Arithmetic is a beautiful thing for a data junkie because no matter how the numbers are ordered, the sum is the same. I used to play with this when I was little to see how many ways I could arrive at 10. Ten is the numerological representation of completion, a totally harmonious unit. I like 10. There are 10 fingers, 10 toes, 10 commandments. I lived nearby I-10 as a child. Ten is an easy number to sum and it’s beautifully divisible. There are so many ways I can arrive at 10.
10. The number of children who have had my father’s last name.
7 + 3 = 10. Seven daughters, three sons.
3 + 3 + 4 = 10. Three children from my dad, three children from my mother, four children together.
2 + 5 + 1 + 2 = 10.Two children born in the 1950s, five born in the 1960s, one born in the 1970s, two born in the 1980s.
(2 + 1) + (1 + 2) + (1 + 3) = 10. Two girls, a boy from my dad; a boy and two girls from my mother; a boy and three girls together.
Beautiful arithmetic doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s simple.
Having ten children is impressive. It feels like an accomplishment, even though at its most rudimentary, all it really means is your reproductive equipment works (and you’ve survived to tell the tale). As one of those 10 children, I had no role to play in our existence but I still felt a flush of pride every time I told people the size of my family. It helped make me distinct, unique, memorable, and is guaranteed to lead comfortably into more conversation. There’s a scene in Cheaper by the Dozen where Frank Gilbraith Sr. is asked, “Hey, Mister! Why do you have so many children?” He punts back with, “because they come cheaper by the dozen, you know!” Everyone laughs. One of my childhood regrets was that my family fell two short of me being able to use that line (although I continued to hope well into my teens that my parents would dish out a couple more kids).
Being good at math requires constant reinforcement and discipline. I’ve completed more math and science credits than anyone else I know with liberal arts degrees (15, if you want to know, which doesn’t include accounting) and still I need focus, pen, and paper to tally points in gin rummy. Math also takes patience, like when you and your chemistry-teaching mother disagree about how many children there are. Many were the conversations like this:
Stranger to Me (inquiringly): Do you have brothers or sisters?
Me (slightly boastful): Yes, 9.
Stranger (astonished): Wow, there are 10 of you?
Mother (interjecting from behind me): No, I only have 7 children.
Me (assertively): But there are 10 of us.
Stranger (confused): So you have step-siblings?
Mother (irritated): No, she doesn’t. Her father and I are married.
Stranger (resigned): Oh. That’s good.
Me (ashamed, angry, feeling foolish): <walks away>
Invariably there was some kind of follow-up conversation with Mother that would go like this:
Mother (irritated): Please stop telling people about our personal business.
Me (snooty): What? S/he just asked if I have brothers or sisters and I answered. You’re the one who had to make things complicated.
Mother (getting shrill): What does that mean?
Me (snooty with haughtiness added): I do have 9 siblings. S/he was talking to me. You made us both look ridiculous.
Mother (angry): Don’t tell me I look ridiculous!
Me (ashamed, angry, irritated): <walks away>
Note: There was a lot of walking away in an ashamed, angry, and irritated fashion in stories with my mother.
Yet, in my father’s world there are 10. He entertained no other reality in this quixotic, skewed perspective. We were all possessively his. The children from his first family were his, even though ties were severed by a custody decree and their choice. The children from my mother’s first family were his, to the point where Dad and my mother denied the existence of her first husband until her youngest child was 16. And, of course, the children from Dad’s marriage with my mother are his, too, and in some way or other we are all named by and for him, stamped at birth. He is a patriarch and he demands inclusiveness.
This is my approach, too. Some claim to not see color. Others claim to not see disability or poverty. My gift is that I do not see DNA. There are scant individuals who know you since your time began, few who share the facial expressions, stories, experiences, and understanding. What is the point in categorizing them by degrees of genetic affinity?
Once when I was 5 or 6, I stole my sister’s strawberry-scented shampoo and used it for my bubble bath. She smelled my guilt and dragged me by my arm to Dad where she demanded he punish me. His face darkened and he turned on her, shouting: “Don’t you dare treat your sister that way in this house!” Lynn screamed at him, “she’s not my sister, she’s your daughter!” For this insurrection, Dad grounded her for a week, took her car keys, and drained her car of gas. Later, he told me to ignore Lynn entirely, that she was just jealous and didn’t know how to be happy. Throughout my teens, this is the explanation I would resurrect any time a sibling challenged my notion of there being 10 happily inclusive children: they were just jealous and didn’t know how to be happy. Then, it stopped mattering and I forgot the issue entirely. It seems like once everyone is an adult and we put away childish things, issues of who parented whom shouldn’t matter anymore.
Not too long ago I visited Linda and Craig in San Francisco. My oldest sister and brother, we’ve never lived together or been in competition with each other. They remember my birthday with small gifts of thoughtfulness and attended my graduation. They never took unflattering pictures of me and mocked them, never called me fat or ‘Titty.’ They comforted me during my first heartbreak and are the only siblings in whom I can confide. We’re friends and I’ve never stolen their shampoo. They invited me to dinner with their friends following a play in which my sister was cast.
They introduced me to the table of 10. “This is our sister, Aglaia.” There was a flurry of polite acknowledgement, smiles, and welcomes.
One friend asked of Linda: “This is your sister who lives in New Mexico? I thought she was older?”
Another asked of me: “Don’t you have an adult daughter? You look great!”
Linda smiled and answered for me: “Oh, this is our dad’s other daughter from a later marriage and she’s much younger. She’s just our half-sister. You’re thinking of our real sister, Michelle.”
Other. Just. Real. I was stunned.
I wondered if they were embarrassed of me, to have a sister more than 20 years younger, proof that when they could’ve been out having their own children, their randy father was still out having his. And I was surprisingly hurt. The friends’ reactions made me realize that the “There are 10 children!” pride I’d always felt apparently wasn’t shared. In fact, it seemed that of this table of Linda’s and Craig’s friends, none had known they had any other brothers or sisters except for the ‘real’ Michelle. In my siblings’ lives, there were only the three of them.
Every couple of years I hear my siblings offer other numbers to explain the size of their family: three, four, six, seven. Each time I see my family tree of 10 lose a branch. The large family in which I took so much pride, such pleasure in surprising others with when they asked how many siblings I had, is being whittled down to something more pedestrian: a family of four comprised of just me, two sisters, and a brother. Apparently, the only one who can’t make things add up correctly is me.