Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Who Has Ten Kids? Well… Let Me Tell You!

From the very beginning of my thoughts about the Green Mountain Series, I pictured ten kids growing up in a red barn in Vermont. That image was very vivid in my mind right from the start. I’ve had a few dour people infer that I went with ten kids in the new series to ensure I could write ten books. Well, that is and isn’t true at the same time. It is true in the sense that I’m hoping to write about ten siblings who interest me. It’s not true because check me out on Gansett Island. “Only” five McCarthy kids, and here we go into book 11 with no end in sight. I’m writing the eighth book (plus a novella) about one couple in the Fatal Series. So I don’t need 10 kids in a family to propel a series. I went with ten kids because that’s how I saw the Abbott family in my mind.

I’ve always been fascinated with big families, possibly because I’m one of two. My brother and I grew up surrounded by cousins, all of whom came from bigger families than ours. Two cousin families had four kids, one had five and another had six. My brother is great, but I wanted sisters and maybe another brother or two so I’d have more people to fight with. Of course, having lots of siblings probably looks a lot better on paper or on TV than it does in reality, but I had a bit of a yearning for a bigger family. My cousin Jen, who has always had long, thick hair, will tell you she has no feeling in her scalp. When you ask her why, she says, “I’m the youngest of five” as if that explains it all.

I remember being able, as a very young kid, to list President Kennedy’s eight siblings in perfect birth order, and I loved TV shows about big families, such as The Waltons (RIP Daddy Walton) and Eight is Enough. I think it’s possible I was doing research for my books all the way back in the 70s and 80s, sitting in front of a TV that received only three network channels and was dependent on rabbit ears for reception.

So knowing about my fascination with big families, imagine my delight when I heard from reader Molly Lyon in a Facebook comment in which she told me she had grown up in Vermont with nine siblings. Ten kids in Vermont! Hot damn! I also thought it was awesome that her name was Molly, which is the name of the Abbott family’s mother. I asked Molly if she’d be willing to answer a few questions about growing up in a family of ten kids—in Vermont of all places—and she generously shared some of her favorite memories along with a few heartaches.

Her parents, Mitchell and Alice Sturgeon, were married in 1962. In 1971, they built a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath home on property in Georgia, Vermont, next door to Mitchell’s parents on land the family had previously farmed. Alice was one of five siblings and Mitchell Sturgeon Jr. was an only child. Their children were born over 19 years: Michelle (1967), Michael (1968-1985), Molly (1969), Melissa (1971), Mary (1973), Matthew (1975), Margaret (1976), Mark (1979), Mead (1982) and Miles (1986). Michael died in a motor vehicle accident in 1985, an event Molly referred to as “extremely hard.”

“In September 2006 we almost went through it again when Miles was in an accident that left him in coma for two months and hospitalized for four while he re-learned everything,” said Molly, who lives in Fairfax, Vermont today. “Both of these events brought us closer together and makes us appreciate each other that much more. My parents were so strong throughout each scenario, and I’ve learned so much from them both.”

Molly shared stories about family vacations that involved cramming into Mitchell’s Vanagon. That detail will probably work its way into Abbott family lore, because I love the visual of twelve people on a road trip in an old-fashioned VW bus. Can you imagine the bickering? The first time the Sturgeon family made the trek to Florida to see their grandparents, Molly was in fourth grade, and she remembers fun stops at amusement parks along the way. The next trip to Florida in the Vanagon was slightly less fun as all the kids were bigger, and the heat in the van quit working.

Other family outings included day trips to country fairs and happenings in their home state, until her six-year-old brother Matthew got caught up in an exhibit at the Champlain Valley Fair and didn’t follow the family crowd. “Fortunately, security found him safe and sound,” Molly said. “I think that might have been the last time we went to the fair for our ‘vacation.’”

She recalled four girls sharing what had been intended as the home’s master bedroom, but went to the girls because they needed both closets, which were still too small for the clothes of four girls. “The bickering over sharing clothes was never ending,” Molly said. “Margaret, being the last and fifth girl, was the impetus for adding a bedroom in the basement, and the boys were banished so us girls could be split up.”

I asked Molly how her mother stayed sane while raising ten children. It came down to Monday night card night with the ladies, she said. “My mother has been dubbed a saint by many, and I’m sure crazy by some,” Molly said. “She led by example. Her sanity was preserved during her weekly Monday night card game with ‘The Card Ladies’. For more than forty years, every Monday night, she would leave us with Dad (or we would be banned from the dining room when she hosted) and play cards. She had a bag full of pennies just for cards, and that was her therapy and outlet.”

Molly’s father had his own way of coping. “I think my father’s sanity came from working, doing the grocery shopping, which he started doing during the gas shortage in the 70s and loved—he was the coupon king and knew what was on sale where and could stretch a penny further than anyone—and gardening. He was our quiet rock and is greatly missed.” Mitchell died in 2010 after a battle with cancer. “Last year, in his honor, we participated in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life,” Molly said. “Our team name was Mitchell's M's. We plan to do it again this year.”

Somehow Mitchell and Alice managed to provide for their brood and ensure their children had everything they needed. Mitchell worked in a factory all during Molly’s childhood. Her mother worked briefly as a nurse and then was a stay-at-home mom. In the mid- to late-70s, she started taking in neighborhood children and ran a daycare until 2006.

“We were always fed and clothed, some of us in more hand-me-downs than others, and never felt like we were missing out on anything,” Molly said. “We played sports and musical instruments and somehow, some way Mom and Dad always found a way to get us the equipment and instruments required. I realize now they went without so that we could have what we needed. I’ll never forget when Michelle and I wanted an album. Without a birthday or Christmas near, we were saving our money so we could buy it ourselves. One day my father came home with the album just because.”

Now all her siblings live within 30 miles of each other. They are all married, except for the youngest, Miles. All of them except for Molly and one other have children, and Molly is the aunt to 14 nieces and nephews, including a new set of twins. “Sitting around my mother’s table sharing stories is the best,” she said. “Old boyfriend stories, who did what and the ‘remember whens’ are priceless. I couldn’t imagine being an only child. We always had something to do and someone to do it with.”

Molly said my reference to the TV show Eight is Enough reminded her of another funny family memory. “Your mention of Eight is Enough reminded me of a bumper sticker my uncle made for the van after baby number eight was born... ‘8 IS ENOUGH.’” 

I loved hearing Molly’s stories about growing up in a big family. My husband is one of six kids, and when they’re all together, their favorite thing is sit around a dining room table (usually with lots of beer) and tell stories about who did what to whom and when. Hilarious laughter is always part of their gatherings.

They talk about the time one of their friends shot a flaming arrow into the neighbor’s roof while the neighbor was on vacation. They talk about redirecting the sprinkler system at the nearby country club and how their dad used to defrost a hand-size space on a frozen windshield and drive them to school looking only through that small patch of clear glass. Then there was the time my husband Dan’s younger brother Joe jammed a toothpick into my husband’s back and later ratted out Dan when he decided to run away on his bike—on the interstate. Or when Dan nearly floated out to sea during a visit to his married sister in Virginia Beach or when he shot out all the windshields in cars at a junkyard with a BB gun. Except it wasn’t a junkyard. It was a body shop, and he made the mistake of returning to the scene of the crime the next day... And yes, I married a hellion. Thankfully he mostly grew out of his hellion ways!

When I was a kid, I wanted what my husband and Molly had.

Now I get to make it up. And that—and only that—is why the Abbott family has ten kids.