Each month the committee on which I serve has a meeting and
at that meeting we have an opening reading and a question. The question this month was, “talk about a
time when you felt loved.” I gave an
answer, but halfway through the meeting I thought of a better answer, excellent
for this week’s essay.
while my mother cleaned out a drawer.
From that drawer, my mother pulled out a stack of small cards, the kind
that are delivered with flowers. She
flipped through them, smiled, and tossed the packet over to me.
mid-seventies design, appropriate for a baby girl. They featured a lot of pink and yellow and
drawings in the style of the big eyed naked children holding hands that were
popular then. There were also soft pastels of teddy bears and baby blankets and
bassinets. I knew some of the people,
but many of the names on the cards were unfamiliar to me. “Who is this?” I would ask and mom would tell
me it was her cousin so-and-so.
grandmother was the oldest of the 15 children of Raymond and Helen Catherine
Whitmore. They were a tight clan,
growing up in and around Portland, Oregon and the size of their brood was
unique enough to be remarked on, even then.
Though their family was born and came of age from 1912 to the 1930s, a
time when many more children were born to each family than today, fifteen
children was still a huge number. There
is a picture of the entire family, standing on the stairs at the Paramount
Theater (now the Arlene Schintzer Concert Hall). It’s an impressive lineup. They were there because they won a
contest. They were the biggest family in
Portland and their picture appeared in the paper. There might have even been free admission to
nearly as many as their parents: my grandmother stopped at three and one of the
children topped out at eight. Many of
the 15 settled around Portland and I get the impression that most of them spent
goodly amounts of time together over the years depending on geography and which
siblings were getting along with each other at the time.
second cousins, it was as if I had no first cousins of my own. My father’s nieces and nephews were much
older than me—most were adults or nearly so when I was a child—and they lived
either halfway, or on the other side of the country. We rarely saw them. Neither of my Aunts on my mother’s side had
children, so when we visited my Grandparents we were a party of eight (Grandma,
Grandpa, Mom, Dad, Aunt Pat, Aunt Carol, my brother and myself) but with no one
else but my brother in my age cohort. We
visited Portland often and sometimes would hang out with the extended family,
but I made few cousin connections.
with the fact that I grew up in a city where the large Mormon population meant
that many of my classmates had large numbers of cousins—some who even went to
the same school—meant that I mythologized and idolized the large family. To me, having cousins meant having a built-in
companions. Best friends. Since we were
from the same family, we would have so much in common and undoubtedly get along. Adulthood has disabused me of this notion,
but growing up I just felt the longing for a tribe.
mother’s cousins and cards from my Great Aunts and Uncles congratulating my
parents. Weighing the cards in my hand,
I imagined all the flower bouquets attached to the cards. I thought of the givers making arrangements
to have the flowers sent to a different state and time zone and I thought of
each person counting out the money to pay for the flowers. None of the Whitmore clan can be said to be
rolling in dough. It was an overwhelming picture.
wonder to my mother.
my mother explained, “so many people were happy that she finally had one.”
wish for cousins, or even a few more brothers and sisters. Looking at those cards I suddenly felt folded
into the family, a part of the fabric, despite the distance. I might not see them often, but when I did, I
would always be “Helen’s granddaughter.”
The first granddaughter of the first child of the Whitmore Family.