We had a very merry Christmas indeed, and I hope you all did as well. This was our family’s best Christmas in many years, because we were able to spend it together. We have received abundant confirmations since the move that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, doing what we are supposed to be doing right now. Although most people would not want to be in our shoes and to the world outside things look pretty bleak, we are truly happy and all of our needs are met. This jobless time has brought our family closer together, and has presented SO many opportunities for God to show us how very big He is and how richly, extravagantly He loves us. We are getting to live Isaiah 61:3, and it is so much more beautiful than any of our own plans. Our future looks bright, but if it should fall, yet will I praise Him with my whole heart.
Mother had a stable but low-paying career working with children. Daddy worked at the family business, with a few short breaks. It was an extremely profitable but seasonal business. We maintained certain standards year-round: If we wanted a new toy or other luxury, we could either get it with our allowance or wait until Christmas/our birthday. We occasionally got a small amount of “allowance credit,” but were not taught anything about long-term planning. We didn’t go out to sit-down restaurants or order pizza very often (although we did eat a lot of fast food during the busy season.) We didn’t attend many movies, skating rinks, Chuck-E-Cheese, or other places that charged money for entertainment; except for special treats. And even during the brief time we were on food stamps, Mother always made sure to put a little something in the offering plate at church. My parents also maintained some luxuries whenever possible, even if that meant forgoing groceries or other necessities: Mom’s hair was always salon-dyed (as was mine once I reached the proper age), nails always painted, make-up always done. Mother forced me to have my hair dyed for years, but I could manage to avoid the nails and make-up if I really worked at it. She bullied me and sometimes withheld privileges if I failed to comply. We occasionally received hand-me-down clothing from our cousins, but we never purchased clothing or toys second-hand. Dad frequently traded his sports car or pickup truck for a newer model, owned the biggest TV on the market, and had a personal computer before anyone else on the block, in addition to the recreational drugs. We had a cleaning lady most of the time, but would occasionally cancel her services for a few weeks during the slower months. Even when the cleaning lady was on hiatus, we had very few chores.
During the busy months, Mom and Dad saved for the slower months, but it seemed they never put back enough. They kept a specific fund that could not be touched unless a dire emergency arose: the Christmas fund. Christmas was an elaborate celebration in our family. We wore brand-new matching outfits to the Christmas eve service at church. We opened our brand-new matching Christmas PJs Christmas eve, to wear to bed and then for pictures Christmas morning. Mother prepared a feast for our extended family on Christmas day. And the gifts, oh, the gifts. Each year we prepared a list of desired presents at Mother’s prompting. This list had to be long enough to share with the extended family and still leave enough to flood the house with gifts from Mother, Father, and Santa on Christmas morning. If the first list wasn’t long enough, we had to add to it. Gifts would be piled everywhere, under the tree, on the furniture, under the dining room table, around the hearth. Mother would choose the items from our lists that she found acceptable and would pass some of them on to extended family to purchase for us. The rest, if she deemed them acceptable she tried to find them at the best possible prices. If she could not glean enough gift ideas from our lists, she still felt compelled to drain the Christmas fund, so she purchased things seemingly at random, or things that fit her taste, things she wanted us to like. As an example, once I reached the appropriate age, I usually received large amounts of make-up, especially kits, either from expensive department store brands or even occasionally drug store brands. Mother trained us not only to smile and say thank you, but to effuse over each gift and spend some time playing with it enthusiastically for the camera. Christmas meant more than just gifts, of course, but I will save the rest of the traditions and memories for another entry.
So even though an abundant Christmas fund sat in the bank, if the money ran out during the slow season Mother and Father would not touch it unless a true emergency arose. This meant that sometimes we ate nothing but pasta and hamburger for weeks at a time. Other times it meant we had three meager meals and no snacks, left with rumbling tummies for much of the day and night. Complaints about hunger elicited a number of responses, ranging from denial to charges of ungratefulness, belittling to annoyance. Meal and snack times and amounts were set and they had better be enough or we could “get over it.” Sometimes I would sneak food, even hiding boxes and wrappers in my room or in strategic places around the house. If I got caught I was reprimanded, and punished by missing the next snack or meal. As I got older, I would gorge myself in secret on grocery day so that at least for one day I wouldn’t go hungry.
