Clarissa Reeves approached me in line at the monkey bars. She was not like the delicate blonde girls in our second grade class. Freckles spattered the bridge of her nose just like mine. Her hair was much longer than my own frizzy curls, and just a shade darker. Her sleek, black ponytail hung to her waist. This girl was not afraid to get dirty and I liked her for that.
“So you really have nine kids in your family?” Her tone meant, “Of course you don’t. The person who told me is obviously a big fat liar, and I’m about the catch him at it.”
Why was that weird? I was much more concerned about the daring feat I was about to attempt. The week before, Shasta Young had mastered The Dead Man’s Drop. I’d finally worked up the courage to try it myself. I wiped my hands on my pants and reached out for the cold metal bar. Years of palm-sweat and bold kids had created two beautifully polished patches; the perfect placement for my hands.
“No way! Nine kids???” Clarissa’s voice carried to the waiting line of kids behind us. It probably carried over to the kickball field. “Are your parents divorced or something?”
I suppressed a snort as I threw my legs over the bar and scrambled into a sitting position. My parents who always made out in the kitchen? Divorced? Far from it.
I took a deep breath, wiped my hands one more time on my pants, gripped the bar with my knees and fell backwards into free space. The blood rushed to my head as my hands dangled above the ground. I admired the way my curly ponytail swished back and forth in the dirt. It seemed longer this way. Not as long as Clarissa’s, but respectable.
I swung my body back and forth. To complete the trick I needed to do a half flip backwards and land on my feet. It required strategy. And guts. Everything depended on proper height with no room for hesitation.
“You know, my Mom’s been married a couple of times. So we have five kids. And I thought my family was big. Nine kids?” I could only hear Clarissa as I swung higher and higher.
I released. My knees were bent in perfect symmetry and I whipped gloriously through the air the way I’d seen Shasta Young do it. There was a collective gasp from spectators. I hadn’t gone high enough.
I flailed, desperate to get my feet under me. Pea-sized gravel sprayed the kids around me. With a jarring crash I caught myself on my hands and knees. I inspected my palms through the dust and sweat, reassuring everyone. There was no blood. I was fine.
But that’s the first time it occurred to me. My family is big.
I’d never given it much thought before. My best friend two doors down was an only child. But she was the anomaly. Not me. I had eight other kids living under my roof to back me up in that opinion.
The bell rang and I sprinted down the block for home. I hesitated at the Theiral’s house to confirm their Doberman was tied to his stake. His pointed ears perked up as he snarled and spat vicious threats. I understood him perfectly. He’d love nothing more than to rip my throat out.
I crossed the small plank bridge over the ditch and leaped over the cracks in the sidewalk where tree roots grew beyond their bounds in front of the nice lady’s house. This was the only place where anything dared to grow out of place. Her perfectly manicured flower beds boasted a lawn-of-the-month sign. I passed six houses on the right side and five on the left. And when I came out of the trees there was home.
This was the center of town as far as I was concerned. Everything we needed was within walking distance. The elementary school to the east, the post office to the west, the town’s grocery store to the north, and the high school football field to the south. Neighborhood kids came and went in a steady stream from all directions. As a perk, we were surrounded by enough drunken domestic disputes to keep the cops patrolling the neighborhood, occasionally even turning on their lights and flooding the neighborhood in flashes of red and blue. All interesting things happened here at the corner of 4th and Maple.
I cut across the grass of the historic, century-old home. It was a mansion to me with two stories stretching up past the trees. A yard adorned each side of the house. On the west side, a balcony screamed potential for forts and water balloon launches, but the access door was kept locked with a small hook and latch and we were forbidden from stepping foot out onto the rotting wood.
I burst through the door, yelling as I went. “Mom! Do we have a big family? Clarissa Reeves says we do.” I reached back for the brass doorknob to keep my balance while I struggled to kick my shoes off. “And did you know her mom has two husbands?”
My mom called back from a distant room. “Most people think we do have a big family.”
I stood in my socks on the avocado-green carpet. Mom’s words confirmed it. I had a big family. What did that mean? Was that a good thing?
Over the years I’ve learned I can only answer this question for myself and my answer will be vastly different from my three brothers and five sisters. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that I was the favorite child so that likely made my memories rosier than they might have been otherwise. My parents would never say it out loud, but it was always kind of implied. “We love all of our children equally.” Wink wink.
Another reason is if you get us all in the same room reminiscing over a shared incident you’ll get some who flat out deny it ever happened, some who would be funnier in its retelling, some who would be more eloquent, and some who would embellish the story beyond recognition, making it more entertaining that way. But in that spirit of competition which I learned from my siblings, I did it first. So the story is mine to tell however incorrectly I do it.
The braggart in me wants to claim that I win. But you have to be careful when declaring yourself the winner in a big family. You never stay on top for long. Not with eight other people angling for a piece of the pie.
According to George Bernard Shaw, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
For better or worse this was my childhood. Nine kids dominating the neighborhood, sleeping in the same house, sharing the same genes and two tiny bathrooms.
And I intend to make these skeletons dance.