Excerpt from the upcoming book Viking Funeral. Scroll down for previous chapters.
My mom was the youngest of nine children. Unlike my dad, she came from a house of plenty. Plenty of food and even more joking and laughter. She grew up eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with sterling silverware on fine china with tablecloths and linen napkins. Her china and silver patterns were picked out for her when she was born. Her family had a live-in cook, maid, and nanny.
Marrying my dad, she left all that pampering behind, rolled up her sleeves and learned to do all things domestic: cook, clean, care for children, referee, separate the proverbial dog and catfights, feed the actual dog and cat, discipline, shuttle, shop, pay bills, maintain a full house as detailed further below.
She ran our house like a military ship. You have to be efficient when you have a big family, or you might die under an enormous pile of dirty clothes, trash or worse, dog doo. We had a predictable, jam-packed life with the many moving parts that come with five kids, 15 first cousins (just on my mom’s side), ailing grandparents, their large group of friends from high school and their growing families, lots of friends from school and our neighborhood: baseball, basketball, football and volleyball games, paying the bills, “put the cat out,” Cub Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, softball, Church and Sunday dinners with extended family, guitar lessons, gymnastics, family (including cousins) vacations, “Boys! get off the roof,” “Boys! keep your hands to yourself,” piano lessons, “Boys! don’t throw things in the house,” Holidays, “Damn It Boys! I told you a window would get broken!” hosting slumber parties for wild screaming middle school girls, “Boys! keep your hands off the walls,” birthday celebrations (roughly every two weeks someone in our extended family had a birthday that we celebrated), “Boys! I said keep your hands to yourself,” laundry, grocery shopping, making lunches, friends over for dinner, “Keep your swimsuit top ON,” baseball in the street, a family member here and there living with us, “Did anyone let the cat in?” broken window repairs, “Take it upstairs with you” stitches and broken bones, parties sanctioned and secret while they were out of town, dentist appointments for five, pets and vets, orthodontist, parent-teacher conferences, dusting and vacuuming and mountains of dishes and everything in between that is not directly outlined above.
There was always enough mayonnaise, Roman Meal bread, margarine (didn’t everyone eat margarine back then?), Skippy Peanut Butter (Chunky), toilet paper, soap, towels and clean clothes. It takes a LOT of organization and effort to keep everything in stock and running smoothly. So yes, my dad worked long hard hours in retail management but look at my mom’s work life seven days a week and she had to deal with all of us too! Lucky him!
When I say our house was like a military ship, I mean it was efficient. It was always tidy. You would never know how many people lived in their house because my mom never allowed us to drop our junk by the front door. We were not allowed to slow down until we dumped our stuff upstairs in our rooms. And if there was anything sitting on the stairs like clean towels or toilet paper we had to take that up with us because we were “going that way anyway.” The house was always clean because she wanted it that way and for a brief window of time, she had an army of five children to dust, vacuum and clean every Saturday. She also cleaned the two bathrooms EVERY day. You HAVE to do so when you have 3-5 males on the premises.
Our mom figured out how to run this organization very efficiently, and she, well they both had expectations. My mom tried to raise us to be proper and fancy, we all know how to set a table and what fork and spoon to use but have you heard my language? For the record, I did not learn my varsity level cursing habits at home. The general house rules were nothing unrealistic. “Pick up after yourself. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Those kind of things. Pretty simple rules really. The things you need to be able to relate to people in the real world.
Like all of America at that time we too had to be home by the universal time that the street lights come on. We were expected to be present at dinner. General good hygiene was also expected, “Wash your hands before dinner.” As previously mentioned, Strict rules were imposed at the dinner table including properly asking for things to be passed to you at the table “Please pass the (fill in the blank)?” And “Thank you.” So while all the rules and maintenance of life stuff sounds stiff and uninteresting, for clarification she was consistent, you have to be with this sort of job but always quick to laugh.
My mom was the infrastructure of everything related to general house operations. Her supportive planning and steady execution of everything in every area of our lives gave all of us the platform to succeed at home and out in the world. I forgot to mention picking up dry cleaning above, my dad’s professional wardrobe was meticulously cared for.
My mom made everything about dinner happen as was common back in time. After my dad’s last story, my mom coordinated having us clear the dishes away. One of the older kids had an assigned night to do the dishes. This is when the majority of any bitching by the children about anything in our house began…regarding whose night it was to do the dishes, followed by trade negotiations. “If you do the dishes tonight, I will do them tomorrow.” I was too young when the house was so full to ever be in the dishwashing bitching, negotiation and rotation schedule. I just remember the arguments that my parents let resolve themselves about whose night it was. Someone WAS going to do those dishes.
I know I used the word military previously, but our home, the home my mom created was not militant. It was a vibrant, loving home with plenty of giggling and running around happening as well. The very beautiful 1920s vintage historic Spanish style home was constantly teeming with children. People were always curious about what the house looked like inside. Once inside they wanted to stay not because it was beautiful, but it was a fun place to be.
Any day of the week there was always at least one extra kid in the house, either a friend or a cousin or two or all the above. It was not uncommon to have a friend join us for dinner on a school night, Brian comes to mind, or anyone else who happened to stop by close to dinner time. Our dining room table when expanded could seat 18 but also converted to a card or ping pong table with the addition of a net attached to the table in the center with the turn of a wingnut screw. There was always room for an extra person or ping pong around the world silliness.
