To look at her, you’d think my mom went to the world’s worst chiropractor. Instead of a straight, flat back like everybody else, connecting her waist to her shoulders, she has a twisted tree trunk, gnarled and painful to look at. About three-quarters up her back, a hard mound of flesh like a submerged basketball grows from between her shoulder blades. Her left shoulder is about a foot lower than her right, even when she tries to stand up straight. When she walks from the car to the grocery store, people look at her with that face. You know the face.
She’s embarrassing. This is 1974, and I’m 10. Sure, I feel sorry for her. Her back hurts all the time, she says, and some days we look all over the house for her, only to find her in tears on her bed upstairs. She was born that way. With scoliosis.
My mom carried ten children in her belly, and nine of them came out alive. Baby Claire was stillborn, in 1966. Nobody talks about her now, except my dad, when’s he’s “had too much,” my mom says. My mom says that Dad drinks too much because he’s mad at God. God killed Claire, even though Dad was trying to be good. My mom doesn’t drink, though, and she stopped smoking when she was pregnant with Julie.
Nine kids, one husband, and one father. That’s how many people my mother takes care of. I can’t tell you everything about everybody, because you’d probably stop reading and see what’s on TV instead, so let me just get the names out, and then at least you’ll know who I’m talking about.
OK, the oldest is John Michael. He’s the best person I know, even though he ditches me whenever his friends come over. He’s 14, and he plays baseball, football, street hockey, and basketball with them, but not me. His friends call him Moose because he’s as big as one.
Elizabeth is 13 and if you call her Betsy she’ll punch you in the stomach. She’s the smartest kid in every class. She has long brown hair and glasses. She does her homework at the kitchen table every night while the rest of us watch TV. All night long, until bedtime, she sits there, bent over her French book or her Biology book. She wants to be a doctor.
The next one is Ann, the redhead. We do stuff together like ride our bikes because she’s 12 and I’m 10, but when she gets mad, she scratches. One day last summer Freddy DeThomas got too rough with her in our pool when we were all playing around and she made him bleed in the pool water. Ann and Elizabeth sleep in the same room, in matching canopy beds.
I’m the fourth one. You already know about me.
Then there’s Joan. She’s 9. I know, I know, kids always say they hate their sisters, but really, deep down, they love them, right? Wrong. I hate Joan, and I hope she dies. She’s bossy, and she tattles, and she never does what I say. I don’t want to waste time talking about her.
The last four kids are easy to describe. We call them the little kids, because we can pretty much ignore them: Mary, Katie, Stephen, and Julie. Mary’s 6, Katie’s 4, Stephen’s 3, and Julie’s 2. My mom deals with them, so the rest of us can get on with our lives.
OK, so that covers us kids. Now, the grownups. I told you a little about my mom already. She’s nice, but she’s always tired. She lets us do pretty much anything we want to, though. And if she does say no at first about something, you can bet that if you keep asking, and stay out of trouble, she’ll give in around the fourth time you ask. She just shrugs her shoulders and gets this resigned look and says, “All right, just don’t bother your father about it.”
My dad is kind of quiet when he’s sober, but after around 6:30 at night, when he’s on his third martini and he starts to wobble when he walks, you can’t shut him up. He pretty much gave up trying to get us kids to talk to him at night, so he calls his friends from the Lions Club.
The last person is Grampa. He’s 83, and he lives in the attic. I might tell you more about him later, but for now all you need to know is that he’s really old, and one of his ears is gone. He used to drive a TR3 sports car, and he was a waiter in France during World War I. He drinks highballs with his lunch during the week and Black Label beer on the weekends. Every Saturday afternoon, I used to sit on his lap and watch the Red Sox with him in the sunporch. He’d let me have a few sips of his beer, and it tasted pretty good. I don’t like his pipe, though.