on, when they were more grown up, cousins would come all on their own, or even after they married they would come with their children. Our house was like a summer camp with people constantly coming and going. Coming to play, coming to work, coming to rest,to commit to being a god parent, to advise, to help, or to grieve. Sometimes they came to show off a new baby, and sometimes, I suspect, even to say a secret last goodbye if they sensed in their heart that they might not have another visit. Each and every one who came brought us a gift. They brought us love— love by the buckets full, except for our cousin Philip; he brought us buckets of clams. Clams that he and his girlfriend had dug in Cape Cod a few days before. Some of us got diarrhea, some of us didn’t. Whether it was a gift to any one individual depended on the appetite and attitude of the receiver. Marsha had a rather snug form-fitting dress to fit into for the Teachers’ College end of year dance just a few days later.To her it was a gift!