Someone was frequently hitting a tennis ball up against the garage. The boys (and cousins) played catch across the street, not by playing on the other side of the street, by standing one on either side of the street, throwing the ball across the street and over cars as they drove by. When someone missed their catch on our side, the baseball hit the garage door with a loud bang. My mom rolled with all of it.
On occasion, our house was a haven for a runaway child who was at odds with their parents for a day or two. Slumber parties were wild but rare and usually saved for two special occasions a year, birthday parties for the older girls. Our parents’ friends often visited. Usually with their children which meant all sorts of wild play, games, hide-and-seek both inside and outside of the house. My mom was perpetually putting a pot of coffee on because there were always people stopping by. But given everything she had to accomplish in a day she had to have needed that coffee too. I remember she drank coffee up until maybe 8 o’clock at night. Now she has one cup in the morning, that is it.
Our parents were booster club members for everything. But really, mom’s ARE the booster club, working all those volunteer hours in the snack bar or hosting the fundraiser du jour. We attended all the many sporting events by loading up our wood-paneled station wagon, the woody with ice chests, bleacher pads, and blankets. You need a large vehicle when you are a family of seven.
We were always attending some sporting event somewhere. The boys and our cousins played Little League on city teams like boys all across America, and we all played sports organized by our Catholic school too. Three of my siblings were in high school at the same time. Dave was a senior, Linda a Junior and Scott a freshman. Each played a sport or two. Dave’s football activities in high school were the most storied because an entire community comes out to watch football and his sport was by far the most talked about in our house. Boys sports overshadowed girls sports by far back then.
His storied time on the field was not exaggerated. He played center. He was wide and solid from the shoulders down. He was the perfect wall of muscle to put in front of a quarterback. He made the varsity team his sophomore year, was named the All-star athlete for the region that year and was team captain his senior year. No one sacked the San Bernardino High School quarterback, and subsequently, the team always did very well. He also played Baseball, Water Polo, Wrestled and was on the Track team (shot put). There was a snack bar at the football games and our mom, ever carrying out her momly duties definitely had her time in the snack bar pit.
I was very little and bored to death at most events, but I liked going to high school football games because they were at night and I got to stay up later than normal. I would have been between 2-6 and remember climbing the underside of the bleachers like a jungle gym, parents allowed us to be out of their site back then. I could hear my mom’s familiar cute outbursts of laughter rise above the mixed noise of the crowd now and then and stopped momentarily when I heard announcements over the PA. “And Linane sacked the quarterback.” “And Linane blocks the kick.” And Linane-(fill in the blank).” It felt so official because the announcer sounded like someone from T.V. I was less than five…don’t judge. All I could tell is that it sounded like my brother was all over the field saving the day again like last week and the week before that. That was my first awareness of feeling pride, I was proud to hear his name, our shared imprinted name over and over.
Some of my mom’s more brilliant moves:
Our house was large with five bedrooms and all the other typical rooms you expect in a house, living room, dining room, but we also had a breakfast nook and a loft area that was a den. I know it sounds fancy but we just happened to live in an older home that had such rooms.
Every Saturday, my mom employed her army of five to clean the house from top to bottom, and we did. The older kids vacuumed, moved furniture around, mopped. I had the pint-sized task of dusting a certain room usually mine because there wasn’t much I could break or if I did break something it would be my own. When I was older, I emptied the trash throughout the house. The army helped keep the house clean and taught us all how to care for our things and ultimately, a home.
My job of trash lady, of course, took me ALL day Saturday. A job that probably should have taken about 10 minutes tops. I fully employed whatever that law is, now I have to look it up, Parkinson’s law (I swear it is a thing) states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. I wasn’t wise enough yet to have figured out that if I did my job quickly I would be given another task, I simply was pouting about what I deemed as an awful task that a princess such as myself should not have to do and I just procrastinated all day rather than just be done with it. No one told me I was a princess, trust me, I was more likely referred to as a pill because of my incessant inquisitive nature. I just deduced I was from all the princess books I had read and because we lived in a beautiful home that looked a little bit like a castle. I know, I’m ridiculous. My mom and husband both gave me the same book one year, the Princess and the Pea, my favorite from childhood and somewhat autobiographical. Ok, maybe I still refer to myself as the princess and the pea when it comes to the desire for creature comforts.
With a live-in grandparent or aged uncle here and there from my mom’s side of the family, yes, she cared for her mother and a few siblings too. So, yes with the influx of ailing adults the kids had to share a room. My mom had us change rooms every six months.
All rooms were not created equal which meant one, two or three people to a room or the very lusted after commodity among children…the one small room in the house, a room of one’s own. My mom’s plan of everyone changing rooms every six months meant no one had to endure an unpleasant dreaded paring with a sibling that long and someone would get the coveted room of their own, at least for six months. In this transition, we had to move all of our furniture out of our room, go through all of our clothes and toys and get rid of things we no longer used. It was brilliant, for deep cleaning, pairing down like you need to do to maintain control of the volume of crap five children can amass and keep the kids from complaining about the unfairness of life with “fill in the blank” having the best room to themselves.
Our vacations were typically a week beach house rental in Newport Beach in Southern California. Not a long drive, not an extravagant expense and cheap entertainment with the ocean keeping us busy and wearing us out all day. My favorite bit of brilliance, we were allowed to bring a friend on vacation with us. That friend was almost always a cousin of similar age. The woody somehow fit loads of people, before seatbelts of course. In retrospect, after having my one and only child, I asked my mom what in the hell she was thinking taking 10 children on vacation. She responded, “Oh honey, it was so much easier to make 10 sandwiches than it was to listen to five children bitch about being bored.” Seriously, brilliant!