Big Families and Chicken Legs

By Janey Womeldorf

Big Families and Chicken Legs

Big families are loud and quirky. You either love it or hate it.

I came from a family of six kids, so growing up, shouting was normal. I don’t mean arguing shouting, but shouting because you had something to say and everybody else was talking. With eight people in a household, fast-changing conversations fly across the room in all directions and pauses in conversation are few and far between. You learned to interrupt; if you didn’t, nobody would even know you were in the room.

Everybody talking at once about multiple things is normal behaviour and usually happens in the kitchen: “Has anybody seen my glasses? Who ate all the bananas? What did the doctor say? I’m blocked in – you need to move your car. Who wants tea or coffee?” Even if the person you are talking to goes into a different room, you keep talking to them. Walls mean nothing to big families; neither do stairs. You just keep talking – but louder.

When my husband first joined our family, he would keep waiting for the break in the conversation so he could share his thoughts. Hours would go by with ne’er a word from my beloved. At first, my family thought he was quiet until I informed them he just wasn’t quick enough. By the time he had thought about what he wanted to say and a break in the conversation presented itself, we had moved on to a different subject. It was such a shame; we’d been married ten years before he finally got a word in. He came from a family that didn’t interrupt: Admirable but conversationally stifling.

When you are not used to a big family, if the noise doesn’t do your head in, the lack of privacy will.

Our only toilet was upstairs in the bathroom which meant that when you took a bath, nobody else could use the toilet. Lest you wanted to climb out of the warm suds, walk naked across the cold floor, and stand outside, dripping wet in a towel because you could no longer tolerate your brother banging angrily on the door, it was in your best interest to holler down the stairs: “Does anybody need to go to the toilet, I’m having a bath.” I was 16 before I stopped announcing I was taking a bath.

Challenges aren’t just limited to noise and privacy. In a family of eight, there is also no fair way to share a roast chicken. My sister still bears the scars of never getting the chicken leg. My Mum never wanted it, so Dad would have one and my eldest brother (and first born) would have the other. When my brother left home, the second leg should have gone to the next in line – my sister – but no, it went to the middle brother. I was fourth child down and a girl, so it never worried me – I knew I was never getting it anyway – but looking back, my older sister did have a point. The problem was that was all she had. We are both in our fifties now, and if we are food shopping and she spies a rotisserie chicken, she can’t resist. I often wonder whether it’s the mouth-watering aroma of succulent, juicy chicken she finds irresistible or the fact it has two legs and she knows I’m vegetarian.

Big families have their perks though: Multiple kids mean you always have enough for a team. This meant rarely having to bother Mum and Dad to play with us. At one point there were only five kids (all under the age of seven – what was Mum thinking?) but fortunately, after a few years’ hiatus, she got back on the reproduction bandwagon and delivered one more – thank goodness. Even at six years old, I knew that trying to make teams out of five people was not going to cut it. The icing on the child-bearing cake though was her final tally: Three boys and three girls. Does it get any better? I don’t remember the boys ever beating us at Mousetrap; they did rule the roost on Battleships though.

You also learn to sleep or swim. I shared a bedroom with my two sisters and they could be drying their hair ten feet away, and I would sleep through it. Of course, tuning out noise was probably a self-defense mechanism, otherwise I’d have spent my entire childhood exhausted but even now I can pretty much sleep anywhere. Peace and quiet was not something we knew much about growing up. In fact, I first heard it when I left home, and it spooked me out. Maybe that’s why even to this day, I don’t like total silence. The first thing I do when I walk in the door is turn the radio on.

Things are different now that I’m older; I now cherish my peace and quiet. (Is this a normal aging thing or a symptom of growing up in a large family?) But everything changes when we all get together – it’s noisy and I love it. Sleeping arrangements are nightmarish, and there are bags and shoes everywhere but it’s always memorable. It’s manic, it’s loud, mealtimes are madness, and clean up takes hours but underneath the shouting and chaos, a devoted web of love, shared memories, fights, and laughter connects us all. Old stories spill out and suddenly the fact that we had to get out of the bath to let someone use the toilet is hilarious.

It’s weird to think how much we used to fight as kids because now I can’t get enough of my siblings. Here’s the thing I cherish about coming from a large family: You never truly feel lonely. In fact come to think of it, other than the fact our house was noisy which probably explains why the TV is always loud and both my parents wear hearing aids, I can’t think of too many downsides.

Unless of course you like chicken legs.

About this writer

  • Janey Womeldorf Janey Womeldorf once went to work wearing different shoes. She now freelance writes and scribbles away in Orlando, Florida. It’s probably best.

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4 Responses to “Big Families and Chicken Legs”

  1. My mom had four sisters and a brother. When we gathered at grandma’s house, those Italian fast talking hand-motioning women made me take heed. Today I can hear two words of a conversation and get the gist. Wow! Your story took me back. Fun.

  2. Janey W. says:

    Years ago it seemed everybody had large families and lived in houses with small kitchens. Kitchen conversational chaos seemed the norm. Thanks for commenting. It’s fun to “take a trip back” once in a while isn’t it.

  3. Pam says:

    Loved this – I grew up in a small family (just one younger sister) and made my grandmother tell her stories of growing up in a small farmhouse with 5 siblings over and over and over again. There just seemed to be something both crazy and magical about the experience to me!

  4. Kathy says:

    I am #5 of 7, 3 boys, 2 girls then 2 boys… my mother said if she could do it all over they would all be boys, for some reason boys are easier but I dont think she really means it… you have described my upbringing perfectly, but we did have 2 bathrooms, and once i slammed my sisters fingers in the door for trying to come in when it was my turn! we have a half wall in the kitchen, my husband of 31 years loves having his coffee on that wall, he comes from a quite, divorced family with 4 kids, so he learned a LOT from that wall… my mother is an only child, and when Dad died 5 years ago, I think she finally realized just how close we kids are.. sitting at the kitchen table, having a few drinks, discussing how dad should be buried in a wooden casket because of his Indian ancestry, but my mother said he would roll over if we did that, as he was an ironworker for all his life, from the George Washington bridge to the St. Louis Rams stadium… he got his steel blue casket… 3 weeks ago Mom emailed all of us to say she thinks its time to sell the house…. no words came from my mouth, only tears from my eyes… and my husbands eyes, for there will only ever be 1 wall for him.

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