The Adam & Margaret Young Family (November 1941)
My mother stands at the left end of the photo above. It was taken November 1, 1941, the day Mom’s brother David married Jane Weston. The parents sit on dining room chairs taken from the house, their four sons and six daughters stand around them. It is late afternoon, and the sun shines directly on their faces and the diamond-patterned windows of the dining room. Tree shadows soften the edges of the scene, create patterns on the lawn and on my mother’s dress, a dress she made especially for the wedding—lavender rayon crepe with georgette bodice and sleeves. Even though this is a black and white photo, I know the dress is lavender. A roll of left-over fabric was stored in the box where Mom kept the remnants of all her sewing projects. Every time I searched through that box in the years I was growing up, I saw the small, neatly tied roll of silky fabric scraps.
My mother was twenty years old when this portrait was taken. Her youngest sibling, Sylvia, the pretty girl who stands at the other end of the row, had just turned seventeen. Next to Sylvia, is John, the oldest of the siblings. He is thirty years old. All the rest of Mom’s siblings are younger than thirty. They look much older than that, though. Mom looks mid-twenties; Sylvia looks early twenties; John looks forty, at least. Mom’s older sisters—Mary, Lena, Katie and Lizzie—all still in their twenties, look middle-aged. Grandma, whom I always considered an ‘old lady’, is actually only forty-nine. Grandpa, who was fifty-three when this picture was taken, is the only one who looks his actual age.
What is it that makes them look so much older than people now look at those ages? A big part of it is the formal clothes, the matronly dresses and suits Mom’s older sisters wear. Looking younger than one’s actual age wasn’t looked on as desirable back then. But it isn’t just the clothing and hair; it’s the faces and bodies as well. Stocky, sturdy bodies, heavy looking, serious faces—farming people used to hard work, a first generation immigrant family.
My mother grew up in a big family. When she was born there were already three brothers and four sisters there to greet her. When she was three and half, there was another brother, Reuben, and new sister, Sylvia. Mom didn’t get to be the baby of the family for very long. She was just one of the ‘little ones’, the eighth of the babies, which probably meant that she didn’t get a lot of attention from her mother. Mom’s brothers and sisters were high-energy people who moved fast. Mom wasn’t. She was quiet, rather timid. She was not completely free of competitive instinct, but it was vestigial, and I think that like many middle children in big families she may have felt a bit lost in the crowd.
Mom wasn’t completely nudged out of the feeding trough, though. In big families, older sisters often do more of the hands-on-mothering of the younger ones than does the mother of the family. For my mom, that motherly older sister was Katie. Six and a half years old when my mother was born. Six year old Katie would have been the right age to claim my mother as her own, to lug her around and watch over her. Katie was Mom’s special sister, a relationship they maintained until the end of my mother’s life.
Mom also had a brother who was her particular big brother. This was David, the older brother closest to her in age. Mom, in turn, had those she mothered—her younger brother Reuben and baby sister Sylvia. Big families also generate antagonism. In Mom’s case that was Lizzie, the sibling just above her in birth order. The other brothers and sisters—Johnny, Mary, Lena, Jackie—were all much older than my mother. They were ‘big kids’; she was just one of the ‘little ones’. I don’t remember any animosity towards them, but these other older siblings were never as important to her as was Katie. As the years progressed they receded further and further into the background. None of them came to her funeral when she died.
Mom wasn’t a dramatic storyteller like my father. The things she told me about her childhood were more descriptive of what life was like in her family—playing in the hay in the barn loft, daring each other to jump down from the loft into the straw on the barn floor; playing hide and seek in the evenings. There were, however, two events she spoke about that had a story format–beginning, main event, ending. One of them was funny, and she only told it to explain Dad’s teasing comment that “the rabbits didn’t die!” When I asked Mom what he was talking about she replied,
“Oh, it’s just that when I was little, the folks went someplace and left all us kids at home. The big kids were supposed to be in charge, and my folks told them to make sure the rabbits didn’t run out of water because it was hot, and they would die if didn’t have water to drink. Well, we did forget, and the rabbits died. The big kids were scared about what would happen when the folks got home, so they told us little ones, ‘Don’t you tell the folks!’ I don’t know why they figured that would keep them out of trouble. The folks would find out eventually. But they were kids. Anyway, when our folks got home the first thing I said was, ‘The rabbits didn’t die!’”
The other incident Mom spoke about was not funny. This event was tragic, and involved her sister Lizzie, who was about ten, my mom eight. As with the story of the rabbits, the parents weren’t home, the older children in charge. For some reason, Lizzie wanted to start a fire and was having trouble getting it going. She decided to put kerosene on it, and when she filled the bucket, she splashed some kerosene on herself. As she poured it onto the smoldering fire the flames swooshed out and set her clothes on fire. Lizzie started to run. My very scared mother didn’t know what to do except run to the older kids for help. All they could think of was get some water and dump it on Lizzie. –But first they had to get a bucket and fill it, and then they had to catch Lizzie in order to dump the water on her. The end result was that Lizzie was badly burned. She was in the hospital a long time, had skin grafts that often had to be redone—a very painful process.
“Running was the worst thing Lizzie could have done,” my mom explained to me. “If she had just rolled in the grass, it would have put out the fire. She wouldn’t have been burned so bad. But we didn’t know. We were just dumb kids and didn’t know.”