We also had to wear worn-out and out-grown clothing and shoes until Christmas, and then whatever we got for Christmas had to last us until the busy season, growth spurts not being accounted for. This meant that some years we went without winter coats, appropriate shoes, and occasionally no socks and one fitting pair of underwear. If we got down to no underwear that fit, then mother would pick up a few pairs, but that was pretty much the only exception. Child Services got involved on a couple of occasions, but that would only fix the clothing situation for that year. The following winter we reverted to the old way of doing things.
During the busy season, we lived the high life. With Daddy’s first big paycheck or two, Mom and Dad would catch up on the mortgage and any other lapsed bills. Then, right before Spring Break, we’d go on a huge shopping spree for our Spring wardrobes. We shopped the sales racks first, but after exhausting those we paid full price for the remainder. We’d get new water shoes or flip flops, sandals (sometimes two or three pairs for the girls), hiking boots, sneakers, at least two pairs of dress shoes, at least two swim suits and a cover-up each, church clothes, school clothes, and of course, play clothes for the long summer. We’d also each get one especially fancy outfit just for Easter. After Easter, the special outfits might be worn to a Summer wedding, but we usually only wore them once or twice and then donated them. We always did something for Spring Break; sometimes just an inexpensive camping trip to the lake or a park, other years Disney World or the beach or a water park, depending on how the busy season started out that year. We would have another huge shopping trip at the end of the school year to replace any outgrown clothing and fill out our Summer wardrobes. During the Summer, we always made at least one trip to an exclusive beach resort or theme park. We stayed in luxury suites, condos, or even rented a townhouse. We attended lots of summer camps: some VBSes, some educational day camps, and some sleep-away camps. We did lots of what people now call “staycation” stuff, seeing local attractions and such. And some years, we took an educational trip, such as visiting Washington, D.C.; Colonial Williamsburg, VA; the Grand Canyon; Mt. Rushmore, to name a few. Some of these trips early in the season went on credit cards that my parents then ended up making payments on into the Winter, contributing to our economic difficulties in the lean months.
My parents saved for retirement, but a tragedy wiped out most of those savings in my teen years. More on that later. They did not, however, save for our college educations and even with an upper-class income between the two of them, they paid for a lot of things with credit for a long, long time.
My Junior year of college, Mother called me out of the blue one day to tell me that there was no more money. And that was that. I’d chosen an intense major and didn’t even have time to look for a job, let alone actually work one. It was too late in the semester to drop any classes without penalty to find work, so I did the only thing I knew how to do: I paid for everything with credit. Car insurance and gas, cell phone, prescription medication, and any incidentals that came up. That semester I flunked out, mainly for unrelated reasons but it would be naive to say that stress had no effect on my studies. I don’t know how my brother managed to get by. My sister managed to pick up more hours at her part-time job, and allowed her boyfriend to help her make ends meet. Mother has no recollection of this. She and Dad managed to get through that Winter somehow.
My mother worked with children for over 30 years. She describes her disciplinary style as “nurturing but strict.” Between my dad’s strong personality, high intelligence, and his parents’ neglect, he found a lot of creative ways to keep himself occupied as a child. So anything we even thought about doing, he had either done or thought about doing. I think many parents probably believe this of themselves, but I digress. Of the three, Nancy stands out as the most reasonable and effective disciplinarian. Nearly as strict as mother, creative like father, but she bested them both in consistency and structure. During the first several years that Nancy lived with us, she left us with little time to get into trouble. She came up with appropriate punishments and applied them consistently to any child in the family. She made reasonable rules, and if she made changes, they made sense and did not apply retroactively.
My parents strongly believed in the punishment fitting the crime, but often disagreed on the details when it came to living out that philosophy. The rules of the house and the consequences of breaking them changed frequently. Sometimes a rule seemingly erupted from nowhere, with additional consequences for not inherently knowing how to behave. They enforced most rules sporadically. If one parent disagreed with another’s discipline, they simply overrode it with their own harsher or more lenient punishment, or disregarded it. Like most children of the eighties, we got time outs. We lost toys and privileges. We occasionally got spanked. I think this one may be more of a cultural thing than an era thing, but we occasionally got “whupped” with a “switch,” or a long, thin hickory twig stripped of its leaves. For the worst infractions, we had to select the switch ourselves. It had to be just the right thickness, color, and length. Then we had to strip the leaves from it ourselves. Occasionally, the entire punishment consisted of the mental anguish and anticipation involved in choosing and preparing the switch. Dad still kept that switch handy for a few days to help us remember not to repeat the infraction. When we got “a whoopin,” he aimed to leave marks and make it painful for us to sit the next day as a reminder of our wrongdoing, without breaking the skin. And he never did break the skin. I say he because although mother might occasionally prescribe the switch, she never implemented it herself. That task belonged to father. Mother preferred a wooden spoon.
