Bringing Up Baby

My mother and me in Martha’s Vineyard @ 1969. Somewhere are teenagers who ditched us.

My mother and me in Martha’s Vineyard @ 1969. Somewhere are teenagers who ditched us.

Being the youngest child is hard.  I know, I know, all the older kids out there are rolling their eyes. Being the first, and having to do everything that is unknown first IS hard! I really felt for my oldest as she had to go into the world, to kindergarten, to high school, to study abroad, blindly and faithfully that it would all work out. (You slayed it, honey!) Then there is that middle child thing. Something probably only middle children really understand!! My brother Henry was the baby for 11 years before I was born, so he got the only son, baby thing for more than his fair share of time. In our family, our big beautiful blended family, we really have 2 oldest children, 3 middle children (another who had been the baby for so long) and 2 babies. The two youngest are 18 months apart, almost to the day, but really there is one baby, Courteney.

In my family growing up I had 3 parents. I had my very adored only child father. My father had gone from Riverside Day School, to boarding school in 7th grade, on to fight in World War II, and then to the then all male Yale. As he said, he wore a tie from the time he was 5.  He was a man who had lots of “brothers” and loved nothing more than some gross dining hall or mess food, like corn beef hash or that gross thing …what’s it called?… oh yes, chipped beef on toast, or as my father used to joke with a twinkle in his eye “shit on a shingle.”  My mother on the other hand was the middle child of five. My grandfather’s first wife died during labor so my eldest aunt was about seven years older than the next. My mother had two sisters above and a little sister and brother. She and the little sister Clairy were thick as thieves. A tragic and premature death of my mother, brought about some changes in my home and my father remarried a lovely woman who would be my (step) mother from the time I was 8. My stepmother came into our lives with a huge heart, a tiny VW bug, half a house in Vermont, and cousins galore for me. (Phew! I needed some!) My stepmother was also the baby in her family, the youngest of 3 very close sisters from Garden City.  Finally, finally, finally, someone understood what it was like to be the youngest!! Although she never said “I know how hard it is”, she told me numerous stories which showcased her true understanding of my situation. I understood that although my brother and sister where so much older than I, and I so missed all the activity in the house when they went off to school, she had it worse. She was just old enough to be on the fringe of all  the teenagers in her house (including the two teenage boys who would one day become my uncles). However, she was also juuuust young enough to be left at home by sisters who didn’t want a little sister tagging along. Just young enough to be out in the car with her mother waiting outside the movie theatre to pick up happy, bubbling, chatting teen girls.

Being raised as the youngest by 3 different older parents absolutely had an effect on me. My mother was pretty unruffleable when I was little and pushing the limits. In the late 60s while I was throwing tantrums about being allowed to put my own ketchup on my hamburger, my mother was unfazed. Her concerns were far greater, like what were those Beatles and why was my sister at Shea Stadium? or would my brother’s numbers be drawn to call him to Vietnam? I remember clearly some nervous parents pacing and watching the news when they got word their 17 year old son and his girlfriend  had borrowed her mother’s car and headed to Woodstock. It is for this reason, that as a toddler when I threw a full on screaming, rolling on the floor tantrum in Lord and Taylors in Scarsdale, my mother stepped back into the crowd and looked around and said “Who’s child is that?”  (My sister who was a teenager at the time and witnessed for this from the crowd, still tells this story with a mix of glee and horror.)

My husband is the youngest child as well. With two older sisters and an older brother, my mother and father-in-law were also up to their eyeballs in teenagers. With a neighborhood full of big families, the mothers on the street often divided and conquered. My husband is a devoted golfer to this day because Mrs. Ball, a lovely neighbor and dear family friend used to take Donald and her son Jonathan to play golf with her, while my mother-in-law Mame held down the fort. (Clearly Mrs. Ball won that one.)

When you are the youngest child your siblings often play a big role in your parenting. Both my husband Donald and I experienced this and we have happy memories of being both nurtured and bossed around. You go with the flow as the youngest, because you are literally carted around everywhere to other kids’ activities. In our day we rode in the car in the center of the bench seat between our parents, or often loose and free in the rear of a station wagon. Many of my childhood friends from Bronxville are the youngest children as well. In fact most of them are. My class in particular was filled with babies, almost everyone of them from considerably bigger than my own family of 3 kids. We are kindred spirits. recognizing the signs, visiting childhood homes with unoccupied bedrooms of college kids.  Our small school in our one square mile town was K-12, and although the elementary school and high school are in separate wings, we saw teenagers on the way to special places like the library.  The babies, recognized and identified in the halls and called out by the older kids. I spent much of my nursery school years on the bleachers watching my brother play high school football. He was a junior the year I started kindergarten.

This brings me to today. In a teeny house on a little island in the Gulf of Mexico three babies bask in the sunlight pouring in the windows. Each quietly entertaining ourselves within a 50 foot radius. Donald doing the NYT crossword puzzle, I at my computer, and our youngest child working away at the kitchen table. She is stuck with her parents, while 6 older siblings are literally all over the planet, living in their own homes with roommates, working, pursuing their dreams. It’s not easy being the baby. It’s especially not easy being the baby with two baby parents!! We are not as sympathetic as we should be. We sometimes laugh at her when she complains.  We totally commiserate. We know what it’s like when those big wonderful kids go off and abandon you, and it’s quiet, and you are stuck with the parents. It’s shocking when it happens, all of a sudden they are gone. We also know that the project she is working on at the kitchen table, and her drive to join them out in the world will take her very far. Be patient little one, your time is coming, and it’s almost here.

Tricia Heaton