Sometime after the release of The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams, I remember my mom telling me how much she had enjoyed the film. It was a revelation that stuck with me because I was surprised to see that she – a devout, lifelong Catholic – was completely unfazed by the film’s sympathetic (yet over-the-top) portrayal of a “non-traditional” family. The movie depicted the de facto marriage of two unabashedly flamboyant gay nightclub owners, along with their having raised a seemingly happy, healthy, well-adjusted son together. It was edgy fare for 1996 – the year that DOMA became law – flying in the face of what many, perhaps most Americans still believed about queer families. But my conservative-ish mom didn’t seem the least bit bothered or offended by any of it. In fact, she loved it.
It was with this specifically in mind a few years later that I finally summoned the courage to come out to my mom. And she has been nothing but awesome ever since.
So thank you, Robin Williams, for the many great performances you gave us, but especially, thank you for The Birdcage.
I recently read that Tom Wilson – the actor famous for playing Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future movies – no longer discusses his role in that classic 80s trilogy with his fans. Evidently tired of answering the same old questions, he now hands out concisely worded, postcard-sized accounts of his experience as the McFly boys’ bullying antagonist, and leaves it at that.
This seems to me like a novel, time-saving approach to what must be a daily bane for Mr. Wilson. And the reason I mention it is that Biff’s FAQ-busting postcard has given me an idea.
You see, one of the first things people usually learn about me is the fact that I come from a large family. It is, quite frankly, the most interesting thing I have to share about myself. I have four brothers, and twice as many sisters. That makes thirteen of us altogether, so yes, that’s one big-ass brood.
Without fail, this revelation sends jaws to the floor in amazed disbelief. And more often than not, it triggers a barrage of wide-eyed inquiries about what growing up in such a huge family was like for me. Fortunately, I love talking about my village-size clan, and I eat up the small-time notoriety this bit of personal trivia gives me among my peers.
But there are times when the questioning becomes predictable, repetitive, and a little bit silly. And occasionally, the questions can get rather inappropriate – offensive, even – leaving me to wonder in what universe it’s cool to ask about the boudoir habits and contraceptive practices of a new acquaintance’s parents.
Added to this are the subtly judgmental assumptions about our deprived upbringing that my siblings and I have been deflecting since childhood:
Concerned parent: “Oh, you poor child. You must be starving.”
Sibling: “No, I’m good, thank you.”
Parent: “Whatever. Here’s a yogurt.”
My folks fed us all just fine, thank you very much. But hey, some people just want to save the world one Yoplait at a time.
Anyway, that Biff article got me thinking: What if I just started handing out a list of short answers to the 20 most frequently asked questions about my huge family? It could save us all a lot of time, a lot of breath, and hopefully dispense with a few uncomfortable discussions about my mom and dad’s procreative business. And with the right amount of humor and finesse (and not a hint of sarcasm), this otherwise curt, self-important gesture would come across as funny and charming.
I think if I were to author such a list, it would probably read something like this:
(1) Yes, we’re all from the same mom and dad, and no, none of us was adopted. (At least that’s what they told us.)
(2) Yes, Catholic (East Coast). No, not Mormon. Catholic (West Coast).
(3) Why yes, my parents did have lots of sex. I mean, they must have, right? They had thirteen kids! And it’s my understanding that the more kids you’ve got running around, the more time and energy and privacy there is for that kind of thing. So yeah, it was basically a nonstop-intercourse marathon for them. Of course, that was never any of my business. But I’m glad you didn’t assume it’s none of yours.
(4) Well, since you so politely inquired, my parents’ views on birth control can be summarized thusly:
(5) Yes, my parents did in fact plan to have that many kids. I know thirteen is a large and oddly specific number to shoot for, but my folks had a thing for tormenting the sufferers of Triskaidekaphobia.
(6) I don’t know if I plan to have that many kids. Or any kids at all, for that matter. I’m gonna go with whatever answer scares you enough to get me out of this awful first date in a hurry.
(7) The age range between the oldest and youngest is fifteen years. And thirteen kids in fifteen years sounds downright reasonable when you consider that the first four have an age range of 21 months (in other words, four babies in less than two years). Yes … my poor mother.
(8) Yes, there are twins. Two of them.
