It happened on a Friday evening in April of 1977, when I was 19-years-old. I was home from college for the weekend and after dinner, my mom brought out a cake she had baked for my youngest brother, Tony. There were 2 candles on the cake and it was time to sing Happy Birthday to the baby of the family. As usual, the candles were lit and the lights were turned off. Tony sat in mom’s lap while we sang to him. After Tony blew out the candles, someone turned on the lights to the dining room. It was then that we noticed mom was wiping away tears from her eyes.
When we asked her why she was crying, she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever had a baby that turned 2-years-old without having another younger baby to take care of.” As we were singing, mom had come to the final realization that her childbearing years were over. At that time, she was 45 years old.
Mom and dad were married on April 2, 1951. Nine and a half months later, on January 14, 1952, their first child (Jerry) was born. Their last child (Tony) was born on April 29, 1975. In all, my parents had 17 children (9 boys and 8 girls), one of whom died in 1973 at the age of 13 months (Kathryn Mary).
My mom was pregnant for the better part of 24 years. On average, she had a new baby every 14 to 22 months. (Her seventh and eighth children were twins.)
One of the most amusing aspects of growing up in a family of 17 children was the different reactions we got from people when they found out about the size of our family. The rocket scientists of the world who had superior reasoning skills usually reacted by saying, “Oh, you must be Catholic!” (Duh!)
Over the years, I heard a lot of crude comments about my parents “irresponsible behavior.” A number of those comments were focused on the fact they had “no business having so many children” and were “contributing to overpopulation,” which during the 1960’s and 1970’s was constantly being hyped by the drones in the media as a “global problem.”
When I was a senior in high school, one Sunday after Mass, a college student who was familiar with our family walked up to mom and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of overpopulation?” Mom hauled off and slapped him across the face. She delivered a perfect right hook. We (her sons) were proud of her and teased her about how we didn’t know she was so good at slap boxing.
I don’t want you to think my mom was physically abusive toward other people. That was the only time I ever saw her physically react to a demeaning comment. I did, however, on several occasions, see her verbally pick people apart for making stupid, insensitive comments. She was only willing to tolerate a certain amount of verbal abuse before she would finally let someone have it.
Most of the time, the reaction of people who found out about the size of our family was one of complete bewilderment. Although most people were fascinated by the sheer number of children, they were still shocked that anyone would ever allow something like that to happen.
There were a lot of questions about mealtime. While I was in high school, every evening we were split between 2 tables – the “mature table” in the dining room and the “immature table” in the kitchen. I actually alternated between tables depending on my mood. There were times when I felt like taking part in the chaos of the immature table, and there were other times when I felt like engaging in some grown-up conversation.
On October 5, 1991, I caught my mom crying again during a family celebration. It happened at my brother, Steve’s wedding reception. During the reception, I noticed mom sitting alone at one of the tables. She had a tissue in her hand and was wiping away tears. I walked over to where she was sitting and said, “Mom, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” She responded, “Nothing’s wrong. I’m ok. There’s nothing wrong.” My immediate thought was that someone had made a comment that upset her, so I said, “Did someone say something to you? What happened?” She still didn’t want to tell me why she was crying.
After I pushed her for an answer, she told me that her mind had flashed back to when Steve was 6-months-old. At that time, he had almost died from spinal meningitis. I knew what she was talking about. I was 10 years old when Steve was born and remembered when mom and dad brought him home from the hospital. As soon as they got home, mom laid him in his baby bed and showed me the bruised area around his little ankle where the IV needle had been inserted.
As we sat at the table at Steve’s wedding reception, mom told me that the thought occurred to her that if we had lost Steve as a baby, we wouldn’t be together celebrating his wedding. She said she thought about the years that she struggled to just get through each day and realized that if she had stopped having children at any point prior to her twelfth pregnancy, she would not have been blessed with Steve, and we wouldn’t all be sharing in his joyous occasion. With that final thought, she said she thanked God for giving her the grace and strength to get through her childbearing years. That’s when the tears starting flowing.
Six days after Steve’s wedding, Georgette gave birth to our fifth child, Mary Rose. Over the years, as Georgette and I had our own children, I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the love a mother has for her children. Every time Georgette got pregnant, her capacity to love expanded. It was as though several reservoirs of love had previously been constructed inside her heart. The reservoirs remained dormant until the conception of a new life triggered one of them to open up and allow streams of new love to come pouring out.
The dictionary defines a “reservoir” as “a place where something is kept in store.” Within every female, God instills reservoirs of love that will be needed to fulfill her needs and desires throughout her lifetime. Since the greatest desire of every woman is to love and to be loved, a continuous flow of new love is necessary to nourish those needs and desires. When a woman who is in her fertile years practices contraceptive birth control, she precludes her Creator from sending the children that are needed to open her reservoirs and unleash all of the love she has within her. By her own actions, she shuts down the very reservoirs* that were intended to provide her with the mental and emotional nourishment she will need for the rest of her earthly life.
The practice of contraceptive birth control (condoms, withdrawal, sterilization, the pill and other chemical “medications”) literally deprives a woman of the love she will need to live a happy and fulfilling life. It completely cuts off the abundant streams of new love that would have come forth from within her and would have come directly to her from her children and their descendants.
On the last Sunday in January of this year, the members of our family who live in the Peoria area got together and turned out the lights in the dining room at my parents’ home and sang Happy Birthday to my 80-year-old mother. It was the same room where we sang to our baby brother 34 years ago. There were no tears this time – only overwhelming love, happiness, and joy.
My mom has benefitted greatly from the reservoirs of love that were opened when she conceived and gave birth to each of her children. She has also benefitted from the reservoirs of love that were opened when each of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were born. By humbly submitting to God’s Divine Law concerning contraception, she created an ocean of love that will endure for all eternity.
Next week: Honey Boys
*Women who choose the religious life or who are unable to have children are also born with reservoirs of love within them. Those reservoirs are opened by other means, which ordinarily include the performance of corporal and spiritual works of mercy.