In the Middle

by Mary Ann Cooper

The author's siblings

The author’s siblings

I can’t imagine being an only child. What’s it like not being surrounded by a crowd? Never having to vie for attention, whether it’s a subtle tap on the shoulder or a desperate shout of “Look at ME!” How can you have a game of tag? Instead of racing downstairs on Christmas morning, do you casually stroll, knowing that everything under the tree is for you? Do you only play solitaire and not war? Do you go everywhere with your parents, or have real babysitters, instead of your brothers or sisters? What’s it like to wear something that someone else hasn’t worn before?

I grew up with three older siblings and four younger ones – yup, that’s eight of us. Six boys and two girls, with me wedged in the middle, fourth child and second girl. We were all tall and skinny, our blue eyes and freckles identifying our connection. The size of a small party, everyone in our neighborhood knew us. We played, we fought and always leaned on each other for support and attention.

Sardined into a small house in Queens, New York, we took up every inch of it. It was a small Dutch colonial, sandwiched between others that were identical, a cement ribbon of driveway separating us. Each house had a brick stoop facing a stamp-sized lawn, scraggly shrubs hugging the foundation. A small vestibule opened into our living room, which led to the dining room and a small kitchen. The upstairs held three bedrooms and one bathroom, which was in constant use. It was a tiny bathroom, with faded white walls and a confetti of black and white subway tiles dotting the floor. Thin towels hung next to a chipped radiator, which sizzled and hissed like a subway grate.

The author's childhood home

The author’s childhood home

The bedrooms weren’t much bigger than the bathroom, the largest one housing four boys. Walking up the stairs to the second floor, it was easy to find the boys’ room, with its permanent odor of dirty socks floating above the landing. It was a wild place in there: clothing flung about, random belts and shoes littering the scuffed floor. A gnawed wooden crib stood against the wall where baby Brian slept, flanked by Bobby’s single bed. My other brothers, Kevin and Timmy, spent their nights in a wobbly double, placed under a window.

Next door to this cave, my sister and I shared the smallest room, our bed nearly spilling into the hallway, allowing me to lie in bed and close the door at the same time. A tired maple dresser hugged the wall, festooned with a gray doily running across the top. This tiny room was where my sister found refuge from being the oldest and a girl. Many nights, lying in our little bed, she confided in me.

“I hate it here. Someday I’m going to marry a rich guy and never have any children.”

“Can I come?” I always asked.

My parents occupied the last room, its walls papered with pink roses and green leaves, yellowed pieces of it curling up in the corners. Dark and mysterious, the metal blinds were usually slanted shut and the air was always filled with the mingled smells of Old Spice and Evening In Paris.

It wasn’t spacious up there, but every night, we all had a pillow to put our heads on.

In my self-absorbed child’s world, I had no idea of the stretch it was for my parents to keep our sizeable group afloat. But I knew they never planned for, nor wanted a large family.

“What’re you doing with all those kids, anyway?” our neighbor Mrs. Glennon once called over to my mother from her tiny backyard, chatting back and forth while hanging laundry. Our clothesline, with its wooden clothespins standing at attention, sagged with the weight of our belongings and the ever-present collection of diapers. I was ten at the time, and there were six children in our house.

Hearing the question, my mother stopped working and put her hands on her hips. And being the polite woman she was, she told the truth.

“Well, Helen, we’re just following our church’s rules. And that means no birth control.” My mother’s response quieted our nosy neighbor, but it didn’t help our situation much; two more babies, Jeff and Kerry, appeared after that.

My mother became pregnant with my sister Dianne on her honeymoon, and thus began her seventeen-year cycle of having children. I see me standing next to her, looking up at her brown hair that’s been wrestled into a French twist, her cornflower eyes above her smile. She’s always dressed in tired elastic maternity pants, topped by something shapeless and flowery. Her pregnancies usually occurred every two years, but sometimes my parent’s rhythm clicked, allowing my mother to venture into real clothing for short periods of time.

But whether my mother was pregnant or not, tired or ecstatic, my father loved her more than life itself. Both the same age, he had married his childhood friend, and called himself “Mr. Lucky.” For many years, Mr. Lucky worked two jobs during the week – one as the manager of a department store and the other as an elevator operator. Weekends, he made extra money tending bar at Herby’s, a local hangout on our corner. We didn’t see a lot of my father – he was busy making sure his family was taken care of. His reward for all that hard work? Coming home to my mother.

