After the war, when so many millions of souls had fled the earth at the same time, the mother and father produced a new child every year until they had a baker‘s dozen. It seemed only right and respectful to multiply. Eleven brothers and two little girls were brought one by one to the unfinished farmhouse in the valley, just south of the lake.
The farmhouse had been unfinished for decades, since the mother was a child. Construction of a second wing was abandoned the year dust swept through their strawberry patches and dried up their savings, leaving an un-insulated shell of roof and rafters, a screen door sagging off the porch. That year, the children ate the withered, unsold strawberries for every meal.
The mother had been a youth softball champion, a hardy girl even during meagre times. She‘d worn the same black skirt every day through four years of school, until the seat was thin and shiny, she said. During the war she‘d been a nurse. She possessed tremendous upper body strength, defeated her sons in arm wrestling until each outweighed her by forty pounds.
The father, who‘d traveled far and seen death‘s boundless creativity during the war, spoke little, loved babies. He joked with the neighbors that he was building a baseball team. Father secretly grew fearful of the boys when they learned to talk, but continued to love them, fiercely, at a distance. At nightly family dinners the father would have a fatty steak and the children ate hot dogs. Nobody ever had new clothes except the oldest, Peter. None of them remembered ever having seen their mother eat.
The brothers were named after the apostles. The girls—second and fourth in the roster—were called Barbara and Jane after movie stars.
When the mother went to the hospital for a week each year to deliver another James, Thomas, or Simon, the girls were kept home from school to feed and dress the Peters, Johns, and Andrews already there. Barbara and Jane lacked the upper body strength to haul big pans in and out of the oven. The father frowned at the pathetic pots of pork-n-beans, cream-of-somethings the girls heated on the stove.
If by Thursday the mother had not yet returned with a swaddled Paul, Thaddeus, or Bartholomew, the father would drop the two girls off at the laundromat in town with six or seven bags of boy-stinking clothing. The empty farmhouse wing was a mausoleum of broken machines that had to be saved in case the money went dry again, but housed nothing to clean the clothes.
Barbara and Jane were too small, at first, to hoist the loads of socks and sticky shirts into the machines by themselves. When some kind woman would offer to help, she would scold the girls for not scraping out the cloth diapers while the mess was fresh. No one had told them to do this, nor had anyone taught them how to turn the cryptic knobs that made the water flow.
The father did not want to pay for nursing school. He said the girls would just get married and his investment would be for naught. Another war had begun, but not the kind that would demand their assistance. Still, things were changing. There was a sexual revolution, everyone kept saying. Young people outnumbered their parents, and there were ways for them to find their own money.
The two girls took out loans, became nurses like the mother and all their sisters-in-law-to-be. It seemed a marvel of modern medicine that one generation could employ so many nurses. Unlike the mother, who had spent her maiden days dripping liquid ether onto the faces of women birthing in their bedrooms, Barbara and Jane worked in a large, sterile hospital in the lakeside city, and had orderlies to scrape the mess from the sheets. They married men with good jobs but held onto their own, and ate take-away whenever they wanted.
Barbara and Jane had their own sons and daughters, whom they loved enough to remind them, frequently, how easy they had it.
When the father died, later than many expected, they rented a dumpster for the contents of the unfinished wing. A sofa, two washing machines, two meat freezers (one still functional, the other filled top to bottom with LIFE magazines). Stashed in and among the stacks of small boxes they found dog tags, photos of men in uniform, a purple heart medal none of them had seen before. Report cards from thirteen children times thirteen years. Love letters between the parents that no one felt comfortable reading in the presence of the others. A draft card. A hospital bill, yellow and cracked: $80 for delivery of baby. A worn black skirt and a child‘s snowsuit made from a wedding dress.
The detritus was discarded or picked over by the thirty-five grandchildren. At the funeral, Peter said: What started as a baseball team has grown into an army.
Barbara‘s husband Joseph owned a construction company. He offered to sand the beams of the unfinished wing, which by now contained only a freezer full of TV dinners and popsicles. He would put in insulation, cover it with sheetrock, drywall, and paint, install a spacious kitchen with a dual chamber oven with easy-rolling racks.
The mother told him that the noise of the builders would disturb her remaining days. What would she do with two ovens? She never intended to cook another meal, not for the rest of her life, not for anyone.
When Grandma was at last confined to the hospital bed that had been installed in the living room of her still-unfinished house, she watched eighteen hours of television a day. We took her to mass on Sundays, hung around afterward for reruns of Sally Jessy and Regis, snacking on frozen hamburgers and cans of Pepsi. One afternoon there was a wry segment about the female orgasm on TV, and Grandma turned to us with a withering eyebrow and said: Yeah, right.
Aunt Jane said: Not even when you were on top, Ma?
Grandma said: Top?
She had so many prospective pallbearers, someone suggested an arm-wrestling match to narrow it down. We were that kind of family, by then; an army of sarcastic country folks, rust belt socialists and small town litigators. Cousin Maggie was a college softball maven who would argue you to death if she decided the sky was green. And who‘s to say it‘s not, sometimes? She beat out eight of her uncles before they conceded and let her take part of the load.