My teen years brought many changes. My parents were trying to learn how to function as a stable married couple, and we all had to learn how to operate as a family unit without Nancy and Ellie (we still saw them most days, but it’s different when you live in different houses). My dad was adjusting to life without drugs, learning how to be a full-time father and husband, trying to get to know this God who pulled him from the very brink of death, and rebuilding himself and his entire life. My mother was living with some serious health problems and had to take a prolonged leave of absence from work. And, there were three teenagers living under one roof.
Grounding became the punishment of choice. Grounding ranged from simply being confined to the house for a few days to losing everything in our rooms, including furniture, except for bare essentials, then being confined to our room for up to a month with no phone privileges, no visitors. This is where the inconsistent discipline really blossomed. Whatever level of grounding we originally received never stood. Within a day, the length of the grounding got extended or shortened, and might change again several times before someone decided we had learned our lesson and earned our privileges back. The severity also fluctuated from day to day and from child to child. My brother always received preferential treatment, but after Nancy and Ellie moved out in junior high, the favoritism exploded. He got away with things “us girls” never could, and when he did get in trouble he got off a lot easier than either of us. My sister and I felt like either she or I might receive favor while the other sister sunk to the status of “the bad one.” These roles usually lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before reversing.
We may have gotten jealous from time to time, but we never resented my brother for his position in the family. He did nothing to try to earn or gain special treatment, it was simply bestowed upon him. And whichever of us was on good terms with our parents always tried to help the other one out if we could without jeopardizing our own favor. We had kind of an understanding about that. On rare occasions, neither of us were favored and we just walked on eggshells together until they either decided one of us was worse or better than the other again, thus giving one of us the coveted position of Favorite Daughter.
When I was three years old, my mother needed to raise three babies with no job, no family nearby, and a transient husband. She also suffered from a slew of medical issues. She needed help. Right around this time, a family friend’s sister lost her husband. She had nowhere to go. We had a spare room. Our family friend wisely put us together, and her sister and three-year-old niece moved in with us. So now our family consisted of two mothers, sometimes a father, and four children under the age of four.
Ellie fit in seamlessly with my siblings and I, and we grew up as a close-knit sibling group of four. We did everything together: vacations, family portraits, holiday celebrations, the works. And Ellie’s mother, Nancy, became fast friends with my mother and like an aunt to us kids. She and my mom shared the load equally whenever my dad left, each acting as a parent to all four of us. When Daddy lived at home, he treated Ellie as one of his own and she called him Daddy. Family meetings and discipline included all four children.
At some point, we decided we needed a special term to describe our relationships because, in our limited experience, there just didn’t seem to be a fitting term. “Oh, so you and your sister have different dads?” “Yeah, and different moms too. But nobody’s adopted, and we all live together.” Those discussions drew a lot of confused looks. So we coined the phrase “heart sisters” and “heart aunt,” terms of endearment we still use as adults. But mostly, we’re just a family, no modifiers needed.
My mom always wanted a big family. But after years of trying to get pregnant, the doctors ran all kinds of tests and found that her reproductive organs were deformed and nonfunctional. They could do nothing for her. So she and her husband resolved to be a wonderful aunt and uncle and to travel the world. But it was not to be; several years later, the marriage dissolved.
Heartbroken, my mother packed her things and moved several states away for a fresh start. Before too long, she met my dad. Handsome and wild, he swept her off her feet with his charm. Within months they wed.
Years went by, and my mother suddenly fell very ill. When the doctor told her she suffered from morning sickness, she nearly fell out of her chair! The child of her heart, for whom she had longed and prayed through many years, the child she had accepted she would never hold in her arms, was somehow growing inside her. The doctors couldn’t give her an answer as to how I came to exist, so they told her to enjoy her miracle baby. And yet, mere weeks after my birth, the sickness came again. We are Irish twins, my brother and I: siblings born less than a year apart. And then, we two became three: Irish triplets, three siblings born in under two years, my brother and sister and I, the children of my mother’s heart.