15: Into the Fray

15: Into the Fray

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Multitasking Mom's Survival Guide

Into the Fray

You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.

~Franklin P. Jones

Years ago, when I was a newlywed, my older sister asked if I would babysit her five children for a week. At the time I was still tanned from a honeymoon and eager to embark upon married life. I was also unemployed. Thus, when my sister made her outlandish request, I had no reasonable excuse.

Dorie followed by adding that she and her husband Gerard hadn’t been away in three years. She also mentioned she was pregnant with number six.

“They deserve a break,” my husband concluded. Easy for him to say; he wouldn’t be the one moving in for a week.

My sister was fifteen years older than me, and our lives were vastly different. My husband and I lived alone in a quiet suburban condominium. My sister’s life, on the other hand, was a dizzying whirl of kids, dogs and carpools. I never left her house without feeling frazzled, wondering how she managed it all and still maintained her sense of humor. It helped that she was no perfectionist.

“The first one up is the best dressed,” she said.

At twenty-three years old, I was ill prepared to care for five children under thirteen. For one thing, I couldn’t cook. Yet despite my deficiencies, I was conscientious. I didn’t want my nieces and nephews to get scurvy on my watch, so I gave in and bought a cookbook. I was determined they’d have a hot meal every night.

While perusing the book, I learned a clever tip: Make sandwiches for the week and freeze them. In the morning, remove from freezer. By lunchtime, the sandwich will have thawed.

I’m sure the tipster didn’t have five kids in mind when making that suggestion. Nonetheless, following my arrival, I cleared the kitchen table of hockey masks and video games and set up an assembly line. Before long, the freezer held twenty-five sandwiches piled in neat stacks: peanut butter and jelly, bologna and cheese, tuna salad, and liverwurst and Swiss. Organization was the key, I decided.

Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for the first early morning alarm and the resulting chaos as the kids fought over the bathroom. Following that, they raced into the kitchen. Here they emptied boxes of cereal into bowls and dragged gallons of milk from the fridge, sloshing it over the table. All the while they bickered, elbowing and nudging each other.

Before racing out to the bus, they grabbed the sandwiches from the freezer. The peanut butter and jelly vanished immediately. Needless to say, on subsequent mornings, they rejected the other selections. I discovered that liverwurst is “gross” and tuna fish and bologna freeze poorly.

When the house was blessedly quiet, I wearily phoned my husband for support as the dog lapped up the milk and soggy cereal on the floor.

With the kids in school, I looked through my cookbook. I knew it was important for children to have vegetables, so I selected an easy casserole of spinach, eggs and creamed corn.

I was dozing on the sofa when I heard the sound of air brakes followed by an ungodly roar. The front door burst open, and all five kids raced in accompanied by an assortment of friends. They tossed jackets, hats and books on the floor while rushing to the kitchen. Once again the refrigerator and cupboards were flung open, and everything I’d carefully put away was dragged out. Rivers of milk flowed amidst the constant elbowing, pushing and bickering. This was the afternoon “snack time” my sister had mentioned.

Soon the stereo was blasting while my nieces and their junior high friends sang and danced in the living room. Down the hall, the boys fought over piles of sports equipment, punching each other until I broke it up.

When dinnertime finally arrived, I called the kids to the table. For a moment, seeing them sitting together, I had a feeling of satisfaction. But only for a moment.

“What’s that?” Terry said, when I placed the casserole on the table. Unbeknownst to me, kids and casseroles are not compatible, especially those made with spinach.

“This tastes better than it looks,” I promised, though I had no idea. Because they were hungry, they dug in, and before long discovered the — unwashed — spinach.

“Yuck,” Butchie spat. “That’s dirt.”

“Don’t spit on me,” his brother Shawn said, elbowing him sharply.

“I didn’t spit on you.” Butchie elbowed back.

With that, Shawn picked up his runny square of spinach casserole and threw it at his brother. Some of it hit his sister, who threw hers back at him. A food fight ensued until I stopped it by yelling the loudest. With the walls splattered with spinach and corn kernels, I piled everyone in the car and drove to a local pizza parlor. At least it was a hot meal, I rationalized.

My week at Dorie’s has become an oft-told family legend. Yet it was during that endless week that I learned about compromise, something my sister already did well. I found out that kids won’t die from eating pizza for breakfast, and matching socks — or shoes — aren’t mandatory for learning. And though the house shook on its foundation when all the kids were at home, at least they were accounted for.

The lessons came in handy when I later threw caution to the wind and had two children of my own. My sister never offered to babysit.

~Sharon Love Cook

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