Big Family, Big Laughs, Big Love

Joan Carey

The creative urge runs strong in most of us (think of Pygmalion!), but nothing can match the wonder of bringing a baby into the light of day. Our firstborn were twin boys; I could have placed my dinner plate on my belly—it was so big! My parents came down to help us with the birth. My father told me affectionately that I was glowing. My husband commented that this may have something to do with the fact that I was shaped like an upside-down light bulb. (He slept on the floor that night.) After the twins were born, my husband headed back to work, and my parents drove off with me standing on the lawn, aghast, bewildered, and befuddled, with a baby under each arm. And thus began the greatest adventure of my life. Three more boys followed (my husband came from a family of six boys, and we did the math one day going back a generation or two to realize that his extended family was on a winning streak of 14 boys in a row), but the long of line of Carey males had to end sometime, and it finally did: when our daughter was born. In shock, my husband asked for a second opinion. The nurse assured him that: 1) child No. 6 was indeed a girl, and 2) that was most definitely the umbilical cord.

We lost a few babies after our daughter, and the kids lamented their loss as sorely as we did. One of the boys mentioned to his friend that there hadn’t been a new sibling born in a while, and the friend (who had witnessed plenty of sibling spats) pointed out, “But you don’t like the ones you already have!” Our boy replied, with a twinkle in his eye, “Exactly. I want some I do like!” One day, one of our older boys failed to put away a board game, complete with its assortment of big colored pegs and little colored pegs, all of which any capable 2-year-old can fit neatly between the heating duct grates and which make a lovely echoing sound as they skitter down into the nether regions of the basement heating system. When I reminded him to put it away, our articulate 2-year-old, who was playing nearby, interjected, “Yes, where I can’t reach it.”

One year when Christmas was approaching, our pastor preached on the extraordinary love shown when Jesus was laid in a manger, a filthy box filled with dung and animal drool. The kids listened with eyes round as saucers. Nor did they forget it overly quickly. Two days before Christmas, I said, “Come, children, come!! Let’s get the house shining and spotless for the baby Jesus to enter!” My 8-year-old responded, “Aw, Mom. Jesus was born in a stinking manger. So why do we have to clean the house?”

Once I asked, “Who put this cracked glass back on the shelf?” My 5-year-old replied, “I did. It’s only cracked on one end.” I pointed out, “But you could cut yourself on it.” “Oh,” said my son. “That would never happen to me. I never drink from that glass.” My husband and I worked sooooo hard to teach the children how to do chores properly. Once he yelled up the stairs, “Kids, get down here this instant! Who put these dishes away dirty?” General passionate denial. My husband, severely, looked down at our daughter: “Was it you?” Distraught, she responded, “Daddy! You know I never help with the dishes!” Sad, but true. But she was an honest little tyke. She got interested in a new fad called Webkinz (tiny stuffed animals with internet alter egos)—so interested that one week, she neglected to finish her homework. In a sorrowful and penitent state, she made a full confession to her mother. “I’m afraid you can’t do Webkinz for two whole days,” said I. “Better make it a week,” she replied mournfully.

When one of our boys turned 6, he was battling a severe cold. That did not stop the festivities, however, and he happily leaned over the cake to blow out the candles. At that very moment, alas, he sprayed out an enormous, uncontrollable sneeze, which saturated the frosting. “I’ll have ice cream,” “Cookies for me,” and “No dessert tonight, I’m full…” was the general response. This same kiddo had his own restaurant, complete with a printed and laminated menu that included ravioli, tomato soup, and a delicacy called “Super Toast.” Sounded interesting, but a price of $50? A bit too rich, we felt. He later told us that that menu item suffered from a slight decimal point error.

One January, fresh off of hearing the boys serenade the family to “99 Bottles of Beer” across 400 miles of the Nebraska frontier as we drove home from a Christmas with family in Colorado, I was struck by a vision: “Our kids should sing in a choir.” My husband, too, was struck by a vision: “Our kids should sing where I can’t hear them.” The two visions met and merged into a single vision, and we enrolled them all in the local children’s choir. It was a great experience for the kids. They started out learning musical fundamentals, such as what you do when the last bottle of beer comes off the wall (“Go to the store, and buy one more!”). We enrolled them in piano lessons, too. Their teacher was a brave soul and a family friend. She greeted them each week with a fixed smile on her face and tissues in her ears. They started out the year playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” By December, they were playing…. Well, OK: Maybe they were still playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but by then, it was with feeling (with what feeling is left as an exercise for the alert reader…).

Our best times were always in the kitchen and around the dinner table. I grew up in a family of eight children (and my mother grew up in a family of 11 children), and I learned from Mama and Grandma how important it was to sit everyone down at the table together once a day for the family supper. Both my husband and I love cooking, and the kiddies loved finding us in the kitchen. Our attention was on nothing in particular, so it could easily be on them, and they could prattle away with all of their stories and concerns. Who hasn’t had the feeling that all’s well with the world when Mom or Dad is in the kitchen whipping up something yummy? There’s always some little treasure to be found: maybe fresh, home-baked bread with butter and honey, or maybe a surprise batch of cookies or pumpkin bread, or a little chicken to nibble—or maybe Mom’s making a meal for a family with a new baby or someone in the hospital, and kiddies can help package it up with a special little ribbon, or they can run a fresh loaf of bread over to the neighbors… The kitchen was always a fabulous place for the kids to visit. And as they nibble, they pitch in and help. Every kid likes to “play cook.” We assigned each kiddo to one night of meal prep and one night of meal cleanup each week. This way, they all learned how to cook—and now as adults, they all still love to cook, so as parents and grandparents, we have been treated to many a meal prepared and served by our children. We kept our dining room table conversation lively, too. We played games like “Name That Quote” or “Daddy Quizzes,” where the pater familias would ask trivia questions from math, history, etc. We also played “Stump the Daddy,” where they asked Daddy questions and he tried to guess the answers. That sure got harder the older they got!

When you sit at the table around plates and dishes, you form a little circle, a little community… you have to LOOK at each other! You have to talk with each other! And you can’t just sit down for a minute and then get up—you have to stay there long enough to eat what’s in front of you (and we always saw to it that there was plenty and that dessert was worth sticking around for). Truly, the family meal is the way to keep a family together and laughing. We wouldn’t trade those years for anything. Now, we have nine grandchildren, with another one on the way. We are never lonely, never isolated, never bored: Family is where life begins and love never ends!