I imagine feeding this brood was a constant challenge for my mother and father, especially with limited income and growing children. Food appeared and was promptly eaten. No seconds. No leftovers. Our church provided us with our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, and each week the parish school delivered leftover milk and bread to our home. We weren’t the poorest family in the parish, but we were somewhere on that list.

My father got a paycheck every Friday, which was convenient, because by Thursday night we had run out of money. Weather permitting, most Friday evenings we all sat waiting for him to return from the city. Perched on our scratchy stoop, we climbed its steps and side pillars like hawks hunting for prey. Eventually, my father appeared at the top of the street, newspaper folded under one arm, a brown bag filled with paper boxes of chicken chow mein in the other. At our house, dinners were fancy on Fridays.

Our meals were noisy and quick. Sitting at the long wooden dining room table, we were shoulder to shoulder, my parents at each head and a highchair somewhere in between. Everyone was protective of what was put in front of them; today, many of my brothers still carry the habit of eating with one arm cradling their plate. It was implicit: This is mine; don’t touch it. Once, I was foolish enough to leave my seat during dinner for a bathroom break, learning my lesson when I returned to an empty plate.

“I thought you were done!” my brother pleaded to me.

Keeping all of us clothed was as big an issue for my parents as feeding us was. The school provided us with free uniforms, which helped dramatically. But for after-school and weekend clothing, hand-me-downs were the rule. My brothers shared a revolving wardrobe, clothes going from one to the other, with some of the pieces growing old with us, becoming part of the family. But since there were five years between my sister and me, hand-me-downs were a problem.

Until Barbara Medford moved in up the block.

A year older and a lot richer than I was, Barbara had an extensive wardrobe. And every few months, her mother walked down the street to our house, carrying shopping bags filled with clothing that Barbara had outgrown. Coats and shoes and everything in between had been neatly packed into those bags for me.   Standing silent, watching my mother thank Mrs. Medford, I wanted to grab the bags right out of her hands. Finally taking my goodies upstairs, I arranged each piece on my bed, admiring and petting my treasures for most of the day.

No one but my family knew that I was wearing Barbara’s hand-me-downs. But apparently Barbara did. One afternoon while playing hopscotch with the other eight year olds in the neighborhood, Barbara stopped and pointed at my faded top with tiny pink flowers on it.

“That’s my old shirt,” she said with a catlike smile. The other girls stood quiet, watching.

I felt my cheeks get hot; I wanted to run home. Instead, I stayed and looked Barbara in the eye.

“My mother made me wear this shirt. I hate it.”

I avoided her after that, and the Medfords eventually moved away. The pressure was gone, but so were the clothes.

Besides the hand-me-down’s, the family’s other source of clothing came from my mother’s monthly treks to the rummage sales that took place at the local synagogues. The clothing was inexpensive, and usually of high quality. Everyone benefitted from these monthly wardrobe harvests; besides providing clothes for all of the children, it was also the source of my father’s suits. Leaving early in the morning with one of her older children, my mother stood in line, ensuring she had a first look at the day’s offerings. Hours later, after carting her bargains home in cardboard boxes, she began her sorting process, many of us standing around her.

Occasionally, some of the shorts, tops and pajamas that were doled out to me had tiny labels with names sewn into them.

“Who’s Susan Fisher?” I asked one day, pointing to a label.

“Susan Fisher owned that shirt before you,” my mother said.   “She probably went to camp, and had to have her name on all of her clothing.”

I stared at my mother.

“What’s camp?”

The labels never really bothered me, it was the tops and dresses that did. When I wore a garment and perspired, it seemed to activate the camper’s old perspiration; mixed together, it smelled toxic. When I was older and in high school, the stench usually emerged right after lunch. Nervously clamping my arms down, I wondered if the people around me could smell it also. And from that point on, no matter how many answers I knew, my arm wasn’t going up.

“It’s embarrassing!” I told my mother.

“I know, I know,” she said. “Just keep in motion.”

About the author

Mary Ann Cooper is a writer concentrating on memoir and personal essays.  She has recently been published in Salon, Halfway Down The Stairs, Brain, Child Magazine and Literary Brushstrokes.