(9) I’m the ninth-born overall (the Beatles even did a song about me), but unlike the eight Long Islanders before me, I was the first one born in Vermont. And that’s all that really matters.
(10) No, actually, I can’t name all my siblings. Why would you ask? They’re just my siblings.
(11) Okay, fine, I’ll name them all for you, even though it kinda feels like you’re just challenging me to prove that I can:
Satisfied? Good. Now please excuse me while I go pass out.
(12) Yes, we all look alike, in that we all look like we’re related. But I don’t think we’re that difficult to tell apart, if that’s what you mean. Like, I’m pretty sure no one ever mistakes me for my sister Peggy. And we all try not to dress in the same outfits. We do, however, all have the same freakishly large earlobes.
(13) Yes, there was a lot of laundry, and it piled up quickly. But it was never anything the occasional match and can of lighter fluid couldn’t make quick work of.
(14) Yes, our house was big. There were eight bedrooms, and yet I still had to share one with three of my brothers. And there was only one shower in the house. That made for some fun traffic jams in the morning. My dad used to say that his idea of Heaven was thirteen bathrooms, and zero children … I think he was joking.
(15) Yes, we ate our meals in shifts. But only to help regulate the whole pooping in shifts thing.
(16) No joke, we went through two gallons of milk per day. High gas prices? Psssh. We were all about the price of milk (which, incidentally, was cheapest at the gas station). My parents thought about investing in a cow, but this one wasn’t available.
(17) No, my folks were not rich. But only because they never realized they could exploit their kids for profit. They did, however, know how to exploit us all for pizza:
Circa 1982, the ad says, “When we say we’re a ‘FAMILY AFFORDABLE RESTAURANT’ we mean it … just ask Wayne and Ann Thies and their 10 children. Bring your family in and see just how affordable we are!” They went out of business soon after.
(Also, no, we don’t know the Duggars. I mean, we see them at all the big-family meetings. But we’re not social with them.)
(18) Yes, I am close with all of my brothers and sisters. Just like war or prison or jury duty, doing time in a big family creates powerful bonds that no petty feud or rivalry could ever undo. (But the moment one of them defects to Team Bieber, they should consider themselves DISOWNED.)
(19) I don’t know who the “black sheep” is. Why would you assume there’s a black sheep? And does that mean the rest of us are a just bunch of cookie-cutter conformists? Maybe we’re just a big flock of black sheep. And you know what? We’re all freakin’ delightful.
(There are, however, a couple of proud “pink sheep” in the family. I won’t mention their names, but, you know … “guilty“.)
(20) And finally, no, we did not grow up on a farm. It was more of a compound, really. Sure, we grew our own food there, but we also stockpiled weapons and survival gear, and made plans to re-populate the world after the coming Armageddon. We only moved into town after the feds seized the place and indicted our Leader for tax evasion. I’m not sure if the end is still nigh, but with my family’s newest generation now numbering 25 kids, the whole re-population thing seems to be coming along nicely. Anyway, isn’t it kind of impolite for you to be asking all these probing questions? I mean, what were you, raised on a farm?
And there you have it, folks. Everything you could possibly want to know about growing up big-family style. Have any more questions? Feel free to drop them off in the comments section (no matter how obvious, assumptive, or bizarrely probing they might be). I promise to respond with only the gentlest of sarcasm.
Thanks for reading, folks, and thanks for keepin’ it classy!
When I was in high school, my mom had a new ceiling fan installed in my bedroom. It looked exactly like this:
Several years later, I came out as gay. Coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge.
Anyway, I just wanted to give a Mother’s Day shout-out to my mom, who is in every way fabulous. Sure, she is known for her impeccable taste and interior-decorating prowess, her eye for style and ever-fashionable appearance, and her love of opera, Broadway musicals, and Barbra Streisand. But lest you suspect otherwise, none of my mom’s hey-girl fabulousness actually made me gay. No more than that gay pride-y ceiling fan did. All it did, really, was make me fabulous, too.
So thanks for everything you’ve given me, Mom. You’re the the best a guy like me could’ve asked for!
Happy Mother’s Day!
(For more on my fabulous mom, check out this great blog post my sister Mary wrote last Mother’s Day)
(Also, please enjoy this amusingly apropos Mother’s Day video):