“Tonight” must have been the word my mother whispered over the party line shared with her sister Helen. Nine months later, they both gave birth to their first born: girls delivered one week apart. Then, four months later, the word must have been: “Again.” Exactly nine months passed when they had each had a second girl, again born seven days apart. I was the first of those two.
My mother left the hospital with my handsome Uncle Ed just as he was bringing his wife through the door, already in the throes of labor. The nurses at the hospital were shocked to see this unadulterated show of immorality– so frozen in shock that they forgot to clean the room. As my Aunt hobbled into the room that had just become vacated, they began running to get new linens. She shouted through her pain: “NO NEED FOR CLEAN SHEETS. THAT WAS MY SISTER THAT JUST LEFT!”
This competition continued on for several years, with my Mom saying, “You win,” after having had it with 6 kids, while my aunt, proudly and Catholically, went on to number 10. My weekends were full of overnights, cousin pajama parties, and endless “girl talk.” There were also 11 boy progeny from the five siblings, but although loved, they were not a part of the selective sorority of sisterhood that 17 of us share.
Ironically, we were all set up to hate each other at a very early age. Our mothers were so competitive, their party-line phone conversations went something like this:
“Hi Lee, I’m just calling to tell you that Jenny was in a piano recital yesterday and placed 2nd in the classical division. She was 2nd out of 10 participants.Would you and the family like to come over on Sunday and hear it?”
“Well, Helen, that’s just wonderful, we would love to. And perhaps Nancy can perform her latest Humorous Interpretation. She won First Place in the Catholic Speech Team, also yesterday, and-that’s first among 20 schools, and 300 participants!
“Oh, Lee, isn’t that nice! Hasn’t the good Lord blessed us with wonderful children? I thank him everyday with my rosary to our Lady. And Wanda and I just love our “Third Order Meetings every week. Won’t you join us this Week? It’s Saturday at 5:00.
“Oh,” my Mom said. “So sorry, I have a date with my neighbor to see “La Dolce Vita!”
“NO!” Aunt Helen almost screamed into the phone. “Wasn’t “La Dolce Vita” banned by the Catholic Church? I just heard Fr. Sullivan say at mass that it was, and no Catholic is allowed to see it, under pain of mortal sin!”
“Oh, well, since I don’t GO to mass, I hadn’t heard that. But, maybe you can pray for me.”
My rogue mother smoked and delighted in reading Nabokov’s “Lolita,” along with other books “banned” by the Catholic Church. When I spent the night on my cousins’ Bridgeton farm, I had to kneel with the whole family to say their nightly rosary. When they spent the night at mine, we would curl up on the couch with my mom, do each others pedicures, share a huge bowl of popcorn with Parmesan cheese, and watch “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Marilyn Monroe.” Always a ham, I loved imitating Marilyn singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and aiming to be a Broadway star at the time. Little did I know that my dream would fizzle–only to find me hamming it up again years later in nursing homes for a captive audience, most of whom are either asleep or deaf.
I’ve always had my cousins. We talk about the missing years of adulthood–college, careers, husbands and babies. We reminisce about our simpler lives, shared playing in mud puddles and hanging clothes out to dry. And after making our 5th batch of popcorn, we go around the room telling stories of our parents and grandparents, and I can feel the sway of our bodies decades earlier–dizzy with laughter as we went round and round on my Uncle’s hand-forged merry-go-round.
In 2001, there were 16 of us staying under one roof at Lake of the Ozarks. We all squeezed in, sharing beds and stories, just as we did as children. The decibel level of our shrill voices prompted a neighbor to come and see if there was a problem. “No problem,” we said. We apologized for our “noise,” and at the same time felt sorry for the fellow who couldn’t join in the fun since he wasn’t a member of our “tribe.” Three days later, when 9/11 shook our country, we looked back on this time of innocence and joy as one to treasure forever.
We call our eldest cousin Mary Ann the “Queen of the Bazan Cousins,” and we celebrated her 88th birthday last week at my home. Mary Ann was giddy that whole weekend of our reunion. She had just celebrated 50 years of marriage to the love of her life. And it was hardly a traditional marriage. While still a young bride, her husband, Bud, who was an iron-worker, fell 30 feet to the ground while working atop the Chrysler plant in Fenton, Missouri. The beam that had collapsed lay only inches from his head. The fall severed his spinal cord, making him a paraplegic–almost a quadriplegic as he had total use of only one arm. I remember the severity of that day. It was one of the few days of my childhood that I came home from school and my Mom was not there.
What a joy it was to have 12 of us from 4 different parents laughing and giggling around my dining room table. Things haven’t changed much. The ones who told the best jokes in childhood tell the funniest ones now. Our pianist entertained us on the ivories, reminding me with childish jealousy that after 20 years of trying, I still haven’t gotten out of Book 1. I used to like to run 10K’s, until arthritic hips and knees brought me to a finish. Yet, my dear cousin Judy, who cooks and entertains like Martha Stewart on steroids, proudly wore her number #282 etched in silver around her neck. The number she proudly displays is the number of miles she has run in the last year–running half marathons almost as often as I run (in the car) to the grocery store.
Cousin Mary is my alter ego–She was the “twin” cousin to my sister, who was 13 months older than I, but had the audacity to leave ME the oldest child when she died at age 9. From the day of the funeral onward, I “glommed” on to Mary and haven’t let her out of my sight since. I could “hate” her for being a gifted portrait artist, and for passing the sewing course we both took at ages 9 and 10. The stitching was too tedious and boring for me. I couldn’t work the machine, and of course, it was the machine’s fault—-a recurring theme in my life today with all things technical. My fingers could only muster up a pitiful potholder, while hers nimbly whipped up designer dresses for her dolls, and three-year-old baby sister.
My cousins and I are “sisters under-the-skin.” After years of exhausting our therapists who just don’t get the angst of the Polish depression– or are sick of hearing it– we turn to each other and laugh ourselves sick over our craziness. What’s more, talking to each other is free! And it’s freeing to have someone who knows you and your history listen like it’s the first time they’ve heard it, even though it may be the 50th!