Note from Design Mom: This is a home tour from October 2015 that you may have missed. It’s full of wisdom on parenting and aging and loss. I needed a dose of Ann’s perspective today, so I’m republishing it.
Ann is so great. I read her words, and they fill me with such warmth. I love when people have dreams and add them to their daily to-do lists.
If you’re a young parent or just dreaming about kids, I hope you find Ann’s words to be a sort of manual. (I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s all going to work out as it should. And you’re going to be great at this.) If you’ve been parenting a while or even grand-parenting, you’re going to love this, too. Ann’s words are like a giant hug and a pinch of inspiration.
Please jump right in to hear about this big family and how their well-worn house helped grow them all. Welcome, Ann!
Hello, everyone! My name is Ann, and I am probably older than most of you! We have a large family, and our youngest just turned 11 this year. We have ten children, and yes, we wanted every one of them! I was 23 when I had the first and 44 when our last baby was born. I love my own siblings and wanted my children to experience the magic that happens in a noisy, messy, creative, huge family. My husband could be considered a saint for agreeing to marry me; he is such a great father, which made this whole thing possible. I don’t know if the children love what we have as much as I do, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our oldest son, Dale, died when he was two. He was beautiful. He taught me to be a mother and we miss him every day.
Jody, our oldest daughter, was only eight months old when he died, and she learned to walk that week looking for him. Jody became the perfect oldest child (which worried me) although she probably would have been happier in the second child role. She is talented, a prolific reader, and a magnificent friend.
Our daughter Michelle was born at the hospital only a few blocks from our home, She was a twin and her brother didn’t live; his name is Tommy and she feels him close to her at times. She is artistic and empathetic and all girl. She is married and has a daughter of her own; Eleanor is doing a great job of teaching her parents what family is all about.
Tracy was born two years later. She is spunky and is effortlessly cool and we all notice a distinctive energy around us when she is near. She is married and lives far away. Our world just expands with each child that leaves to chase their dreams.
Stan was next and we were all excited to have another boy. He was quickly commandeered to be the prince in the girl’s imaginary play. As a child, we noticed that he loved to work and, although he has some learning disabilities, he has only grown more diligent and capable since then. In our family lore, he is the one that decided to run around upstairs with a bucket on his head and took a tumble all the way down a long flight of stairs. The bucket actually protected him from harm.
Scott followed 17 months later. He never went through the terrible two stage, was always agreeable and easy going. I used to worry that he would rebel in some crazy way but he never has. He has a special light in his eyes and understands how to get along with everyone.
John was born three years later. He was 10.5 pounds and never has figured out how to go slowly or how to be careful. He does everything full out and we love what he brings to our family. I wish you could read his letters to us: he is an expressive and a talented writer. We are all anxious to see what he does with his gifts.
Peter is next. He was due just before Christmas and born just after. He is responsible, somber, and very smart. He told us when he was four that he wanted to be the president of the United States, and I don’t doubt that he will do something big with his life. He is still in high school and would love to be considered a nerd.
Samuel is the last boy. He is tender and bright, he loves music, and used to hum while still a small baby. He taught himself to play a few hymns on the piano and when our church needed a pianist one day he volunteered to play. In the meeting we couldn’t find him and finally realized that he was at the piano. None of us knew that he could even play.
Karen is our caboose. What would we do without her? She taught our boys what girls are made of and she keeps up with them and their shenanigans. She can re-load a Nerf gun faster than any of them. She will wear a dress but only with leggings so she can still run and play.
These children taught me how to love and that love has grown and flourished until it has increased my capacity in enormous ways. I feel privileged to be connected to them in such an intimate way.
We moved to St. Charles, outside of St. Louis, from Washington DC and initially rented our home. We moved here just months after our son died and so leaving was bittersweet. We were anxious to find a place to raise a family and we fell in love with the neighborhood’s beautiful architecture, sidewalks, and huge old trees. The Missouri river runs alongside Main Street just a few blocks away.
I remember the moment we first saw our house. We parked under the beautiful maple tree at the curb and as we walked on to the front porch a feeling came over me that we were home. The neighborhood is charming, alleys run through the middle of every block, and our elementary school is only a block down the street. Our home was built in 1905, as a duplex. Once we bought it, we were able to offset our payment by renting out half of the home. It has gone through several renovations over the years, each side in different styles.
After living in the home for a while we started making it our own and turning it from a duplex into a single family home. I love the tall windows, the solid doors, the old wood floors and the brick interior walls. I love that there are huge Victorian mansions on the same block as the smallest cottages. On Sunday mornings we wake up to the ringing bells of three churches.
My husband is very handy and I don’t know of another place where we could have gone from one child to nine with plenty of room to work, play and live.
