“You must be Catholic.”
It’s the most common reaction I hear when someone finds out I’m the youngest of 12 children. (And they’re right—we’re Catholic, raised by the Sisters of Mercy.) The next most common reactions: “Your parents did know what causes pregnancy, didn’t they?” (I guess so—but, really, I try not to dwell on things like that) and “How many twins?” (None; they were all single births. No adoptions, no blended family—12 full siblings.)
Once people get over the initial shock, usually the next question is, “What was it like?”
The first house I can remember had multiple sets of bunk beds in each room. Even when we moved to a larger house, I always shared a room with at least one other person. Privacy was not something we had a lot of growing up.
It wasn’t until my freshman year at Vanderbilt that I truly experienced having a room of my own. I can remember listening to my hall mates in Kissam Hall complain about the size of our rooms and thinking, You know, they could squeeze another person in here with a bunk bed.
As the youngest I was always the patsy. When our family dog chased a skunk into the ditch in which we were playing, take a wild guess who was sent in to retrieve our abandoned toys. Yeah, that was fun.
Another time, one of my older brothers was trying to teach another how to throw a football by having me run across the backyard. They didn’t have any confidence in my ability to actually catch the ball (any athletic genes didn’t make it that far out on the family tree), so they just aimed at the back of my head.
A few years later they had graduated to throwing a lasso. Guess who got to be the running calf in this training session? Vanderbilt’s admissions standards must have been lower when I applied. I can’t imagine being that gullible and getting in today.
As the youngest of 12, I’ve had to endure a litany of “when I was your age” rants by older siblings—stories about how strict our parents were with the older children, or how they “did without” when they were young.
My favorite? “When I was your age, we only got one cup of Coke on Friday night. We didn’t have 2-liter bottles in the refrigerator whenever we wanted it.”
My response? “Had glass been invented by then, or did Coke still come in stone jars?” (Well, let’s be honest. I didn’t actually say that out loud. Being the youngest also means learning that others may not always appreciate your brand of humor, and they will pummel you mercilessly.)
When I started at Vanderbilt, a new family dynamic became apparent to me, involving those who were die-hard Vanderbilt fans and those who were not. I was surprised to find out during my Vanderbilt years and afterward the number of my siblings who had season tickets to Vanderbilt sports. I also was surprised at the number who cheer on that “university” (and I use that term loosely) to the east.
Admittedly, over the years those of us who cheer on the Black and Gold have not always had much to gloat about over the Vol supporters in the family, so we enjoy it when we can. In hindsight, forcing them to watch a replay of the 2005 “Victory in Knoxville” at Christmas dinner might have been a little over the top.
Speaking of the holidays, people usually ask me about Thanksgiving and Christmas. They have preconceived notions of the family lovingly grouped around a large table—something right out of The Waltons meets Leave It to Beaver. “Sure,” I tell them, “if you throw in a side of The Munsters with just a touch of Nightmare on Elm Street.”
To feed a gathering that size (Thanksgiving and Christmas, on a good year, average about 40 people), everyone has assigned responsibilities. There’s broccoli casserole (two kinds—with and without almonds), potato salad (two kinds—with and without onions), dressing (two kinds—well, you get the picture). Everybody’s pet peeves must be accounted for.
Christmas, in the “Good Old Days,” used to be a monstrous affair. My mother would hang a stocking on the mantel for everyone. They’d be lined up from one end of the mantel to the other, wrapping around the corners as we added more spouses/nieces/nephews. And the stockings would be so full that you could see things poking out the top. When I was very young, that would include a carton of each person’s favorite cigarettes for those who smoked. Back then the surgeon general’s warning was more of a suggestion, and I don’t think they even put it on the box. I remember thinking, I can’t wait to start smoking so my mom can get me a carton of smokes for Christmas! Once my father stopped smoking and then survived his first bout of lung cancer, that Christmas tradition thankfully stopped.
With a group that size and a history that long, the holidays can be a ticking time bomb. My personal favorite: the year Thanksgiving broke up before dessert because of an argument over a high school football game that had happened more than 20 years earlier. As people quickly and quietly drifted for the exits, those not involved in the “discussion” wondered how long it would last and whether it might not be better to skip Christmas altogether.
But back to the original question, “What was it like?” The better question is, “What is it like?” We’re all grown with families of our own, but we’re still learning from each other, and after all these years they still surprise me.
When my father became terminally ill, the family spent a rough seven months together, but I learned more about them in those seven months than in all the years before. We spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, telling stories about growing up.
I’ve heard other people talk about the first time they really saw their siblings as adults—that, until then, they had always looked on their brothers or sisters as the children they grew up with. For me the reverse is true. Because of the age difference (one week shy of 21 years between oldest and youngest), I’ve only known most of my siblings as the adults they’ve become. After that time tending to our father, I finally have a sense of what they were like as children.
And starting a family of my own has given me a better sense of what my parents went through. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, she was put on full bed rest, which left me to do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, caring for her, and trying to keep everything running and in order. One weekend she asked me to go to JCPenney for some fleece footies she had seen in the maternity section before she went on bed rest.
When I got to the mall, I was convinced they had moved the entire store around. Not only was I unable to find the footies—I couldn’t even find the maternity department where they had been. I was standing in line for customer service, ranting to my wife on the cell phone about JCPenney rearranging the entire store, when I spotted the gift cards.
Macy’s, they said. I was in the wrong store. (Note to Chancellor Zeppos: Please don’t take away my diploma.)
A few minutes later, as I was standing in the JCPenney maternity department (right where we left it!), the thought hit me: How the heck did my parents go through this emotional roller coaster 12 times? I started doing the math then and there: My mother was pregnant 12 times, averaging nine months each time. This means, in a 21-year span, my mother was pregnant for nine years. Nine years. And by the time I left for Vanderbilt, my parents had been raising children for about 39 years.
My parents did know what causes pregnancy, didn’t they?
Christopher Baltz and his wife, Jill Taggert Baltz, BS’92, both have management responsibilities within Vanderbilt’s Division of Development and Alumni Relations. They have one child.
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Daniel Dubois | Illustrations: Loel Barr
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