April 13, 2019

Chapter 06 - Raising Cannatas

Raising Cannatas 

I'm not sure my parents actually chose to have a large family. And I'm certain that if they had a choice before they started they would never have chosen the one they wound up with. Nobody in their right mind nowadays would have wished for a family like mine. Both of my parents came from what most people today would call a large family. My father had six siblings that he acknowledged. My mother would reluctantly admit to having about 4 or 5 in hers.

While they seemed less than enthusiastic about the size of their own families, numbers never seemed important once they started their own. My parents discovered early in their marriage that one thing they enjoyed doing, and did very well, was making children. Together, with little effort on my father's side and a lot of labor on my mothers, they produced a family whose final tally eclipsed the combined total of both their families.

My family wasn't large, it was humongous. Babies virtually rained down from the sky and landed in my house at a steady pace. When they finally figured out how to prevent having any more children and decided to take a head count, they were shocked to discover that there were 15 children that all claimed to be theirs at one time or another.

Raising a family as big as ours required a great amount of planning. Unfortunately, when it came to having children, my parents weren't much good with things like planning, preparation or prevention. I'm fairly certain that 'planned parenthood' wasn't a concept my parents would have been able to grasp. When it came to having children, it was pretty clear they had the 'how-to-make-kids' process down pat. It was the 'what do we do with them now?' part that they hadn't given a lot of thought to.

I'm not sure what they were thinking, or if they were even thinking at all when they started their family. I'm pretty certain they never imagined what the final count of their marital shenanigans would be. But it soon became pretty clear that there was no way my Ma and Dad were going to raise all those kids to come on their own. Ultimately, it dawned on them, since they were unable to master how NOT to have kids; they were going to be forced to learn how to deal with them. They had no choice by then.

Once it occurred to them that these babies were going to be around for a long time and that they seemed to be coming on a pretty regular basis the reality began to sink in. And the truth of the matter wasn't pretty. As the guilty parents, they were going to have to feed, clothe, clean, support, suffer and amuse the entire gaggle of Cannata kids until they were old enough to release into the wild. They may have had a choice to have a large or small family at the start, but my mother was determined to master the rhythm method as her preferred choice of birth control. The main problem was that my mother had no rhythm. By the time they realized that my mother wasn't up to the task, the count had passed double digits.

Raising a large family required good parenting skills, a good plan and a skilled crew. If there is any such thing a highly skilled parent my parents could have really used their help because they had no clue when it came to what the job required. They sort of learned as they went along. I don't know if they ever actually came up with a plan, but I know where they got the crew. Children were free to have and provided an abundant source of cheap labor. As their children, by law, my parents believed that their children were obliged to do what they instructed and they were to a point. If my parents were going to process all these kids into the outside world, they needed some home grown help. Once the kids started raining down there was suddenly an endless list of chores to be done.

Most duties were routine day-to-day tasks that had to be done on a routine basis. And routinely, the tasks were the kind that no one ever wants to do. That's where we kids came in. Doing the menial and unskilled chores was what kids were meant for according to my mother and father. Kids were there to do all those mundane and simple chores that parents just didn't have the time or inclination to do themselves. In performing these tasks, the children got valuable insight into all the wrongs ways to care for their homes when they finally got one of their own.

The philosophy was simple. Once a kid was old enough to learn to do something, they either learned to do it or suffered the consequences. Once you could dress yourself, as long as you could put the clothes on, it didn't matter how you looked. As soon as you could see the top of something you could learn to use it. If you could see into the washer you could start doing your own laundry. You can see the dishes in the sink so you can wash them. If ever it reached the point where there were too many jobs and not enough help, my parents had a fool proof answer' have another baby and increase the labor pool.

Single-handedly my folks raised the first few Cannatas on their own. Gradually, they taught them the highly specialized skills they would need to help care for the coming wave of Cannata offspring. The duties of each kid increased as the number of children grew. They decreased as each kid reached the age where their job could be handed off to the sibling in line behind them. It worked well enough, but the system did have some inherent and unavoidable flaws. The kid was usually the most serious flaw in any plan.

By nature, Cannata kids didn't like dong chores and didn't do them very well when they did. Choosing what kid was best for a particular chore wasn't as easy as it should be. My mother would often exclaim, 'We can always make kids, but we can't always make them do what we want after we do.'

My parents had to approach raising kids with an assembly line mindset. Once a Cannata was born they were duly processed into the system. The newborns were fed, cleaned and cared for and passed down the line to the point where they were old enough to take their place in the Cannata work force. They were then trained, assigned a job of their very own and took their place on the line. From the time each Cannata was born and came in the door, everyone had chores to do and roles to fill along the way. The line had to keep moving until every Cannata was out the door. There was a lot to do and everyone was expected to do their part. It also meant that when it came to actually raising the family, every one of us at one point got to be both a baby and a babysitter.

Once the first born was old enough to baby-sit the second born, the baby-to-babysitter cycle began. You couldn't get to the point where you didn't have to watch your little brothers until the brother after you was old enough to watch the little brothers behind him. We weren't subjected to parental supervision as much as we were sibling supervision. My parents gave us life. In return we gave them enormous loads of laundry and other such stuff.

Basically, they couldn't do everything for their kids and still have time to do things with their kids. Since they didn't enjoy hanging out with us anyway, they tended to focus on meeting the minimum requirements when it came to providing for our daily substance. They conserved their strength in order to deal with the unexpected but all too common emergencies. What we wanted was never as important as what we needed as far as my parents were concerned.

