By Jamie Odeneal
For this crazy brood, Thanksgiving means the "chaotic blessing" of each other's company.
It's 10:30 a.m. on thanksgiving day, and my nephew Tanner is intently banging a broom around the upstairs of the beach house our parents have rented for the week. With his stream of incomprehensible toddler babble and his bed head, he's like a crazy janitor on a mission. When my sister Kate tries to put the broom away, he slams his fists against the closet door, wailing as if he's been critically wounded. Kate doesn't miss a beat and swoops in with his favorite book to distract him. This seems to work, and his tears dry up as quickly as they began. And thank goodness—two babies are trying to nap in the rooms below, and one of them is mine.
Seven adults and six children under the age of six are staying in the house, which probably sounds nuts to anyone outside our family. In fact, the only thing that's keeping a mutiny at bay is that the grown-ups outnumber the kids. Only one adult is still missing—Kate's husband, Jeff, who won't get off work until later in the day. But for the time being, the rest of us adults are a living experiment in group parenting.
When making plans for this holiday, our family decided that this was not the year for a traditional, fine-china-and-polished-silver Thanksgiving. Things had gotten much busier recently—my two sisters and I all had had babies within a span of eight months. With an expanded horde of little ones to contend with, we opted for a casual beach vacation instead of the traditional turkey day at my parents' house, otherwise known as "the land of untouchable knickknacks." Considering that we've made it through four days without a major injury or blowout fight, I'd say we're off to a good start. If we can just get dinner on the table, we'll consider it a raging success.
Kate is busy pacifying Tanner, so I pitch in and monitor her other son, three-year-old Ethan, and our niece, four-year-old Jane. They've been inseparable all week, spending half the time giggling and the other half arguing, and you never know which way it's going to turn. They're sitting at the breakfast bar making pretend food out of Play-Doh. The Play-Doh started out as distinct, vibrant colors, but four days of hard play has morphed it all into a gray-brown swirl. Throughout the morning they've been busy serving the adults plates of gray-brown spaghetti, gray-brown hotdogs, and gray-brown cookies.
"Mmmmmm . . . this is delicious!" I proclaim after a fake bite. "Aren't they great chefs, Mimi?" I ask my mom, the real chef of the day, as she bustles around hunting for the tools she needs to complete the feast—no easy task in a kitchen better equipped for steaming clams than preparing holiday dinners. I've been doing my best to help, but I'm about as qualified as are Ethan and Jane to cook a 20-pound turkey and a dozen side dishes.
"Oh yes!" Mimi pauses to pay Ethan and Jane her compliments. "Some day you'll be the ones making me a turkey!" She dives back into a cupboard in search of a measuring cup.
Jane begins to mold a hunk of Play-Doh that Ethan insists he needs because it's "green" and he's making "salad." Clever Jane has the unique gift of anticipating exactly what Ethan will want five seconds in the future and then securing it for herself. Naturally, this elicits shrieks from Ethan, then Jane's indignant "What? I didn't do anything!" With a dripping can of creamed corn in one hand and a Sippy Cup in the other, I try to convince Ethan that the other blob, the "yellow" one, is better for making "salad" anyway. Ethan isn't so sure and pouts as Jane rolls out the "green" to make more cookies.
Jane's mom, my sister Leigh, would surely lend a hand here, but she's busy downstairs trying to nurse her infant son, Jack, to sleep. Naps in this house are next to impossible, but with the late hours all the kids have been keeping, they're even more necessary. Baby Jack is a busy boy these days who prefers pulling himself up onto unstable objects and crawling toward the stairs to taking naps. Leigh has to nurse him into a coma to get him to sleep at all.
Speaking of sleep, right now my husband, Norm, is trying to nap because he got up at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., when our seven-month-old daughter, Quinn, decided to greet the day. Anticipating the noise levels we'd be facing on this trip, Norm went online a few weeks ago to look for industrial-strength earplugs and found some wax ones designed for jackhammer operators. I tried them myself that morning when I stayed in bed until a decadent 7:30, but I could still feel the vibration of little feet pounding above me.
I wish Norm well in his nap attempt, but for now I'm more focused on keeping Quinn asleep. Without siblings, she isn't used to sleeping through this much commotion, so we've put her portable crib in the quietest spot in the house: the laundry room. At home she takes two solid naps a day and sleeps through the night, but this vacation has rendered that impossible. Like Leigh, I've resorted to nursing Quinn into oblivion.
It's times like this when a first-time mom such as I appreciates having sisters. Although some parenting books rail against the habit of nursing your child into slumber, my sisters and I think it's the niftiest sleep-inducing trick around. All three of us subscribe to the "follow your instincts" philosophy of parenting, and so far it's served us well. I was sure Quinn was asleep when I left the laundry room minutes ago, but already I can hear her babbling over the baby monitor. Compared to our quiet days at home, this experience must seem to her like trips to the zoo and the circus rolled up into one. I can hardly blame her for not wanting to miss a minute.