St. Charles was still a small town when we moved here in 1986. It has since grown, but much of the growth is in the far flung areas of the county. The old part of St. Charles, where we live, has stayed much the same. We are only six blocks from the river, and Main Street is a regional attraction for shopping and dining. We have festivals year-round on the riverfront and the fourth of July celebration rivals any big town show. Parades come down our street, and when our children hear the ‘whoop’ of a police siren they immediately run to grab a bag and head for the front porch to collect their share of the goodies.
Our schools are all within walking distance, which makes it possible for the kids to participate in extra activities. The elementary school is a block away, we homeschool them during middle school, but the high school is about eight blocks from our front door to theirs.
If you visit St. Louis be sure to spend an afternoon at the Magic House — a hands on discovery museum for younger children, the Butterfly House — all things butterflies, the City Museum — built from reclaimed architectural and industrial objects it is a playground for young and old, and the zoo — which is world class and free. St. Charles has a first class library system and way cool city pools.
And if you like Italian food you need to visit the Hill, an old Italian neighborhood that has some of the best Italian restaurants you will ever visit. And don’t get me started on the ribs or the jazz or the baseball. It is a major city with a small town feel.
One of the perks of older homes is definitely having a generous front porch. It spans the front of our house and is an extension of our living space. We have a couple of springy chairs and an old wooden trunk to hide all kinds of play paraphernalia, skates, mitts, and balls. We watch the world go by from our front porch.
Our kitchen is the most used room in the house. My husband loves breakfast, and it is the meal that our whole family eats together most. Our kitchen table is an ancient pine trestle table with benches on either side so it is easy to squeeze in to fit anyone who is visiting at meal time. We bought it battered and I love not having to worry about keeping it pristine. We cover the dents, glitter, glue, and general signs of use with a tablecloth when company comes. We found a very old mirror at an estate sale and it leans against our kitchen wall. Our little children have figured out so much watching themselves in that mirror. Only I was sad when the lower reaches of it stayed clean because it meant that our babies were growing up.
Our family room we call our ‘window room’ and it is the gathering place for our family. We have a wood burning stove in one corner, and during the fall and winter months it is a project to find, load, stack, split, and burn firewood. Although it is messy, I am in love with the heat that wood puts out and a fire always draws us together.
I found some old wooden spools that we use for stools in front of the fireplace. They were over 100 years old when I bought them and I figured that if they had survived that long there wasn’t much we could do to hurt them. In our window room is a spot universally known as ‘the corner.’ It is the spot where the kids build forts and since they spend hours putting them together they are allowed to keep them up for several days. Forts seem to bring out the best in all children: it fires their imagination, encourages cooperation, and they go to sleep at night dreaming of their adventures. One of the best spots in our house is on the mantle in the window room. We have a row of little clocks, one for each of the children, set to their time zone. They are a reminder that my kids are somewhere out in the world even though some of them are too far away to hold.
The last best thing about our home is the secret stairway/clubhouse. When we began combining the duplex into one home we closed off one of the stairways and it has become the stuff of heady dreams. Every time we have visitors they beg to play on the secret stairs.
Our style is very simple, I love a clean home but I also love the imaginative play of happy children. Those two objectives tend to clash, so I live trying to achieve a proper balance.
Our house works because of a couple of things. We have three full bathrooms and plenty of living space so we can all escape to a quiet room when needed. We have room for two fridges in the kitchen: one we call Dad’s fridge and one we call Mom’s fridge. Mine is close to the sink and stove and houses the basics. Dad’s fridge usually holds the fun food: fruits, cheese, and the ice cream. We also have two washers and two dryers, which I would recommend for anyone with a bigger sized family. It is nice to be able to soak a load while still keeping up with the regular routine. And if one of them breaks, it isn’t such an urgent repair.
As my children have gotten older I no longer do six loads of laundry a day or need to sweep the floor quite as often. There isn’t as much grocery shopping and meals can be a bit more simple. I have always been a reader, but writing my own book was a very challenging task.
My book is a historical mystery like DaVinci Code or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and based on a true mystery. It is titled The Throne of David. It took me nine months to write and I submitted it to one publisher and one agent. Both of them wanted the book, which was a little surreal. I knew I loved the story, but to have someone with taste and clout agree with me was exciting. It was released on August 11 and it has been a whirlwind since then. It would make a great movie because of all the history and action, but the love story was the most fun to write. It is a PG-rated book! I wrote exactly what I like to read.
For those of you who have dreams and feel torn by all that is expected of you, try to remember that the merry-go-round of motherhood does slow down. Enjoy the ride if you can. Be the mother that they need and you will look back and enjoy remembering the days of mothering young children. And you will be able to help them leave your home with enough love tucked in their pocket to last until they figure things out for themselves.