We didn't get 'new' things much in my house. Anything that was 'new' to us usually was on its second or third round of use and on its last legs. If an appliance was less than 3 years old then it qualified for our definition of 'practically brand new'. We never had a new car. The furniture we had was often a neighbors cast offs.

Other than the toys at Christmas the only 'new' items we got as children were clothes; And then only on very special 'New Clothing Days'. New clothes were received on days that were usually associated with some annual event like a holiday. Designated 'New Clothes Days' were typically Easter, first day of school, Christmas and your birthday... that's about it. When it came to providing the necessities my parents had to learn to improvise and nothing was ever considered unusable.

Recycling Pioneers

My family mastered the practice of recycling long before it came into vogue. They saved everything that had even the slightest potential for re-use within the coming decade. In my house there was a place for everything, but nobody had any idea as to what went in those places or where they actually were. There were some things that we all needed at times. Essential items that were necessary for daily life and we all knew where to find them. They were items important to survival and could be found in what I always referred to as The Survival Closets.

The Survival Closets

When it came to equipping the average Cannata, everything a kid might ever need could be found in some closet or another in my house. There was the shoe box in the living room closet, but not your ordinary sort of shoe box. This was a 5'x5' cardboard box and just as deep that held old shoes from virtually every era of fashion in style since Columbus. If I outgrew my shoes before the New Clothes Holiday, I had to find suitable replacements there. Suitable being a level of satisfaction I never achieved.

There was also the Clothes closet where old outfits, pants, shirts, skirts and blouses, went to be stored. They would then lay in wait for the next Cannata to pick them out and give them new life. Clothing that was first bought for the oldest child, often lasted long enough for the youngest children to have a turn wearing them. Most kids get to outgrow their clothes. The family would then toss them out or maybe donate them to charity. In my house a pair of pants had a good chance of outliving their original wearer.

Another closet held an enormous collection of miscellaneous items that, while not exactly essential, had enough potential that they were not considered disposable. Old ice skates, bicycle parts, TV tubes, transistor radios they may or may not work were just a few of the things hidden it its depths. Parts and pieces of various appliances that just might come in handy if something broke. I loved digging into it when I was bored and almost always found something that intrigued me, even if I had no idea what it was or what it did.

Crowd Control; Cannata style

Navigating the rooms and floors of my house could get tricky when everyone was home at the same time. Fortunately that didn't happen often. But when it did it required some coordination and some rooms were restricted as to the number of occupants they could hold at any given time. Our kitchen and bathrooms were under strict control and you often needed permission before entering them.

No more than 3 kids at a time could occupy the bathroom at any given time and only if they were there for different reasons and were of the same gender. One at the sink, one in the tub and one on the seat was considered maximum occupancy.

The kitchen was a central location and often crowded during meal times. When my mother would come home with the weeks groceries all hell would often break out in the rush to get at the bounty. Often much of the food never even made it to the refrigerator or cabinets before it was devoured. To avoid unnecessary loitering and the possibility of a smaller sibling being trampled to death at the feed trough, otherwise known as our kitchen table, we were divided into groups and were fed, bathed and cared for by order of age or need.

Access was restricted and we were only allowed to enter it at the assigned time and only for as long as it took to eat. Those that could cook for themselves had to be out of the way by the time my mother had to start cooking and feed those that could eat on their own but not old enough to prepare their own meal. Then my mother and the delegated care givers of the day would go about feeding those who needed more personal attention like the babies and their bottles or spoon feeding.

Assigning Chores:
The art of delegation and avoiding responsibility.

Doing your part when it came to household tasks was something we all learned to do. Conversely, it was never something any Cannata liked to do. To avoid doing what we were told we mastered the art of getting someone else, usually a little brother or sister, to do it for us. It was important to train the younger ones to do the things we hated the most as soon as they were able to do it. Bribes, false praise threats or coercion were often used to get the sibling you outranked to do your job for you.

Chores were assigned on the basis of age and ability. If you were lucky and you outranked a younger brother who was perfectly capable of performing said task, you could always delegate the work. The phrase "Ma told me to tell you to do this," would work in most cases. But that was only in matters of chores that didn't affect you personally. For example I could assign my little brothers a task of doing general family laundry, like sheets and towels, but it was not permitted to make your little brothers do your laundry. Once we were able to do for ourselves we couldn't tell anyone to do it for us anymore.

When my mother would ask me to go to the store for her, she would usually give me 50 cents as incentive. If it was a store far away I might get a dollar. I would usually keep half of what I was given and give the other half to a younger brother and get him to go to the store for me..

If I knew what I was in for before I was born and I had a choice, I would never have chosen to be born into such a large family. In a smaller family I might have had more toys and nicer clothes and I would have had a lot less stress dealing with just one or two siblings. But, knowing what I know now, had I made that choice, it would have been the wrong one. 

I may not have had a lot of nice toys but I had more love, support and caring from so many people that all the toys in the world could never equal. Looking back, if I had the choice now, I wouldn't trade my family for all the toys in the world. Toys lose their luster as we age. Fortunately, your family and their love never do if you're lucky. And I was very lucky to have the family I had.

My parents never seemed to regret having such a large family. Whether it was by choice or by chance, the family they raised turned out to be the one they wanted. It was the one they loved.

For them there was no choice in that either.

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