Mom’s workhouse: How one woman put 11 kids to work for the greater good.

This Mother’s Day will mark the 27th straight without a mother to celebrate. That’s almost half my life without a mother, and you’d think that the memories of her would have faded, pushed aside by all that has happened to my life since she passed away. But it hasn’t; I can still see her face, hear her voice, smell her homemade bread from Sunday dinners.  She was quite a gal, my mom, and if you’ll indulge me I’d like to ramble on a bit about the woman who raised me and, coincidentally, my 10 siblings.

Yes, 10 siblings. I grew up in a family of 11, a circumstance that shaped my life in ways that are still with me today.

While dad was busy making enough money to clothes and feed 11 kids, mom was busy clothing and feeding 11 kids. But she did it her way, which meant instilling an attitude of ‘let’s pitch in and get this done together’, whether we liked it or not.

When other doting mothers would wake kids my age, I was waking up my 10 siblings and making breakfast for everyone.

Before this begins to sound like a Charles Dickens novel about growing up in a workhouse for orphaned children, let me explain. It was only about half bad as bad as that.

My mom — either in the belief of teaching us self-sufficiency, or because she just thought somebody else should take care of all these kids — set up a system where we had to take turns waking up and feeding all of the other kids. It was kind of an apprenticeship program that began with the easiest breakfast. Friday breakfast was just canned fruit, cold cereal and optional toast. From there, you moved up to Tuesday (French toast), then Thursday (pancakes) and finally, the nerve-wracking Wednesday breakfast (eggs on toast; break an egg, and you’re screwed). Mom took care of Monday breakfast, a heaping cauldron of porridge. It was, in hindsight, a pretty hefty responsibility for a kid. If you didn’t set your alarm and slept in, EVERYONE slept in, and suddenly you’d got a houseful of very angry siblings. We all lived on morning coffee, produced in the kind of coffee pot you see in a community hall, and if you didn’t get up in time to plug it in, there was hell to pay if the coffee wasn’t ready. But it taught me something about responsibility, and when I finally left home, I was very skilled at making eggs on toast, which was my fallback dinner as a single guy.

The work grind didn’t end with breakfast. We made our own lunches, and by the time we were in our teens, we were doing our own laundry and ironing. My youngest brother was taking care of himself so early, we used to joke that he ironed his own diapers.  After dinner, there was a rotation of dishes and drying; if it befell you to do the Christmas or Thanksgiving dishes, it could ruin your entire night.

While we all had to chip in with minor chores, mom always made dinner. Funny thing is that I don’t remember mom slaving away over a hot stove. All I know is that we’d get the “DINNNNERRRR” call, and food would magically appear promptly at 6 p.m. To be blunt, sometimes the food was terrible (we regularly had liver, which still gives me shivers to think about to this day), and a lot of it was canned (it wasn’t until I moved away from home that I found out that spinach actually came in a quite palatable raw form, and not the wretched canned form I had been forced to eat all my life). We all ate at a huge round table in the kitchen, the breakfast nook we called it. This allowed ample opportunity to slip a little unwelcomed food to one of our omnipresent dogs, which liked to take up residence under the table at 6 p.m.

But when mom was cooking, she really cooked. Mom was from North Carolina, which is where I assume she developed a love of barbecue. (This was back in the day when barbecuing was still somewhat foreign in Edmonton.) My favorite was barbecued ribs, which make me salivate as I write this. Mom had her own sauce recipe, which should have been bottled and sold, either as a sauce or a very many cologne. She also made fabulous BBQ chicken, and even better fried chicken, a test of culinary skills that my wife and I attempted once, failed, and never tried again. But for me, mom’s best piece de resistance was homemade bread, which remains the single greatest cooking aroma ever. A slice of fresh hot bread right out of the oven, slathered in butter, might be the greatest taste sensation of my entire life. And do you think I can ever duplicate that sensation? Not a chance.

One of the great things about my mom, maybe the greatest, is that she was always there. There’s a line from The Simpsons where Marge says “I spend 23 hours a day in this house”, and that was my mom. She was always there, endlessly smoking her Craven As and reading her Agatha Christie mystery novels.  She didn’t drive, so she never went grocery shopping (she ordered all our food over the phone from a small grocery I’m sure we kept in business for 30 years). About the only times mom wasn’t home was when she was out playing blackjack when the Klondike Days exhibition was allowed a casino. Mom loved blackjack (we used to have family games, which again sounds pretty horrible, but isn’t) and she would go to the casino pretty much from opening to closing. Once a year or so, she’s go to Las Vegas and slightly enrich the mob.

Mom certainly had her vices — she gambled (only a little), smoked (a lot, singlehandedly kept the Craven A cigarette brand alive), and drank a bit too much (she provided us all with plenty of those plastic gold stars that used to come with every bottle of Five Star rye), but she was always there for you. When I would come home from Red Deer, I’d go up to mom’s room, sit on the edge of her bed while she smoked, and tell her all about my life. I don’t remember whether she gave any profound advice, or just let me figure things out on my own, but it was always nice to have someone to talk to.

She was quite a gal, my mom. Maybe I’ll make a big batch of her barbecue sauce in her honor tonight.

 

5 thoughts on “Mom’s workhouse: How one woman put 11 kids to work for the greater good.

  1. Reading about your mother, makes me fondly remember my own. She raised 8 kids and was widowed at 46 (leaving her with kids aged from 2 – 17) after my Dad was killed in a collision near our farm. She instilled such great values in all of us and we treasure her memory. My kids still speak warmly of her, even though she is gone from our midst 15 years.
    Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, both those that are present and those that remain with us in memory.

  2. Ill have to be sure my mom reads this one. Sometimes thought she exagerated stories but when she talks about grandmas fried chicken i start salivating and ive never tasted it.

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