Despite all the confusion and sleeplessness, it's been a blast to see the babies start to notice each other and interact for the first time, even if it's only to maul each other over the most desirable toy. It was amazing to experience pregnancy along with both of my sisters; now we get to watch our children grow up together, too. At least that's the goal, which is why we've coordinated this frenzied little get-together.
As I head back to the laundry room with hopes of coaxing Quinn back to sleep, I notice Leigh's husband, Jason, doing his best to keep their oldest, six-year-old Ryan, entertained at a laptop. They're trying to figure out how to get the pinball game to run "without the sound, please!" because my mom has all the confusion she can handle. Ryan is just enough older than the other kids that he's lacking a playmate. "I'm sooooo bored!" he periodically complains as an adult steers him back to the laptop in search of a game.
Where's my dad in this picture? Asleep in an easy chair, a football game blaring in the background. "Big Guy," as his grandkids call him, can sleep anywhere, and he doesn't need earplugs to do it. In the midst of my mother's cooking frenzy, Ryan's cries of boredom, Jane's and Ethan's shrieks, Tanner's broom banging, and two babies sobbing in sheer exhaustion, my father is somehow unaffected by the chaos. He's just happy that his wife, three daughters, three sons-in-law, four grandsons, and two granddaughters are all with him on Thanksgiving. He's been talking about it since last summer, and I know it's the highlight of his year.
By noon, Norm is up and the babies and Tanner are finally down. Jane and Ethan are in Mimi and Big Guy's room watching a video. Kate's husband, Jeff, arrives, and although he's weary, he's relieved to have his overnight work shift and three-hour drive behind him.
"It's so quiet!" he says as he comes through the door.
"Ha! If you only knew ..." Kate sighs and gives him a big hug. We adults know this afternoon calm is temporary, so we seize the moment and attempt a game of Boggle. Not normally one for word games, my dad decides to join in, aware that this is probably the last downtime we'll have for hours. Even Ryan asks to play, as he's eager to show off his first-grade vocabulary. We cram around the table and pass out assorted pens and scraps of paper. Baby monitors hum in the background, and the smell of roast bird fills the air.
As we play, it occurs to me that this is the first time all 14 of us have been together in more than 4 months. With our family now spread out over three states, these events require a significant interruption of schedules and near-impossible logistical coordination. It would be easier to make excuses and not come, but that kind of laziness would risk a distance unacceptable to any one of us. A skipped birthday here, a missed holiday there, and before you know it, these kids will be adolescents who would rather not be dragged to another state to hang out with cousins they barely know. Before long, we three sisters would fall out of touch too, with nothing remaining but the occasional polite phone conversation and a strained Christmas dinner. It's just too sad to consider. What would life be without families—the ones we come from, the ones we create? We have to make the effort. So what if the babies are a little sleep-deprived? So what if the kids sometimes fight or get a little bored? This is what the experts refer to as "quality time," and it doesn't have to look like a Norman Rockwell painting to be good enough for us.
After 40 minutes of Boggling, over the monitors we hear the babies starting to fuss, as if they can sense they're missing out on the fun. Before long, Jane and Ethan tire of watching their video and start jumping up and down on Mimi and Big Guy's bed. We have no choice but to abandon the game. "Oh, come on, guys! I was just starting to get good at it!" says Ryan, again left without playmates.
"Come here, Ryan," says Big Guy. "Let's sneak a bite of some of Mimi's stuffing."
And the action begins all over again.
By late afternoon, we're all assembled and ready to dig into dinner. My mom looks proudly over the spread she's managed to put together against all odds. She's made all the staples—everything from corn bread stuffing to green-bean casserole. Jack and Quinn have both eked out naps, so they're actually content to sit in their high chairs and feed themselves tiny bits of their first Thanksgiving feast. Leigh and I take this opportunity to enjoy our dinners, our babies for once occupied with a meal other than our own breastmilk. Tanner is giving the broom a rest long enough to eat some mashed potatoes while sitting on his daddy's lap. With Jeff here, Kate can at last relax and sip a glass of wine, her hands free for the first meal in four days. Ryan is chatting away with Jason and Norm about his high score on the computer pinball game. Ethan and Jane are giggling together at the breakfast bar, blowing bubbles into their chocolate milk.
Peace and turkey are here at last. While anyone outside our family might think a vacation with eight adults and six kids under six is a recipe for disaster, what Big Guy knows, and what we all realize as we gather around the table, is that it's a wonderful, chaotic blessing just to be together.
Jamie Odeneal is a former high school teacher who now enjoys her time at home with her daughter, Quinn (18 months). During Quinn's naps, she spends as much time as possible writing about motherhood and family life. Jamie, Norm, and Quinn live in Arlington, Virginia.
Illustration by Jim Haynes.
Originally featured in Mothering magazine issue 139.