When we were kids we very quickly developed our own set of house rules for coping with the fact that there were so many of us that Mom’s eyes could not be upon all of us all of the time like some hyper-vigilant referee at an Olympic hockey game. There were no instant replays then, neither on TV nor in real life.
Rule Number One was: The person who divides something doesn’t get his piece until everybody else does. If it was a 10 ounce bottle of Pepsi divided into two portions then the pourer got the second glass. It was amazing how adept we all got at pouring perfectly even amounts. Until the person pouring got it right, he would adjust by pouring it back and forth between glasses while squatting down. That way he could keep his eyes at counter level to eyeball the preciseness of his pour. No one could have measured more accurately, even at World Bartending Competitions. It was not necessarily a skill we would ever need in the future, unless we went into research as chemists, which unfortunately none of us did. The one major advantage was that it cut down on all the belching, as there was so little fizz left in the pop after all that aeration.
Rule number Two was: You call it, you get it. The issue of who got to bathe first in our household would have been a persistent cause of quarrels without this rule, especially when we were older, and working out in the fields in the summer. Absent mindedness meant “You snooze, you lose.” From behind the big box of Cheerios, with eyes only half-open, someone would yell “I’m first!” “I’m second!” someone else would say. This was an amicable way to resolve the constant fighting. After all, who really wanted to have to bathe in someone else’s dirty bath water in times of water shortage or difficulties with the septic tank? And when our Dad installed an outdoor shower in the greenhouse for the summer months it was only the first two or three people who got warm solar heated water from the elevated tank, before too much cold well water was pumped into the tank, and it gradually chilled to lip-blueing temperatures. So, as long as even one other person was witness to your saying “I’m first.” you got the prime spot, and of course they would have been the one to say “I’m second.” Never once did anyone try to circumvent the “You called it, you get it” rule by saying “No we already called it and I’m first and she’s second so that makes you third.” That would have automatically labelled us as not worthy to be trusted by the sibling we had attempted to use as a pretend witness and co-conspirator.
Rule Number Three was: Keep your side of the room neat. When Marsha and I were warring, we put a line on the floor with masking tape, and each stayed on our own side. Of course, my side had the door leading in and out of our bedroom, and also the shared closet, which was a walk in and turn around six-foot by six-foot box of a space, like you often find in old farm houses.Being on my side of the room was kind of like being Poland during World War II. If you are on the way to anywhere, you don’t have much choice about who stomps through.
Rule Number Four was: If there is unexpected company, then nobody load up on anything. Take only a small portion of what is available and if Mom has told you that she has six less pork chops than she needs now, then wait until the platter has gone all around the table once and past every guest. Only then may you ask to have it passed to you. That way they will be treated with the special honour that a guest should get, and you will still be fed well anyway. Maybe you will only have a half a pork chop which you should offer to share with your brother or your sister if there aren’t enough left. There will be lots of other good things that Mom has added to the table at the last-minute, like corn on the cob, or sliced tomatoes, or beet and cucumber pickles to go with the other dishes she had already prepared just as the visitors arrived.. If you don’t do this you realize that it will be your mother who is the vegetarian by default that night .
Rule Number Five was: Chew with your mouth closed. If you don’t, there will be no punishment anyone can give you worse than the knowledge that you will be mocked by everyone in your family behind your back. They will do crude impersonations of you whenever you are not around. They will crack up and nearly choke on the seconds of dessert they are enjoying after you leave, because they will be laughing so hard. If you indulge in wide-open-mouth chewing then, no doubt, someone will call you “Slappy Lips” behind your back too, even if they feel really bad about it at your funeral later.
Rule Number Six was: Never feed the baby horse-radish! He is buckled into his high chair with a little belt to keep him from jumping up and trying to get out the top and falling to the floor, or sliding down to get out from below and likewise injuring himself. Either situation is dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as it is when he chokes on horse-radish. You will feel very bad when that happens, and there will not be enough ways for you to say Sorry to everyone in the family, or to show that little fellow, that you love more than your own life, that you didn’t mean to hurt him— that you just forgot for a moment that it was a bad idea to have him try something out for the first time that you thought would just put a quizzical look on his face. That’s the rule my Granddad made up for all of us by his example. It cost him a lot to demonstrate that rule. His self-esteem was truly depleted as it made him feel very humiliated for a time, when his intent was just to create a little fun at the dinner table. The horse-radish rule had a much wider application. It was “No matter how old you are, think about the consequences of your actions!”
Growing up with seven siblings, and my mother and father, as well as my Granddad being a key component of our family unit for several years, was a very rich experience. It may have been chaotic at times, but as we preferred that it not be that way, if we could help it, we chose to govern ourselves. In a way it sounds a lot like what happens as new countries come into being. If all the Stephensons of Caradoc Township had been more prolific, beginning with the sixteen siblings of my Grandfather, if more of them had big families like my dad, with us eight kids, and his second cousin with their eight living fairly close, well you just might have had to call our area Canadephenson by now. History is a strange thing. Sometimes it’s a lot like the game of Roulette. Winning or losing depends a lot on the numbers.