Someday you will find that things have settled down and all the stored creativity within you will find a way to express itself in unexpected ways. Writing this book has been a great adventure and my abilities haven’t been damaged at all by the wait. I sometimes feel like ‘The Throne of David’ is another child, conceived in love and nurtured by my hands. It comes to life whenever a new reader opens it and begins reading.
The day our son died I remember noticing his two year old smudges on our full length windows, his little sister’s sticky prints right below his. The next day our good friends, not know just how precious those smudges were, came over and cleaned the windows for me. It was so sad that he wasn’t here to press his face against the window ever again. That whole experience changed how I felt about my children and as a consequence, everything seems precious and fleeting. I think I needed the attitude adjustment.
When I see a toddler, I see someone working towards independence and being vigorous about expressing themselves. Teens don’t seem much different. Their world is bigger and more dangerous but it is all part of the continuing process of creation they are involved in. We decided to homeschool our children during middle school. So much of their self esteem is developed in the difficult atmosphere of middle school, and we wanted to give them a bit of time and space to grow into themselves without all that drama. By the time they get to high school, they are ready to jump into the best of what is offered.
I love toddlers and teens — they are both a blast to get to know. My husband calls it ‘getting to know if they like chocolate or vanilla,’ and everything else that makes them unique. As a family we have standards of behavior but generally allow them a lot of space to find what they love and how it is going to work in their life. We are the backup, and they are the principal player in the creation of their life.
I always wanted a large family and the best part of adding a new baby to the mix was discovering, over time, just who they really are. I love that they seem like strangers to me for a while. Each of them is a unique and endlessly fascinating person, and it still amazes me that I get to be an important part of their life. Collectively, they have taught me to be a mother.
And then, it is heartbreaking to watch them suffer in any way. We know that it is part of all of our lives, but it is hard when we can’t protect them from important lessons. My brother’s daughter had cancer when she was just two years old. She is fine now but my parents suffered as they watched my brother deal with all the decisions to be made and consequences of making them.
I think the most important lesson I have learned is to realize that I don’t have the answers, I am not even sure I know the questions. We jokingly throw up our hands and say that they don’t come with a manual, but they do. We don’t have to figure it out all on our own.
When Michelle was about three she turned into a world class whiner and it just about drove me crazy. I spent a lot of time lamenting her new way of dealing with life and then realized that she was the child and I was the mother. She was reacting to me and if I wanted her to change I would have to be the catalyst instead of expecting the three year old to change on her own. I knelt by the side of my bed that day and told God all about my problem, I opened my heart to him and then asked for advice. The thought came to me almost immediately: Hold her.
So, I held her in the morning until she crawled off my lap to go and play, and I held her in the evening before I put her to bed. It wasn’t hard. I could hold her and read a book or watch the news, but it was fun to talk to her and listen to her little stories, too. Almost immediately the whining stopped; she just needed my touch, and that contact filled up an empty space within her. We both benefited from my prayer that day.
Don’t be afraid to have high expectations of your children. We do not have any room for fighting or quarreling in our home. There is no big punishment if they slip into that behavior and we do not play judge and jury. Whoever is involved in the contention just gets to spend time away from each other, alone, until they adjust and decide to get along. It isn’t that they aren’t allowed to feel angry or grumpy, but it isn’t acceptable to inflict it on the rest of the family. The kids have learned to get along, to work at getting along.
I wish someone had told me about the joys of growing older. As I entered my 40s everyone my age was busy fighting gravity while I was still having kids. I was too busy to even notice the inevitable aging, and I am glad now that I didn’t get distracted by the search for eternal youth. No one told me that reaching 40 is liberating, but it is. And your 50s are when you finally figure out how cool you really are!
When I start to worry about my hair or my skin I think about my Grandmother Merrell. We fought over who got to sit in her lap because she was so soft. We loved looking at her false teeth soaking in a glass by her bed at night. She wouldn’t let anyone take pictures of her because she had a facial tick. We didn’t care about any of that. She loved us and she always had ice cream in the freezer, and any of her grandchildren would describe her in the most glowing terms. I look in the mirror now and see my mother and I know that someday soon I will be looking at myself and seeing my grandmother. I hope I can do this with class!
Thank you so much, Ann, for your wisdom and honesty. This sure was a treat. I’m sure many of our viewpoints have been readjusted by your thoughts. Also, “hold her” is probably one of the best parenting golden nuggets I’ve heard in a while. (Remember Lynne Knowlton’s advice? Just love them. Genius.)
Any older parents out there? I’d love to hear your experiences! Do you find it easy to make friends with the younger ones, or are they in complete shock when they hear you’ve got older kids? Tell us how you’re different and better in your 40s; we all want to hear those stories!
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.