Selected Essays

A Slice of the Ice Cream

I am one of thirteen, though my mother had twelve pregnancies. She raised us in a house that was not much more than eight hundred square feet. We never gave thought to being seriously cramped since the environment in which a person is born and raised becomes their normal.

We had one bathroom, which was often a semiprivate facility. Bath time was a production line. When we were young, we shared baths, which made sense in that it saved water and time. Even after I was old enough to bathe solo, it was not unusual for an older brother to walk in to take care of his personal business.

It was not always a heartwarming, Walton family, Little House on the Prairie experience. Tough, rough-and-tumble times hit as they do in every family. The most traumatic was the sudden death of our father when I was not quite four years old and my mother was pregnant with her thirteenth child. But we managed, due primarily to our real-life guardian angel: our mother. A Leo to the core, she refused to farm her children out to orphanages or foster homes.

I learned to count on but not to mess with Mumma. Once, when I was crying in protest as she slapped my bare back for a crime I hadn’t committed, she rationalized her stinging-handed justice saying, “Then that’s for the stuff I didn’t catch you doing.” How can you argue with such sound reasoning?

The total number of people living in my childhood home never exceeded fourteen. Soon after my father died, my eldest brother joined the military, and shortly after that, my eldest sister married. Over time, attrition helped it become a more workable number.

My mother’s kitchen was about sixty-four square feet. The original icebox, which was succeeded by a refrigerator after its demise, squatted inelegantly across from the gas stove. The space between them was too narrow to allow the oven and refrigerator doors to be open simultaneously. But then, why would you?

On the main floor, there were only two bedrooms, so my dad converted the attic into a third, more spacious bedroom. It ranged from butt cold during the winter to baking hot in the summer. Nevertheless, it relieved the space and modesty problem. Despite its severely constricted dimensions, the advantage of the lower bedroom was that it allowed for bunk beds. The older boys were privileged to sleep in their own bed. I never slept solo in a bunk or double bed until I was about thirteen and my brother Rich joined the Marines. I was the baby boy, which meant hand-me-downs extended beyond clothing.

Some years after my father died, my mother had the rear roof raised to form a dormer, thereby converting the attic bedroom into more spacious sleeping quarters. I guess she had not thought to add a second bath, but I suppose there was no place to install one. Besides, by then, only about half of us still lived at home, so the bathroom demand had been become less taxed.

By today’s standards, we were working poor, though we never considered ourselves to be that. It was the way it was, and everyone learned to make do.

On Friday evenings, my older brother would drive my mother to shop for groceries at Kroger in the Miracle Mile Shopping Center. When they got home, everyone pitched in to unload and put away the groceries. When she had an extra thirty-nine cents, she would splurge on a half-gallon of ice cream. Usually, it was Neapolitan because with the three flavors of strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate, it was a good compromise. The ice cream came in a box, which she or one of my older sisters would unwrap and slice so that everyone got the same share.

Mostly, it was that way with everything. Despite hard times when cornmeal mush with browned margarine drizzled over it was dinner, we always had turkey for Thanksgiving. My older brothers Billy and Rich got the turkey legs at dinner. When I was nine or ten, I became particularly excited about Billy joining the Air Force because I inherited his turkey leg. I was thrilled my sisters did not share my love for the dark meat or gnawing on a drumstick.

No matter your age or size, fair was fair. The rules applied to your allotted time in the bathroom. You called your time to take a bath, which was enforced via an honor code. It was likewise with the TV, although there were sacred inviolable programs for the few of us who stuck a stake in the ground: Combat for me, Paladin for Rich, and That Girl for my younger sisters. Ed Sullivan and Tonight with Johnny Carson were agreed-upon communal rituals.

When I talk about our family’s story, the reaction is often, “I can’t believe it.” In hindsight, nor can I, and I lived it. As it is with many others, stories from my childhood echo in my memory and appear in my habits, methods, practices, and more importantly, in my values, perspectives, and life philosophy. They are who I am.

A slice of the ice cream. Fairness coupled with compromise to find workable solutions. Not a bad life philosophy.

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