to tell you what it's like

You know when you're sitting in a circle of new people and you have to say your name and say something unique about yourself? My usual default is saying that I am from a family of 8 kids. It's becoming more rare to be from a large family and people tend to ask, "what's it like to be from such a big family?" To which I respond, "I don't know any different". I cannot fathom being an only child, I tend to ask them, "what's it like?" because I imagine it to be lonely. They probably think that I come from chaos and that it is always overwhelming, but we both don't know any different so how could we understand? In those situations I normally just say something like, it was a lot of fun, or, we didn't get invited to many weddings, or, my best friends were (and are) my siblings. Today I will break it all down for you.

Rations. In large families you learn really quickly that there are only a certain number of cookies and in order to maintain peace you knew how to divide at a young age. We were never allowed more than three cookies. And if you took more than your fair share the entire tribe would put you on trial. So we learned how to share, but it wasn't really sharing, it was more like understanding allotment.

Hamburger meat. My mom is a wonderful cook, and very creative in the kitchen, we ate hamburger meat three times a week (on average). It was disguised as Sloppy Joe's, spaghetti, a dish she called hash which was potatoes, carrots, and onions cooked with hamburger meat that we covered in ketchup. It was salty and filling and we all liked it.

Ice cream. Ice cream only came in one form, butterscotch ripple, and it came from a 4L vat. Sometimes the pail was yellow with a white lid, but more often, it was white with a yellow lid. And it was stored in the deep freeze which meant that it had to be taken out at least 40 minutes prior to consumption or else it bent all of the spoons. One sister always did the scooping, and if you were her minion and delivered the stale cones with one scoop of ice cream on it, you got a second scoop hidden deep inside the short, brittle, flour cone.

Vegetables. There were two kinds of veggies in our house, the first, and best, was fresh from the garden. We attacked the peas in July, popping the pod open and running our teeth along the spine to get at the little emerald gems of deliciousness. And we would have tomatoes and corn all August and in to September. Then the second kind of vegetable, the frozen kind. They were the cubes of colour that all tasted the same and easily mushed in your mouth. Those would feed us in winter to ward off scurvy.

Fruit was apples or oranges. There was no such thing as berries. I know that one time we went to visit a family that had a raspberry bush. We played tag in their yard and the raspberry bush was time-out, most of us just hung out there stripping the bushes bare. I remember one time we had a coconut, and another time there was a pineapple - not canned - real. I fell in love, but all we each got was a segment. That's how it is when there are 10 people in one house sharing a pineapple.

We did not take many vacations. We would do road trips and camping. Although I don't remember many camping trips because by the time I came around my mom was tired of camping, I'm a lot like my mom. We would drive 'down east' almost every summer to see our cousins and hang out at my Grampa's cottage but we did not do Disney World, or Disney Land. One summer, my dad must have painted an extra house or something, we went to Yellowstone and Rushmore, I bought a pink velcro wallet with all 5 of my American dollars from my Amercian Gramma. We still talk about that trip, possibly because it is the only one that stands out in its uniqueness. And I still have that wallet.

Get ready yourself, be responsible, and show up on time. There were 8 of us, and in some miraculous way, we were fairly prompt. Sure, 10am meant a 10:30 departure, but you knew to be ready because you could get left behind. It happened once, one of us got left behind, and the legend alone was enough to never make any of the kids late for a departure. After that experience we did a role call on road trips "down east".

Pack light. I can't really go into any more detail there. If you didn't pack light, you had to take stuff out of your bag at that very moment. Sometimes we would pack together so that we could have a bigger bag. But packing together was usually a ploy one of my sister's would use in order to have a bigger bag while leaving me a small compartment to pack for 20+ days in the summer.

Birthdays. Your party meant 2 or 3 friends invited over for supper, and angel food cake. This was one thing I worked hard at changing. My dad was and is (and several siblings, and I'm starting to question if I too am) lactose intolerant. That meant that the only cake he could have was Angel Food made in that big pan with the insert that comes out of the middle. And then, my mom always made double boiler icing, that was what it was called because that's how you made it. How creative, community cookbook, well done, you couldn't call it sugary sticky brownish coloured icing? I always begged for a cake, a real birthday cake. I was a princess, I know. So you got Angel Food cake and, you guessed it, butterscotch ripple ice cream. We also got streamers in the kitchen on our birthdays. And you always got underwear on your birthday and had to open it in front of your friends. There were other presents too but underwear was the staple birthday gift.

Abuse. Putting up with abuse is part of the pecking order. My sister was bossed around by our older sisters so naturally she bossed me around. I got to tell the dog what to do, before she went deaf. I tried to tell others what to do but they wouldn't listen.

We are intimidating. We are such a close knit family with 8 kids popped out in 11 years that for many years we barely knew what friends were because we had each other. I think it was also a lot for someone from a family of 2 or 3 to show up in our house because it was loud, it was fun, and it was four times the size of their family. It was almost a crowd.

We pick sides. Our family is very democratic, not in that we vote, but we love to debate and pick sides. We also, all of us, like to play the devil's advocate and route for the underdog. If you were losing in an argument you could always count on one or two people coming to your rescue. This was a new challenge for my cousin when he came to live with us, he told us that we didn't fight fair and that we double teamed in an argument, we told him that he didn't know how to be on a team, both of us were technically accurate.

Parties. We lived our lives based on having a good time. My parents did a great job of making it a party. Even though we never traveled for holidays (which I am now so very thankful for) we always made a big deal of them. We would get dressed up for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinner. We were often the only attendees, but we always got dressed up. And we decorated the house to the nines for every holiday. Flags for Canada and Independence Day, lights like an airport for Christmas,  and back before global warming (or cooling, depending which side of the debate you're on) we would put streamers in the trees on Easter Sunday.

Games. We would go outside in a rain storm and dare each other to stand up the downspout of the eaves, and then made each other count to a certain number under the freezing down pour. A favourite night time game was sardines. It was like hide and seek, but once you caught the hider, you would hide with them. We played Auntie I Over where two teams were on either side of the house and threw a ball over our enormous split level home, if the team on the other side caught the ball they would run and try to tag you, but if you made it to the other side before they got you, you remained on your team. If your ball didn't make it on your throw you had to yell "pigtails" really loud so they wouldn't start running. We had to have games that were cooperative and extremely competitive at the same time to keep us all engaged.

I tell you all of this because we are planning a reunion for next summer with spouses and kids (I hope they survive the mayhem). I plan to make a couple of Angel Food cakes and then teach the kids how to play sardines and (if the cabin rental allows us) Aunty I Over. We will eat a lot of apples and oranges, butterscotch ripple ice cream, get dressed up for a nice supper, be loud, debate, and have an absolute blast. So, that's what it's like, or at least a snap shot of what it was like to be from a large family. In a nutshell, it's a whole lot of fun.

That's all.


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