It’s been decades now, but my experience in my enormous family of origin was so deeply entrenched in my DNA that there was a time whenever I met anyone, the first thing I said was “I’m one of 14 children.” And waited for the astonished replies. “Oh, you must be Catholic” / “What number are you?” / “Any twins?”
Our sheer numbers defined us, always in relation to each other. My Mother’s passport photo taken in preparation for the family traveling to Guam, (where my father was stationed in the United States Navy) showed her surrounded by eight children ages three months to nine years. This was her ultimate identity paper as a citizen. The United States of America saw Marcelle Prudell Hicks, not as an individual woman, but as a mother of eight children. And the flock of us were just ‘dependents’ with no names. Thereafter, they lined us up at least once per year to update the expanding family photo: my mother holding the most recent baby, my father grinning proudly while the rest of us, shoulder to shoulder, squinted into the sun. Once there were fourteen of us, the caption “One Man’s Family” was engraved and fastened to the wood frame.
I’ve got my own private mess hall, Daddy joked to strangers, since being a Navy Commander who survived Pearl Harbor was an essential part of his self-image. We were that passel of hungry mouths to feed, his Navy brats, used to being corralled and sorted for roll call, for Sunday Mass, for bedtime and suppertime. As such, we totally understood waiting our turn but we also knew about the essential importance of getting there first. At mealtime, ‘seconds’ vanished to the quickest, and to this day I don’t chew my food, I inhale it. At Christmas, each girl received a copy of a sweater, distinguished from five other sweaters by color and size; the boys got socks. Everything in quantity, in bulk, sold for a group bargain. So that’s who I was. A face in a crowd. A number in a line. A mouth to be fed. There were a lot of us and we had plenty of fun, but there was never enough. Attention. Personal space. Quiet. I hated hand-me-downs for the usual reasons; drew blood kicking and screaming because my sister’s bed had somehow moved over the invisible line I’d drawn in our crowded bedroom, or she’d ‘borrowed’ the dress I’d just finished sewing, or stole my diary (the one place I thought I had some privacy) and read the embarassing confidences therein.
Then I grew up (an oversimplification of this phase of my life) and fell in love with an average Canadian, Gord (self-described). When I first visited Toronto, (which heretofore I’d pictured somewhere in Australia), my gut response was, “This is a beautiful city! Why hasn’t anyone discovered it?” We were living in New York, and I could just tell that Canada’s biggest city had a more reasonable number of people. Gord confirmed my hopes: Canada’s entire population is the same as and could fit into the state of California. ‘Foreign country’ never looked so good to me: gorgeous landscape, clean & shiny cities with the occasional Mountie on horseback and a colonial edifice here and there for authenticity. Most importantly, not too many people.
Instinctively understanding what this meant to me, I yearned to live in Canada. In New York, the competition was all-too-familiar: as an actress, I routinely waited hours in line-ups for auditions that sometimes lasted only seconds. Gord was an illustrator & visual artist, and had begun making contacts with New York agents. Then he landed a commission back in Toronto and asked me to wait for him in our one-room New York apartment (with cock roaches and a postage-stamp kitchen), and I thought: “Are you kidding?” Of course The Big Apple was exciting, if you had a lot of money. It was also crowded, filthy and filled with people clamoring to survive, just like I had been in my family. Why would I stay in this New York dive when I could live in that sparkling country called Canada? The place with all that room? To Gord, New York was everything Canada was not: opportunity, fame and fortune on the Number One world stage. To him, New York was Canada’s big brother.
I already had eight of those.
Besides, I was in love. Ten months later, we were married in our semi-detached heritage rental on Collier Street three weeks before our son was born. So what if no one from my family came. I had Canada all to myself.
Thirty years later, even as the looney sinks below 70 cents, as we look to welcome Syrian refugees, I’m glad that the relentless striving to survive in my Big Fat American family drove me to Canada. In that family, my son is just one of 42 grandchildren; in Canada he has relationships with six of his seven cousins. Here, I benefit everyday from Canada’s ‘je ne sais quoi’ – a culture that is so much more than the space, the ‘eh’ or the ‘sorry’. Here I play ice hockey, I speak french, I vote in a political environment that is not toxically dead-locked. My brothers call us a ‘socialist’ country as if that were a fault but I am proud to live in a country that works to provide for its most vulnerable. A country that thinks of itself as a peacemaker. As an artist, I struggle and flourish, encouraged to express my own unique voice. I don’t have to sell everything I’ve worked for over the years to pay for my health care. I eat with a fork in my left hand, so my food stays on my plate long enough for a conversation.
I can say the word ‘sorry’ not out of self-depreciation, but out of respect. Instead of feeling road rage in a queue, I can let the car in front of me filter into the inching traffic ahead. With a simple gesture like that, I can make somebody’s day.
CAITLIN HICKS is a playwright, performer and author. Her debut novel A THEORY OF EXPANDED LOVE (published in 2015) explores the landscape of a large, military Catholic family in Pasadena, California in 1963. (www.caitlinhicks.com)