Growing up in a house with six other children required a certain amount of hardiness. After a traditional baptism, another followed that was more like an ongoing episode of Fear Factor. It involved loud squalling, bare knuckle fighting, laughing, and general hysteria. Since six of us were less than two years apart, my mother was always in full survival mode. People talk a lot about the common sense of parents in the sixties, but let’s be honest. Families were larger and a few toys couldn’t possibly compete with wild ideas and the lure of general mayhem. Many parents buckled against the pressure and allowed their offspring to run free. Until I was fifteen and Jennifer was born, all of us lived upstairs. It was a tight space for the eight people there at the time. ‘Go outside!’ was a common refrain at our house.
‘Quit climbing the walls!’ was another. My sisters, brother and I would take turns bracing our hands and feet against the sides of the entryway to our living room and see who could hike their way up to the ceiling in the quickest possible time. This was done with a lot of yelling, jeering and possible sabotage, like pulling someone’s legs out from under them. Susan and I were often the instigators, and she remains to this day the most competitive person in the family. If you showed her something you could do, she’d figure out a way to do it faster. The important part was when she got to win.
When we weren’t climbing the walls, Susan and I were busy making up new commercials. We were certain we could do a better job than the ad companies we heard on the radio, or saw on television. My mother encouraged this kind of behavior because it took less yelling and a lot more planning. Another favorite activity was pretending to be movie stars. I’m fairly certain that Linda enjoyed this too. If you needed a glamorous, tight dress look, you would simply insert both feet in one leg of your pajama bottoms, and use the empty leg for twirling. I was Connie Stevens or Donna Douglas from the Beverly Hillbillies. Someone else in the family was Annette Funicello, though I can’t remember who. Possibly Bill. (Just kidding.) Though we did encourage him to take part in our crazy plans. ‘Encourage,’ meaning a fair amount of arm twisting. Literally twisting of the arms. Remember snakebites? That was torture for beginners at our house.
My father was more cunning than my mother when it came to filling up our time. If she was at work, he’d put on one of his Spike Jones records and we’d dance like crazy until we fell down. Seriously, like teenagers popping ecstasy at a rave, we’d exhaust ourselves boogieing to ‘Cocktails for Two.’ He played music the whole time mom was out, especially some of his crazier jazz records by artists like Stan Kenton. Or, to paraphrase my mother, ‘I’ve died and gone to hell, and this is the soundtrack.’
In the early years, we had a wood stove in the basement. Occasionally, we’d thread hot dogs onto sticks or coat hangers, for roasting. Or we’d play with fire, adding interesting things to the stove and waiting to see what would happen. My mother was usually upstairs washing floors, preparing meals and generally working like an indentured servant. She worried we’d burn ourselves or put our arms through the ringer washer that always seemed to be running. It was the dilemma of every mother: ‘They might be in danger. But they’re so quiet right now.’ Her need for some kind of peace and order gave us plenty of opportunities to try out our crazy ideas. In no particular order, here are a few more:
Sliding on cardboard down the basement stairs.
Making a slide with blankets for the younger kids to slip from the top bunk to the bed on the other side of the room. We only dropped the blanket a few times.
Sneaking food from the kitchen. I liked to pretend I was a hungry orphan.
Lighting the candles hidden in a cross on the wall that were meant for special religious occasions. I spent the rest of the week worrying I was going to burn in hell for being sacrilegious.
Playing mass and taking turns squishing bread and shoving it into each other’s mouths. We mumbled fake Latin words and had the parishioners kneel for a really long time. (My children did the same thing, but with different hymns and more Holy Spirit carryings on.)
Flipping through the gigantic family bible that was filled with horrifying images of the torture of saints. We couldn’t get enough of it.
There were times when we played regular games, too, like Monopoly and War, (the card game, though we were always up for the other kind, too.) Clue fascinated all of us because we really wanted to live in a glamorous mansion with murderous people. Chinese Checkers promised a good hour’s worth of arguing, then there was Sorry, and the hipper kinds of games, like Password, also a television show. We truly loved Password.
The only reason my parents lived as long as they did was because we all loved to read, or have someone read to us. I’m sure mom and dad tiptoed through the house on such days, usually a Saturday when we’d all been to the library. There was also the lure of the great outdoors, though that often involved a command rather than a wish.
I like to think that our wild youth directed our futures. Linda (always seeking refuge) became a librarian, researcher and major source of info and help to breastfeeding moms everywhere. I was an entrepreneur (I can make it better!) and a writer. Susan left home to seek her fortune as a performer and traveled across Canada singing backup for Graham Shaw and his Juno award winning album. (Okay! You win!) Bill became a carpenter, probably for reasons of self defense. (saw, hammer, nails) Cindy’s been a preacher and a fantastic saleswoman, which may be one and the same job. Joni has had too many careers to name, is the best painter and can restore order to any home. (She was the kind of kid who put tape across the bedroom floor so your mess couldn’t wander onto her side.) And Jen grew up singing, simply as a way of being heard above all the noise, and carried it further with a couple of albums and a personality large enough to subdue nations.
Thirty-five years after my mother had her first baby, Jennifer left home and gave my parents the gift of an empty nest. They couldn’t get over the quiet. Then, there were grandchildren. But that’s a story for another day. For those of you who want to turn your pajamas into a sexy outfit, it’s the dress below, worn by the ever stylish Audrey Hepburn. And for those who need an excuse to cut loose, please enjoy some Spike Jones. Listen past the 30 seconds of slow music, then hang on for the ride.