My Freaking Enormous Family

My dad is one of thirteen kids. He has six brothers and six sisters. Each of my aunts and uncles has at least one child. Some of them have more more than ten each. That means I have 64-or-so first cousins on just my dad’s side of the family. Many of those cousins have children, and one is a grandfather (damn!)

When I was growing up, I was accustomed to having large family gatherings. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t normal. As years went by, the family grew larger and larger. Now, when we get together, everyone must wear name tags to keep things straight. In fact, we started assigning color-coded t-shirts to each family clan. It can only get worse.

The irritating thing about coming from an obscenely large, Roman Catholic family is that having a butt-load of kids is part of some covenant between each able-bodied adult and God. The bizarre exception to this mandate is becoming a nun or priest. And in that case, you must remain celibate. (For the love of God, what sense does that make?!)

Therefore, the ovo-centric powerhouse of my family’s baby-making tour de force, my dad’s six sisters and their numerous offspring, and to a lesser extent, the women married to my dad’s brothers, have managed to put otherwise fertile couples to shame. Having just two or three children means you’re not trying hard enough. So, imagine the disapproval I see in their eyes.

My wife and I will never have children of our own. Even if we adopt – and my parents have assured me they will love their grandchildren no matter what – it cannot make up for the fact that, as a willing participant in the progeny-o-matic of my family, I am a complete failure.

To be fair to myself, I am in no way a failure. It is by a string of stupid quirks of fate that the universe destined for us not to have children, and I don’t feel shame for that. I am a little sad that it could not happen for us, but I certainly do not hold myself up against the potential nation-making ability of the others. Sometimes, I imagine what kind of father I would have been, and it scares me to think about the immeasurable harm I might have inflicted on my hypothetical kids.

The big family is a blessing. Some of my fondest memories are from summers at my grandparents’ house with my cousins and a few of my younger aunts and uncles before they went on their mission to prevent human extinction. Those times were precious. We still keep in touch, the ones closer to my age. And now they all have kids. And when I visit them now, I see how they look at me. It’s a combination of envy and pity.

I understand the envy. My wife and I travel more than people with kids. We can watch movies with any amount of violence and foul language (read: “Deadwood”). We can go out on a Tuesday night. We’re not saving for college. We can take a vacation during the off season when rates are low. There’s no daycare. No soccer practice. No ear infections. And no boyfriends.

Having said all this, I still can’t help feeling a little inadequate when I see my cousins showing off their beautiful children on Facebook. Hell, I’d do that same thing, but mine would have had hair, wearing Star Wars costumes. Like I said, my kids would be screwed up.

The Good Old Days

We’ve been watching “Deadwood” lately. It was something I never watched before, and I thought I would like to see what the hype was about, even if it was eight years after the last episode. If you don’t know, the show was set in and around the real town of Deadwood in what is now South Dakota, during the last quarter of the 19th century during a brief and illegal gold rush in Sioux territory. Watching it, I kept thinking how strange it is now to us, here in the 21st century, that people back then rode horses as a means of transportation, that stage coaches transported parcels from Sears and Roebuck, and people could truly invent and reinvent themselves, being or pretending to be whatever they wished.

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The quaint and picturesque image we have of the old west, or anything beyond a hundred years theretofore is probably not so idyllic. The reality of daily living is this drudgery of work and rest, interrupted by the occasional vacation, if you were lucky. But we look at earlier times with nostalgic longing, as though, if we could travel in time to an earlier age, we would see through the rose-colored lens of a Norman Rockwell painting. We easily forget the grainy, black & white silent reels of busy life in the city, dodging horse-drawn trolleys and stepping over horse shit in the street (in Fort Worth, this is still a concern). The Chicago river was used as an open sewer at one point. Can you imagine the smell? Not quaint.

I have always imagined I would enjoy the 1920’s; ┬áthe days of the speakeasy, the birth of jazz, the heyday of silent movies. I loved the style and the excitement of what I saw in pictures. But my grandparents lived during that time. Of course, they weren’t cosmopolitans. They grew up in South Texas, which is even today one of the most economically depressed regions in the US. For them, the “good old days” were just the old days. I would hear stories of a time before people generally had access to telephones and electricity. Indoor plumbing was a new concept. News came by newspapers and radio. But the first news program to be broadcast by radio was in August of 1920. It would be a few years before people in the Rio Grande Valley would be tuning in. In any case, this was life. In bigger cities, like Boston or Philadelphia (Philly was the 3rd largest city in the US in 1920) you could expect to have access to new technologies like hot running water and electric lights.

Here in the 21st century, we take a lot of things for granted. Even now, I am quite aware of this, because my refrigerator is humming quietly behind me, and I barely give it any thought how convenient it is that I don’t have to raise chickens to have fresh eggs. We rely on dozens of modern wonders that our grandparents and great-grandparents would never have imagined. How did they ever get by without mobile handheld communications? How was life before television? Before radio broadcasts? Before supermarkets, before interstate highways, before long-distance telephone calls? Life was indeed slower. It would have to be.

In 1924, your best bet for getting from your city to another was by rail. Yes, there were airplanes back then, but commercial air travel would not be available for several years to come. You might have a car, but roads between cities were treacherous, to say the least. And traveling across the Atlantic took at least four days from New York. If you lived in Fort Worth, Texas, factor in the days it took to travel to NYC by train.

What I like to point out about the “good old days” is this: for most people, it was not so good. Infant mortality was high. Prevention of disease was in its early days. Workers had almost no protections from unscrupulous employers (still not so great). And people had fewer opportunities and choices. Today, anyone can go to college or learn a trade, and there are a host of programs to facilitate. People have more free time for hobbies and leisure. There are countless sources of entertainment and cultural enrichment. Medical technology is advancing pretty incredibly (still a long way to go). And there is greater individual mobility.

Looking back at these simpler times, I can’t help thinking of one thing: what will the people of the 22nd century think of us? They might say, “Ha! They still used telephones,” or “They actually drove cars themselves,” (see Google’s Self-Driving Car). In the last 30 years, I have seen some amazing things. And I’m still young! Will I see human settlements on Mars? Will cancer be cured? Will people live longer, healthier lives? Do you believe this age is what will someday be called the “good old days?”