Thursday, July 23, 2015

On Family

Rear, from left, Me, Mark, Wilmer, Dannie.  Front row, Milton, Jo Ann, Harold, Louise

Passing the peace -- and the mantle as Titular Head of the Family
I'm the oldest of nine children, seven boys and two girls.  One of my brothers, Gene, was killed in a construction accident in 1971.  During most of my growing up years, I did not like being in a large family.  I remember the sinking feeling I would have when I noticed that Mom was pregnant again.  She would have various answers when I complained to her about it.  One was that she didn't know which one of us she would want to give up.  Another was that having babies kept her young (which, though counter-intuitive, I believe was true.)

The disadvantages of being in a large family were obvious, at least to a self-centered adolescent.  We were a loud, contentious bunch, with verbal slug fests sometimes descending to physical violence.  My brother, Dannie, says that he was sometimes afraid that Wilmer and I were going to kill each other.  I certainly tried.  Once I threw a three-legged milk stool at his head, hitting him in the temple.  Another time, we were cleaning manure out of a cow stall and I became enraged because Wilmer was not doing his share.  I jabbed a manure-covered pitch fork into his calf.  During the time I was at home, we never lived in a house with more than three bedrooms -- one for the boys, one for the girls and one for our parents,  along with the baby or toddler, or both. We slept two to a bed and there were the common disputes about farts, hogging the covers, who hit whom first.  Mom would call upstairs:  "Boys, do you realize how that sounds down here?"    No, Mom, I hadn't really thought about how it sounds.  I was too busy trying to teach Wilmer a lesson.

The physical fights between Wilmer and me stopped about half way through high school when Wilmer had a growth spurt and all of a sudden was bigger than me.  I then switched to a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution, which involved a lot of verbal intensity but little physical violence. 

One summer evening after a particularly contentious day, my parents called me into the living room
for a serious talk.  Why didn't Wilmer and I get along?  I tried to convince them that it was all Wilmer's fault.  He was just deliberately obstreperous and provocative.  They weren't buying that explanation.  They kept drilling.  Finally, it came to me.  "I guess," I said, "It's because we're jealous of each other.  I'm the oldest  and I should get to do things that he doesn't.  But he wants to do everything that I do."  That seemed to satisfy them and after our talk, I had a washed-clean feeling, a feeling unlike any I have ever had since, even when I supposedly accepted "the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior."

It wasn't long before the clean heart was sullied again with our petty disputes, but I've never forgotten the insight.   I had been the center of my parents' attention; the only child for just 16 months.  Then Wilmer, the interloper, came along and usurped my position at my mother's breast and in our parents' bedroom.  I thought there should be some compensation for that huge loss.  Part of the compensation should be that I would get recognition as first-born.  I had more responsibilities -- I always had to yield in a dispute over toys because I was the oldest and I should know better.  I should be an example to the younger children.

Since those tumultuous adolescent years, I have come to appreciate the compensations of being in a large family.  Like my mother, I don't know which one I would want to give up, not even Wilmer.  When my brother, Gene, was killed, we all came together to support each other.  When my Dad died of cancer in 1976, we were there for each other.  The same thing happened when my mother died and when Wilmer's wife, Doris, died, also of cancer.  We developed an us-against-the-world mentality.  Although we still squabbled at times, the venom was gone because we had a common grief.

We developed a tradition of going to all of the nieces and nephews graduations and weddings and getting together twice a year, once in the summer and once around the Christmas/New Year's holidays.  It has become harder to do with in-laws and significant others having their own families with demands on their time and grandchildren making logistics difficult.

My cancer was diagnosed just about a month ago.  Already, my siblings have gathered from the four corners of the earth -- Wilmer from eastern Europe, Jo Ann from Kentucky, Louise from Virginia, Harold from Vienna, and Mark from Wisconsin-- to do what?  Mostly to laugh and poke fun at each other.  I organized a Who Loves John The Most contest by which I would award points to siblings who did nice things for me, with the prize being getting to succeed me as Titular Head of the Family upon my demise.  Unfortunately, we lost track of the standings as I was awarding and taking away points arbitrarily, so I finally just decided the title will go to Wilmer as the Second Born and Natural Heir.  Maybe now we'll stop fighting.


Mary Biddle said...

I can relate to so much of this. Thanks so much for your delightful reflections. And for getting me to listen to James Brown signing "I Feel Good" first thing in the morning.
Mary Biddle

GeGe said...

My little sister still gets away with all kinds of stuff. Some things never change. Not fair.

So happy that you have a wonderful bunch of brothers & sisters. I'd always wanted a brother, and after 10+ years of walking together, I'd come to thing of you as a brother. So, thanks for listening and all the advice.

My Dad used to tell me how important family is, but I always argued with him: oh no, I'd say -- friends are the most important. But he was right, and I've come to realize that more & more. Friends are important, but family is, well, family. And I'm glad we've got ours!

Glad you have a family to provide love & support & laughter. Mine has been there for me.