When you give birth to 12 children over a period of 21 years, you raise them in shifts. It starts out small and somewhat contained, just the two of you, mother and child. Soon enough there are three, and then it all boils over into a chaotic maelstrom of noise, dirty laundry and secret smells - the source of which, you learn, are hidden sandwiches growing dank and exotic penicillin strains at the bottom of a school backpack in the back of someone's closet.
This phase seems unending, and you may sometimes fear it will never end. You just know you'll be following smells while wearing earplugs and pre-treating grimy collars until you're 60, white-haired and bent over with dishpan hands. Sometimes there are mornings when they are all where they should be for the day, be it nursery school or school, perhaps with an infant sleeping soundly in a crib behind a closed door, and you drink in the silence. You fill your lungs with it, tasting freedom, but it's illusory.
Because they always come home.
You don't waste any time, but hie yourself straight into the laundry room. Like an automaton, you sort whites, darks, permanent press and that small pile of pinks and reds, that little burst of color that takes forever to build up to the point where it is economical and ecologically sound to do a load.
If it's Sunday, you start the first of seven loads, then, swiping the back of your hand across your gleaming forehead, you resolutely make your way through the living room, straightening couch cushions, picking up toys, setting things to right. There should be a title for that, and you should be the chief executive. It's what you do. For years on end.
You wash a mountain of dishes, your mind going over old conversations, a date with the boy you didn't marry and the reasons he didn't marry you; what you wish you'd said to the principal who suspended you for smoking behind the school; what it would be like to be Heidi up there in the Alps with her grandfather, with milk warm from a goat and scented with clover. "Schwänli and Bärli," you might whisper out loud, for there is no one to hear you pretending you are Swiss and somewhere else.
You take out the soup pot, because when there is nothing to eat, there is always soup. The kind that fills up the house with fragrant steam and makes the house homey, a good place to be, when the kids come home. You want to give them that, the small bits of belonging and comfort. You want your house to be a home.
You can make soup from nothing. Creatio ex nihilo: It's what's for lunch. A little like God, but with a good running start of lentils and onions, a potato here and a carrot there. It's something. You make it with your two hands and love. Much love. For you do feel passionate about your family.
You love them with a fierce surge of moist heat from the moment they are born, each of your children, with their damp curly heads seeking nourishment from your body, bodies pulsing in perfect synchronization.
That is where it all begins, as if you were the only two people in the world and not under bright lights in a maternity ward, surrounded by medical equipment and personnel. As if there weren't 11 more at home, lying in wait. At that moment, there is only a haloed Madonna and child, the two of you the glue that keeps you solid as a unit, unique and singular within a cast of 12.
But more often there is just this: the sameness of the days. The hard work, the small pleasures and the difficulties of just getting through the hours. Sometimes you feel you're straddling a fault line and will erupt at any moment, a surprise not a surprise.
And sometimes you simply erupt.
You can remember that one time you were all sitting around the table, all of you, at the Sabbath table when you lifted up your white Aynsley China plate and smashed it down in response to a child's poor manners. "Better the plate than my child," you say in a voice so hushed no one hears it, and 13 pairs of stunned eyes look at the white-hot anger in your face. "Better the plate, better the plate," you sing in your head, like a Chopin waltz, tinkly and brittle and bright.
But grow they do, in spite of you. Smart, handsome, with all sorts of talents and good traits, they feel connected one to the other; they always did.
The camera catches as much as it can. And then slowly they leave, one at a time, by school, by age or by marriage, a Noah's Ark in reverse, an emptying out. They leave and you see them only rarely. And as they leave, finally there is peace, a wide-open peace like a cloud being split by an angel of light. No more quiet in dribs and drabs, but a glorious, long-lasting silence, enough to fill the lungs and let you breathe. Enough to go around. Enough to spare.
And then there are two.
Just two children. They are teenagers, and they have screens, something their older siblings did not have. Times are different, and you have a job as a writer; you can buy them things. But sometimes those kids wall themselves off and are so quiet you almost do not know they are there. Sometimes they don't need much outside their screens.
But sometimes they need you, and then there is no one to come between you. They need not compete with anyone at all. There is, finally, enough of you to go around. And you can enjoy the wonderful things they do, their perfect imitations of a pop singer or their homeroom teachers, a magic trick. You can marvel at how they shoot up like weeds, straight and beautiful and taller than you. And you can make their favorite foods, knowing no one will complain and there will be enough.
On a Sunday, there are one or two loads of laundry, not seven. And you can afford to buy pre-wash spray. The kids wash their dishes after they eat, and they take turns with the chores. There are no babies to interrupt your dreams. You are not sleep-deprived. You are silver-haired and marked by the passage of time. You are not sad and have no regrets.
You think: It's nice being the mother of two children. I could get used to this. If only they wouldn't leave.