It seemed the old film was always on television during the holidays, and even now, more than 20 years later, I can remember Mom's comment when she would hear the movie promoted on television: "Cheaper by the dozen, my foot! They ought to call it 'More Expensive by the Dozen.' "
In the remake of the film, Martin is a football coach who tries to run his family like his football team. I can understand that approach. Having grown up in Bellevue in a big old Victorian house, one of eight boys and four girls spread 16 years apart from oldest to youngest, I know something about families that are as big as sports teams.
My scoutmaster father tried to manage us by acting as coach, judge, Y Indian Guide pal and chief petty officer. He was a former Navy man and Army man, and, since he was a Depression-era person, his definition of hardship would make today's generation squirm with discomfort. So when the hot water ran out (as it frequently did) before one of us was going to take a shower, he'd say: "We used to shower with cold water in the Navy. You just get yourself wet, lather up and rinse, and you're done before you know it."
We didn't appreciate the simplicity of his solution, when all we wanted was hot water.
But sometimes getting even cold water was an ordeal. For a time in my youth, all 14 of us survived with just 1 1/2 bathrooms -- that is, one full bathroom and one half-bath. Weekday mornings, there would be a line of kids wearing towels and impatient looks extending down the long second-floor hallway. And of course my sisters, being girls, seemed to have a sixth sense for getting into the bathroom just before we boys wanted to get in.
Emotionally, being one of 12 could at times be pretty trying. Though the new film makes much of the fact that Martin's character, Tom, has to handle the whole bunch of kids on his own while Hunt's character, Kate, is on the road promoting her book, the film didn't need to go to such an extreme to create enough conflict for a sustainable narrative.
In fact, Tom's predicament was similar to my mom's situation, except that she didn't have the fear-based respect of her children that many fathers enjoy. When we boys were little, we would misbehave relentlessly, compelling Mom to chase us around the house with a wooden spoon, and, when we got bigger, with a broom. We boys became pretty quick on our feet, no doubt partly because of the chases. Sometimes Mom would just break down crying and give up, telling on us to Dad as he came in the door after work.
I remember feeling pity when I was 8 or 10 when Dad, tired from a long day's work, had to spank me for being bad. I could see in his stone-gray-blue eyes that he didn't want to be the heavy, and I felt lousy for putting him in that position.
"This will hurt me more than it hurts you," he'd say sometimes. Now I understand what he meant.
But the emotional cost of having a family of 12 kids was nothing compared to the cost of feeding the family. With just my civil engineer father's income to support us throughout my youth, we had fun and never truly wanted for anything. My parents found creative ways to economize on food, though. Looking back, I now see how tricky my parents were about saving a buck.
When I was young, Dad would wake me or one or more of my brothers at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and have us accompany him on a shopping trip to the Strip District. He had to make the trip early in order to get it done before he went to work for U.S. Steel in the "Steel Building," as we knew it, and also because the produce, cheese and meat markets down in the Strip weren't open on Saturdays.
We'd drive to town and into the Strip, bumping over the Belgium block streets, and park near one of the loading docks. Barrel-chested Dad would lift me onto his shoulders and head into the dark confines of the produce or cheese or meat wholesalers, searching out one of the old-timers for a deal.
My brothers and I would marvel as he schmoozed tough-looking types named Mario or Joe to talk them down on some hams, crates of fruit or logs of cheese. He'd proudly introduce us kids to the old wholesaler and remind him that we were just a few of the 12.
Afterward, Dad would take us down to Primanti Brothers and buy us breakfast. We loved to be able to eat in the bar, sitting next to dockworkers and others getting a bite to eat after their morning shifts, smoking their cigarettes and salting their language with curses as heavily as they salted their bacon and eggs.Cheaper by the dozen, it wasn't. But my memories of growing up with 11 brothers and sisters I now find to be of inestimable value.
This story originally was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.