Ten Little Thorntons and How They Grew.
Now that sounds like a book.
When I was young I firmly believed my family had the makings of a bestseller. We were twice the family the famous Peppers were (as in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew) and they had a whole series devoted to them.
I was so envious of their success — even if it was fictional — that I refused to read any of Margaret Sidney’s stories. I still haven’t read any of the volumes and I’m 65.
Some resentments are to put down.
I’m not sure where the feeling originated, but I believed everyone in the world, once they got to know us, wanted to be a Thornton. In my tiny, yet-to-be-fully-formed brain I knew that we Thorntons were one-of-a-kind.
No one said that. My parents certainly didn’t believe it. Maybe it was just that I adored being around my siblings and their families so much I doubted others could be as wonderful.
Mom and dad were very strict and focused. They didn’t waver in their faith or commitments. They took the Bible literally and did their best to live out each and every principle of their perception of Christianity. They believed we needed to be examples and placed a heavy burden on each of us.
The older kids may disagree about the burden part. But I know I felt pressure to be on best behavior at all times — and it sucked.
Dad ruled the roost. Mom followed his lead and seldom questioned him. At least not in front of the children. When mom held a different viewpoint, they conversed in Japanese. No need for the kids to hear a disagreement. That wouldn’t be a good example.
But I could tell.
Mom was speaking her mind in a foreign language but letting dad have his say.
Growing up, I just didn’t witness fights. Mom and dad never argued. At least in English. At least in front of me.
I was 18 the first time I heard a raised voice between them. I had returned home from college for a weekend. They were preparing for their move back to Japan. Dad decided to give their possessions away. Everything. Mom wanted to hold on to her piano and organ.
“Let’s loan them to someone until we get back,” she said.
“No,” he insisted. She resisted.
His voice rose a few decibels and they gave away her piano and organ.
I feared that brief argument would destroy our family. The end of the Thorntons as I knew them. We weren’t over, of course. Mom and dad went on to have almost 20 more years together.
Mom dearly loved each one of her kids, but she never praised or bragged about us to any other women. That would be pride. Pride is a sin. One of the big ones. And mom tried very hard to avoid any evidence of sin in her life. It is for that reason she also refused to look in the mirror for more than a few moments a day. Vanity was also a top contender.
SIN. What is it? In those days it seemed to be specific acts one did or refrained from doing. Sin was a list of behaviors that must be abstained from or repented of as quickly as necessary. Even as a child I found it all too much. Too hard. Impossible.
Don’t work on Sunday. Obey your parents. Do not swear, dammit. Stay married no matter what. For goodness sake don’t rob or steal. If someone has something you want, stop wanting it. Follow precisely these very specific commandments and you’re saved from eternal damnation.
That’s what I heard. I daresay that’s not what they believed or meant to communicate at the time. Or maybe it was.
They certainly mellowed over time.
Mom and dad did their best to be spotless examples to the 10 little Thorntons while we grew. And I believe in many ways they served as excellent role models — unjust not in the ways they would expect.
Mom showed me how to live, not by what she said but by through her love for dad and the family and for people in general.
I watched her when she wasn’t aware.
I saw her smile at dad or hold his hand when they walked. Love.
I felt her intense loyalty and admiration for him when she scolded me one day for something unkind and uncalled for I said about him. Love.
I witnessed her getting up early, morning after morning, and making him breakfast. She would have preferred to stay in bed. And knowing dad, he would have let her. She did this because she loved him. And he her.
She spent hours at the dining room table reading her Bible. Or playing hymns on the piano. Not because she was supposed to, but because she liked it. She really really liked it. Faith and love.
My sister Kate reminded me just the other day about being upstairs and listening to dad and mom holding long, often laughter-filled conversations downstairs. And dad reading a book to mom while she ironed. They delighted in being together. Love.
Mama thought her words told me how to live. She didn’t have a clue that what impressed me most and kept me yearning to be more like her were the ordinary things she did. How her voice lit up when any of her children called her on the phone. The way her face beamed when someone she loved walked through the door. How people would open up and let their defenses down when she talked with them and asked them questions. Love
And let me be perfectly clear. Mama was certainly not perfect. Not by any means. To this day, a few grandchildren have not-the-fondest memories of Mary. Mama could be direct and harshly critical of what she perceived her grand kids did or did not do to help their mothers. They were, after all, mom’s children.
Today, I look at the 10 Thorntons and how we grew and know we don’t need a story written about us. But I think perhaps Mary does.