My oldest brother is 32. My youngest sister is 11. In between are three younger brothers, four younger sisters, and myself. It sounds like the set up for an SAT math question. The answer, for those who are bad at math, is 10. I come from a family of 10 children.
Many are surprised to learn that I grew up poor. Not the kind of poor where you only get to eat out once a week, or even once a month—the kind of poor where we picked off the fuzzy mold growing on our bread rather than throw the loaf away. We used every part of a vegetable, from the yellowing head of the broccoli down to the tough stalk. We rescued grains of rice that escaped into the sink while being washed, rinsed off the slimy milky substance encasing our tofu, and drank expired milk.
Things are better now. Several of us are working adults, and my family no longer lives in the developing world. Still, on a recent visit I found myself dancing around the shower like I used to as a kid, trying to find the perfect angle for the 5 thin streams of water to hit my body. I dried off with a threadbare towel before scurrying down the hall to bunk up in a squeaky twin sized bed with one of my sisters.
However, all of these little inconveniences don’t really bother me. I love spending time with my legion of siblings. In part because it’s one of the only occasions where I can sit back and not stress about cooking all the meals. From the 32-year-old down to the 11-year-old, everyone cooks.
My husband jokes that our family gatherings consist of three activities: Fishing, karaoke and eating. It’s not entirely true. We do other activities as well, but we pepper them with tantalizing discussions about food—which are really just elaborate games of chicken. The goal is to provoke each other until someone cracks and runs off to the kitchen to put together a snack.
Last week I arrived at my parents’ home to find my 13-year-old sister in the kitchen baking off batches of her chocolate chip cookies. The next morning the youngest was busy pulling out metal mixing bowls and measuring flour, butter and sugar. Within 15 minutes—and working solely from a recipe she had memorized—this precocious 11-year-old produced a stack of beautiful crepes sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with lemon juice.
They were so good that the following day I made a deal with her… make them for breakfast again, and in return I’d teach her how to make strawberry syrup like I’d learned last summer at the restaurant.
This type of bargaining is rampant in my family. Chores and responsibilities can be traded like commodities in a sibling open market, “If you make me a ramen, I’ll collect and put out the trash” or “If the girls make a night snack, the boys will do the dishes.” Food, and the ability to either cook or provide it, is the dominant currency in our house.
Of course with six girls and four boys the division of labor isn’t always fair. When we were younger my brothers somehow convinced me that every time we went fishing my responsibilities included finding the worms, baiting the hooks, cleaning and cooking the fish. The actual fishing was a “chore” they graciously volunteered to take on.
Thankfully as each of the brothers passes through puberty and they learn the magic of the line, “Why don’t you come over and I’ll make you dinner?” they can more frequently be found in the kitchen honing their cooking skills. Is there anything more motivating to a young boy than the prospect of being popular with the ladies?
Someone asked me the other day if I ever wished my childhood was more “normal”. Maybe. Does that mean a quiet house with a room and bed of my own? Dinners at nice restaurants with cloth napkins and real silverware? Coming home from school to cupboards stocked with tasty snacks? Yeah, that would have been nice. But honestly I’ll take foraging for chestnuts in forests with my siblings, catching trout in rivers, crawfish in cold streams and feeling the satisfaction of turning borderline tofu into delicious fluffy fritters over a “normal” childhood any day.
Even if it means I have to bait the hooks.
(Here’s our attempt at a family photo with only 6 of us. I don’t think we’ve successfully taken a 10 sibling photo in several years)