Eight is Enough

I have been writing this post in my head for a few weeks now.  Actually, I have been writing it most of my life.

I have been trying to determine what to write about my two sisters, sister #6 and sister #7.  I finally decided that I needed to add context in order to better explain the complex sets of relationships that exist within my birth family.

As I alluded in my Bucket List post, here, my parents were divorced.  After 8 kids in 9 years.  After 15 years, 9 months, and 21 days of marriage.  The divorce was finalized right before the end of my freshman year in high school.

Here is what I remember.

After having 8 kids in 9 years, my parents made a decision to stop having children.  I don’t know the details, but I do know that the birth control pill, which was very controversial at the time what with women’s lib and all, played a role.  My parents also decided that my mom could get a job to help out with Catholic school tuition and other expenses of raising a large family.  My mother was not allowed to continue her education after high school even though she had dreams of getting a nursing degree.  But she did decide to go to work in the local hospital as a nurse’s aide in the nursery.  Since she was so good handling babies, this was the perfect job.  Or was it?  My parents decided that the best shift for her would be the graveyard shift.  That way, she could work but still be at home during the day to take care of us kids.  Don’t think they factored sleep into the equation on this one.  All I know is that my dad’s life remained relatively unchanged, but my mom’s life changed dramatically, and this new life did not include sleep.

Imagine this – my father is going through life “business as usual.”  He gets up, goes to work, stops at the American Legion for a shot and a beer (or two) on the way home (he needed to do this to be able to deal with his wife and kids), and comes home to dinner, a clean house, clean clothes, etc.  Life is wonderful.  For him.

My mother gets to take care of 8 young children, keep a large house clean, do all the laundry, cooking, and she gets to work, too!  And we were all expected to be happy.  My father, the self described “benevolent dictator”, insisted on it.  And if he wasn’t pleased with how you looked, acted, or just because, you would get the famous backhand across the face.  And it didn’t matter if you were the wife or the kid.  If he decided you deserved it, then you got it.

In the meantime, my mother is getting a taste of . . . freedom.  She is going out with girlfriends from work.  She is earning money.  After a life of having every decision made for her, she is making some of her own.  And she made the biggest decision of her life, apparently without consulting anyone including her closest sibling, a brother who also happened to be a lawyer.  She filed for divorce.

This is how it went down.

This brother, my uncle, and his family were in town for a visit when the sheriff knocked on the door and presented my father with a summons for divorce.  While I’m sure my mother choreographed the timing so that she would have support, no one other than her, knew of her plans.  It was a complete shock.  Our lives changed instantaneously.  And I mean that literally.  One second, our lives were one thing, and the next second, they were something else.

My father, at first, refused to move out or even to move out of their marital bedroom, so my mother started sleeping on the couch.  This couch was right outside our bedroom, and I remember my father coming downstairs and begging her to come to bed with him.  As if that would make everything better.  I was mortified.

Eventually, he moved out.  To say that their relationship going forward was acrimonious is a gigantic understatement.  The 8 of us were pawns in their constant mission to undermine and undervalue each other.  My father passed away 36 years, 6 months, and 17 days after their divorce was finalized.  All those years of hate and divisiveness took a toll on the relationships in our family.

That is why, when I opened the box I received from my sister, and saw this picture, I was surprised.  No, I was stunned.  I have no recollection of this picture or time in my life.  A time, when by the looks of things, I came from a happy family.  The years of acrimony just sucked all of the happy memories out of my mind.

That is also why this is the last time all 8 of us kids were together – Thanksgiving 1982.  Nearly 28 years ago.

Divorce not only affects a husband and a wife.  It affects the children, the grandchildren, the friends, and the extended family.  And a bad divorce, an ugly divorce, an acrimonious divorce that spans decades results in scars that never completely heal.

My father would spend our early years deducting child support for every minute that he spent with us.  That was one of the many things he did to try and hurt his ex-wife, my mother.  Never mind that not having electricity, a phone, gas, or food was a problem for us kids.  That is, until we started working and helping to financially support the household.

My mother also reveled in her new found freedom.  She often would not come home after work or for a few days at a time.  She moved from working at the hospital to working in bars.

Both of our parents took advantage of the sexual revolution and slept around.

My mother and father abandoned their parenting roles after their divorce.  I guess there were no role models for a “good” divorce back then.  Unfortunately, that left us with no good role models for being a parent of teenagers, or a parent of young adults, or a parent of in-laws, or a grandparent.  So for me, especially as I have had teenagers and married children and a soon to be empty nest and maybe even grandchildren someday, I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of role model I want to be.  And some of the time, I fail at being a good one.  But I continue to keep trying and just hope that my kids will improve on my role modeling with their families someday.

And it adds context to the relationships that exist between the 8 of us kids that were left behind.  And it helps to explain why all 8 of us are not close today.  Sisters #6 and #7 – lost but not forgotten.

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