Big Family in a Small House
“Having a large family is a lot of things; it’s chaos and frustration or an anchor in stormy waters. Sometimes rocky yet sometimes the greatest comfort. It’s an unconditional love I will never take for granted.”
~ Shannon Knight
I grew up with four brothers and sisters and very humble beginnings. My twin sister and I had dresser drawers for a bed when we were babies. Four of us kids were in diapers at the same time, and my parents could not afford a washing machine. My slender, 5’6” mother would manage to take all of us to the laundromat to do the laundry.
When we were older, I remember mattresses on the floor for beds and lots of chores. We all got plenty to eat; but, if we wanted more and there was no more to eat, Mom would say, “No, honey, you got plenty. We need to save some for your father when he gets home! Dad was 6’4” and ate a lot. In all, we were a family of seven (five kids in an apartment on Saticoy in Canoga Park, CA). In 1978, we moved to a house in Simi Valley CA. I still shared a room until I turned 18.
Meals were modest and filled our bellies. Breakfast was oatmeal or cream of wheat, and on the weekend we’d sometimes have eggs or pancakes. Lunch was bologna and American cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly, and Kool-Aid. Our dinners were delicious because it was either Mexican or Italian much of the time. Mom could cook creatively on such a tight budget. She would make a big pot of beans and rice or spaghetti, which would last a few days for all of us!
For Christmas 2017, my mother gave me the cookbook she got as a wedding present. It’s a red and white checkered Betty Crocker three-ring binder. It’s a year older than me! My mother used that book, and so did I! We loved the food we ate, and we learned to cook at a young age as well.
Mom was handy with her tan colored Singer sewing machine and saved money by making our clothing and even outfits for our dolls! She taught us how to use that thing! The three of us girls had to share a closet at times and learned to share our clothes through high school.
We had a blast playing outside—kick the can or learning new dances in the street. When the street lights went on, we knew to high-tail home! Our family enjoyed playing card games like Hearts, Canasta, and Rummy. We also played board games like Parcheesi and Monopoly, and we loved playing charades. Watching everyone acting in silence so we could guess was hilarious! That’s what was great about living in a small home and having a big family. We had teams! If we wanted to ride a bike, we rode mom’s bicycle, which had a baby seat on the back. We shared one pair of roller skates for a while until they could afford skates for each of us one Christmas.
Our neighborhood kids became like family to us. We were creative! We would pack lunches and walk to the nearby park and hang out with friends. We shared one phone and only were allowed 15 minutes to talk to a friend! That’s it; not a minute longer. We did not have call waiting so, if someone tried to call, it was a busy signal. Mom needed the phone to be free in case Dad needed something.
We fought! Boy did we fight! We had to make pacts, keep secrets, and if we were going to do something like sneak out a window, you had to get an agreement from every sibling, not to tell; this taught us strategy. I know you think it’s terrible, but it did!
After every argument, my mom would tell us that we’d be each other’s best friends someday, which we would naturally balk at for being impossible. Of course, she was right! At least to some degree. It’s like we survived a war together. When we recount stories with each other, we laugh at things we thought were so seriously wrong at the time. I am so grateful for my siblings. I don’t talk to my brothers often, but I love them immensely. I talk to my sisters quite often.
I told my parents that they should be proud that they raised children who are problem solvers, self-starters, and not afraid to start their own businesses. I said to them that because of our upbringing we are creative and excited about starting something on our own. We are not followers, and they taught us values. We lead at what we do with confidence because they instilled that in all of us.
When we were old enough to work, we contributed a third of our paycheck to the household to help pay for food, clothing, and utilities. We walked everywhere to fill out applications, and we accepted the position if we got it. We didn’t sit around declining jobs, looking for that perfect one. It was humbling and a good learning experience for us. We worked hard and never said we were going to quit if things displeased us. We respected our boss and would only leave a job if we had secured another place of employment. Our friends never made fun of where we worked. We were happy for each other in my neighborhood if we got work. I am so grateful for that lesson! It just made me want to work harder and be creative in getting money to get out on my own. We learned about contribution and not being entitled to anything.
We knew better than to sass or argue with our parents! We would get grounded! We respected them and knew the boundaries we were not to cross. I cannot tell you how many fights my brothers, sisters, and I got into while we were growing up. Things could get pretty rough when we were at our worst, but we managed to avoid having to be rushed to the hospital. We had family meetings to discuss our behavior.
My parents could not afford to put us through college or buy us high school yearbooks. What they did have for us were books! We could read the encyclopedia and the National Geographic collection. I remember my Nancy Drew collection. I loved solving mysteries. My parents’ budget was tight. Some Christmases were just a doll and a stocking filled with nuts and Christmas candy. I still have a ragdoll—I call her my “Heather Doll”—and it will always be a reminder of my humble beginnings and how we are brought up to appreciate the small things. It has made a big difference in my own adult life. It taught me about perseverance and never giving up.
We did not complain to our parents about what we thought we should have because our friends had something. We were happy with every gift we got! Our parents taught us things that helped us to be independent and strategize. We walked to our jobs, even on the sweltering days in August. Dad had the car and needed it to drive to work. We knew walking was what we had to do.
I remember the Christmas dance skits and plays we would do for Dad. Mom was the director, and we couldn’t wait to show Dad! She also started a dance group called the Sweethearts where my sisters and I belonged to with two other girlfriends. There were five of us, and we would perform at schools.
I remember forming a club with my sisters and friends. There was a membership, and we cleaned out an old storage shed that had been sitting in the backyard of my friend Stacy’s house. It had rotted potatoes in it and spiderwebs. We cleaned it for days and added curtains. We found ways to make money! I directed a play for the kids in the neighborhood, and we sold lemonade. We turned Stacy’s driveway into a skating rink and charged a nickel. It was the only one on our block that had brand new concrete instead of cracked, bumpy asphalt from the earthquakes; a prime location to skate!
When you grow up with a lot of friends and in a crowded small house, you learn that close families have to work out things. You cannot isolate yourself and play video games all day alone in your room. You are always planning things.
I love my memories and my family, and most of all I am grateful for being a big family in a small house! Even though we move on as adults, get caught up in our own lives, having our own children and grandchildren, I know that we love each other. My family is the most valuable thing in the world, and they have marked my heart forever.