My mom birthed a lot of kids, of which I was the youngest. My parents were Catholic, and that’s…what you did. Mom had actually gone to college (majoring in what, I never knew), but then she married my father and they got right to business and had a baby a year for the first several years of their marriage. Eventually they tapered off, leaving larger and larger age gaps between the offspring. In the end, I popped out, after a seven-year hiatus, with the result that I didn’t “grow up with” any of my many siblings. Most of them were gone by the time I started to develop cognizance. For all intents and purposes, I was an only child, with several brothers and sisters whom I seldom saw in person. I don’t even know when most of their birthdays are.
Over the years, I collected scraps of information about what life had been like for my siblings. They all inherited my mother’s love of reading, so there were piles of books in the house. We were always poor — my father had, I believe, been a bricklayer before eventually gaining a white-collar municipal job. But my brothers and sisters were creative types, finding ways to make their own fun, inventing homemade games when they couldn’t afford mass-produced toys, and scoring secondhand goods whenever they could. Most importantly, they had each other. Daddy was always a force to be tiptoed around — but that’s another story.
As far as I’m aware, the McLaughlin house had always been a disaster. And not the kind of “disaster” your mom probably talked about when she hadn’t dusted the mantelpiece for a few days, or didn’t wipe down the faucet after splashing some water in the kitchen. Our house, filled to the brim with people, collected junk and trash and layers of dust that never went away. Food was kept well past its freshness date, it being inevitably declared as “perfectly good” (how we learned to hate that phrase). Mom was most likely exhausted from taking care of so many kids, and Daddy had firm beliefs about a woman’s place in the home (and a firm hand to enforce those beliefs), so housework was apparently something that just didn’t get done that much.
This continued even when the kids were older, because by then Mom was not only exhausted but also old. All my life, everyone assumed she was my grandmother. At the same time, my siblings figured out that cleaning wasn’t going to do any good and the only way of achieving happiness in life would be to escape That House. (That’s how we all referred to it, even me, even years later, even now: That House. It wasn’t always the same house; the family had moved a number of times over the years, but it was always That House.)
One by one, they graduated high school and moved out with all speed, starting their own lives and leaving the younger ones behind, leaving the dust and the cast-off clothes and the boxes and boxes of junk that nobody wanted but nobody would throw out or give away. When enough people had moved out so that I could finally have my own room, the closet and corners were packed with my sister’s detritus that she didn’t take when she fled to college and marriage.
Nobody, not one of us, ever brought friends home. Even if we were allowed, none of us would bring people into That House.
There were never any pets. Pets would be an added expense that contributed nothing and would only add to the filth and stench. And where would you put them? Every room was packed with stuff, other people’s stuff that they might come back for someday but we can’t just get rid of it and this was half-price and this was a gift from Grandma. Your father doesn’t want to deal with the noise. When you grow up you can do what you want but under this roof, you’ll do what I tell you or else.
I developed a love for animals as a child, a desperate love, reading every picture book, sobbing over the plight of baby harp seals, collecting stuffed raccoons and bears and dogs and giving them names and personalities and lavishing them with all the affection I had no other outlet for. My friends who had pets (and clean houses and daddies who didn’t hit them and new toys and new clothes) became obsessions to me. I wanted so much to belong to another home, one where everything good wasn’t forbidden, that I once spent a frantic hour hiding under one friend’s bed, begging not to be sent away that night, I’ll be quiet I promise I won’t eat much just let me stay and play with the dog I won’t be a bother honest. Later I was beaten for embarrassing the family.
I still wish I’d been allowed to have a pet as a kid. If nothing else, it would have let me learn about death. As an adult, when my own late-acquired pet died, when my sister (the only one who didn’t treat me like the Bad Seed) died, when my mom died, I had nothing to prepare me, no healthy associations for how to deal with it, the result being before you.