She is presently at work on her memoir, “The Hollis Ten,” a group of stories about growing up in a family of eight children in Queens, New York.  Today, she is comfortable in crowds and still never leaves her plate unattended.     

Mary Ann resides in Westport, Connecticut.

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The Summer Before my Brother Died

by Rob Stanley

The author and his older brother.

The author and his older brother.

The first punch hits me in the left ear and it actually feels good, invigorating. I duck around the next few but the second one to connect hits me in the jaw and it hurts a lot. By the time the third one hits me in the forehead the sweat and moisture gathering on the faux leather gloves has a stinging effect, and that, combined with the actual force of the blow through my neck and spine, leaves me reeling.

“You hit like a girl,” I mutter as I step back and roll my head low across my chest a couple of times, my chin tucked in a defensive position the whole time.

My brother smiles. Even he finds this funny.

We’ve been combatants like this for most of my thirteen years, but this battle is different than the others. Tho others are usually fought inside, on our paper-thin carpet during miniature versions of sports we see on TV; knee hockey in the living room, sponge-ball tennis in the upstairs hallway; full-contact mini-hoop basketball against my brother’s bedroom door. Those are battles. Sometimes just for fun, but most times they have an undeniable edge that my mother hates seeing in us. This boxing thing today though, this is fun.

The author as a teen

The author as a teen

“That’s enough,” my brother says as he extends one of his gloved hands to cup my shoulder. The air is warm and we’re both sweating.

There in our driveway, perched on a hill amidst a hay field that never seems well kept, we draw deep breaths and eye each other. In years past I might have cringed at the prospect of my brother delivering a sucker punch at this point, but Billy and I have changed a lot recently and the thought of a sneak attack doesn’t cross my mind.

The landscape of the author's childhood.

The landscape of the author’s childhood.

I step into his embrace and let my shoulders slump in a sign of respect to my big brother. This male-affection thing is something we do now, ever since he got back.

“You want some more?” I ask with just enough sarcasm in my voice for him to know he shouldn’t take me seriously.

He grins again and doesn’t even bother responding. We both know his sinewy strength is more than my pudgy frame can bear, especially considering the fact that he’s three and a half years older and four inches taller than I am.

To me it seems as if those final few inches have been added in the past few months, during the time when Billy was away. That’s probably not true, but I’m shocked at how grown up he is right now and can’t settle in my mind why it is I’m viewing him in that light. It’s only been two months since we last saw each other, but it seems like years.

I’d been surprised back in the Spring when I’d heard that he was planning on heading to Toronto for the summer. Mom has family there, and the idea was for Billy to head to one of their homes to enjoy the big city as well as the much larger minimum wage that jobs in Ontario offered. It’s 1988 and the only job prospects awaiting any of us here in New Brunswick all seem oddly beneath him. I felt oddly excluded from that decision-making process and very much left behind when he left our rural Eastern Canadian life for the city that I’d only heard about in stories from my mom.

We didn’t know much about Mom’s family. The bare minimum, really. We knew there were lots of aunts and uncles, and that the word abuse often got thrown around whenever the topic of Mom’s absent father came up, but the whole scene was sheltered in some urban dream for us.

Billy though, was ready for that sort of trip. Dreams didn’t scare him. There was always a sense of largeness and destiny about him, and most of us knew that he wouldn’t be in New Brunswick for long. He spoke of travel, of the army, of radio technology school; all large dreams in their own right, but each of them seemed firmly within his reach. He’d always been blessed with an innate sense of accomplishment and likability. Friends gravitated toward him, teachers loved him and young women flocked to him. Even at a young age, he radiated a quiet warmth and a sense of safety that people just found endearing. The trip to Toronto then, wasn’t some flight of fancy, it was the first step in an unfolding plan that most of us thought would end very well for him.

I just wish he could have somehow explored those sorts of dreams without leaving me behind in the process.

On this day in the driveway all of Bill’s goodness and quiet strength of character, the things that now define him most to me, aren’t on display. This time, it’s brute force that’s called for. Having been manhandled in that department by him, I move away from the battle and I’m immediately intercepted by the lone spectator who has taken in our match – our father.

Before I have a chance to protest, he emerges from the windowed porch door and wordlessly lifts one of the gloves off my hand to place it on his own. His eyes are on Billy the whole time, and as he slides the other glove onto his hand you can see that both of them are very much relishing what’s about to happen.

Billy has Dad’s body down to a T, save for the thick padding that years of office work have added to my father’s midsection, and they both share quick feet and great eye hand coordination. Right now they also share the same bemused look of concentration and outright fear, part cocky grin and part studied intensity. This is in good fun, yes, but there’s a lot riding on this and we’re all beginning to sense it.

A rush of warmth fills me as I step back from the fray and realize that the grown-ups have let me be here to see this. No one is telling me to run along, and no one is holding back so I won’t be adversely affected in some way. I’m a participant in this, even if it’s just as an occasional brow-wiper and potential referee. It’s a huge step for me. Heck, Mom wasn’t even invited.

Before I have time to dwell on this for too long, I’m snapped back to reality by the first wave of punches. Billy and Dad are circling each other and straight right jabs are flying. Only straight right jabs, the safest of all the punches. Each volley is cautious and aggressive at the same time,. Skinny arms extending for a quick sting but never venturing too far from a defensive position. As the seconds roll by, the feeling-out process evaporates into the late summer air and the punches extend. They’re longer, a tad slower, but a hint of menace accompanies each one. Adrenaline crackles with every slash, and each one is yearning for some damage.

The cars on the road well below us pass by every so often without even a hint of recognition of what’s happening on the hill above. The waves lapping against the shore of the rocky beach just beyond the road continue unabated as well. All is at it should be, yet a seismic shift for our family is happening right here in the open.

A constant patter of nervous laughter and semi-audible grunts fly back and forth, but the punches aren’t matching the ferocity of the verbal assaults. No one is really connecting, and I’m rather proud of the fact that my bout with Billy had a lot more action than this. Less emotion, but a lot more action.

Just then, a punch lands. Then another. Then there’s a spirited reply that’s none too polite. Eyes are now slits and the mood changes. Another punch lands. My adrenaline begins to flow and the warmth of simply being there evaporates. The action spills into my face and I’m forced to recoil to move away from them.

They don’t even notice me.

Another punch.

Another.

Soon my hands are flailing in front of me, trying in vain to deflect the action and voice some protest, but nothing stems the tide. My heart pounds and I realize that this is inching toward the danger zone when a shriek pierces the melee and I cringe from its fierceness.

“God, Bill! What are you doing?”

My mother’s voice jerks us back to reality, and for a moment we pause awkwardly and by instinct try to look as nonchalant as possible. Our hands fall, our backs straighten and the pained expressions ease from our faces. Frozen in time, we all try our best to deflect the intensity of the past few moments.

Mom though, isn’t falling for it. She missed the run-up to the bout because she’d been busying herself deep inside our farmhouse, and now all she saw was her entire family, all three of us, flailing and spitting at each other in the driveway.

Her shoulders sag incredulously and a look of complete bewilderment causes her mouth to gape wide open. She bores a hole in my father with her gaze, and an elongated blink and a shake of her head is all she leaves with him as she closes the porch door and retreats to the safety of the home she’s created for us.

We’re still frozen in place. Dad is the first to relent, removing his boxing gloves just as silently as he put them on, and handing them to me without even so much as a gaze in my direction. He steps toward the void in the doorway where Mom stood seconds before, knowing that any sort of comment would be fruitless. This is going to warrant a longer conversation than that.

Billy and I stand staring, transfixed on his back as he walks, wondering if there might be repercussions for us here too. As he steps up into the doorway he uses the shift in weight as an opportunity to glance back at us over his shoulder. We immediately catch his eye.

A slight grin crosses his face.

It isn’t a defiant look, or one that could be misconstrued against Mom in any way. It’s simply a man speaking through a look to two other men. Nothing more needs to be said.

Dad disappears into the house. Billy and I shuffle for a second, then realize that we should busy ourselves with something else. We go our separate ways, both filling time with nothing.

I think I ended up listening to Aerosmith, probably Permanent Vacation, and reading an Archie comic. I don’t really remember. For me, the beauty of the day had already been cemented.

The author as he is today.

The author as he is today.

About the author

Rob Stanley is a normal guy who finds himself drawn to re-telling his life’s events for others to enjoy. He lives near Toronto, Ontario with his wife and kids.