Tales From A Hungry Life

September 11, 2013

The Family You Choose

by Maria Schulz

When you were a kid, did you ever wonder what it would be like to be a part of a different family? Or was I the only one?

I found myself intrigued by this question when I was in the 4th grade. One day in Library, Sister Clara took a break from teaching us the Dewey Decimal system (and threatening to box our ears) and asked us the following questions:

“Let’s say you could choose ANYONE, anywhere, to be your parents. Who would you choose? Who would be your Mother? Your Father? Your brothers? Your sisters? Your grandparents? What kind of pets would you own? Where would you live? What would your house look like? Please write your answers down now. Some of you will share it with the group when time is up.”

WOW! How cool and creative was Sister Clara for coming up with this assignment? This was completely unlike her. I mean, this was the same woman who played “The Mighty Casey Comes to Bat” so many times that I can still recite that stinking poem many decades later. I couldn’t wait to get to work.

Sister Clara's favorite monument

Sister Clara’s favorite monument

Where should I begin? The first logical choice seemed to be my mother. But who could ever be as cool as my mother?

How cool is that Mom?

How cool is that Mom?

Shirley Jones, a.k.a. Shirley Partridge, immediately popped into my head. She reminded me of my mom, because she loved her kids but never fully trusted them. Shirley even sang in her kids’ band! My mother was forever singing in the car with me, and at 9 years old, I wasn’t embarrassed yet. Most of all, I hoped we’d get to drive around in that multicolored bus of hers. So Shirley it was.

My Dad presented different casting options. I could go with Al Pacino from The Godfather, because he kind of looked like my Dad when he was young. Or, I could go with Hal Linden from the TV Show Barney Miller. Hal seemed much calmer than my father, but I was afraid of what Al Pacino might do to me if I was his child. So I went with Hal Linden.

If that's his mad face, I'm going with him

If that’s his mad face, I’m going with him

For siblings, I decided that Marcia Brady was okay, but not Jan and Cindy. I always wanted a sister, but not a whiney one. If Marcia would let me reenact the football scene where she got hit in the face and cried “Oh my nose! Oh my nose!” that would definitely be a plus.

For brothers, I would go with Keith Partridge (cool and ingenious in his torturing), Peter Brady (looked like my brother minus the glasses), Brisbane (the wise guy from the Little Rascals), Greg Brady (same hair as my brother) Danny Partridge (champion teaser), and Bobby Brady (had hot wheels pants just like my brother).

Choosing my grandparents took forever, until I decided that my mother’s father should be Caesar Romero (the joker from Batman) and my father’s father would have to be Fred MacMurray (from My Three Sons).

Freddie Mac

Freddie Mac

My grandmothers would probably be my reading teacher, Mrs. Famulare (who I thought was great) and Sister Barbara, who was the soul of kindness. Were nuns allowed to be grandmothers? Well, they were in my world.

We would all live in a gigantic house with secret staircases that led to rooms filled with pinball machines and Pong. I never got to play pinball or Pong because my brothers always hogged both of them whenever we visited my cousin Ellie’s (she had pinball and pong, and even Atari, years before we even owned a word processor).

Want to play Pong?

Want to play Pong?

Outside, there would be a lake where I could play with my Barbies and reenact all those waterfront scenarios they always showed on every commercial in the 70s. Of course, I would finally have waterfront property for them, since my parents, Shirley and Hal, would get me the Barbie Town House.

We would have at least 5 dogs, including a Great Dane, a Labrador Retriever, a German Shepherd, and a couple of mutts. Maybe Shirley would even let me have a Spinone Italiano, a breed I’d read about and really liked. The only problem was that this dog was known to sometimes hold a grudge. Did I really want a dog with “vendetta” on his mind? I wasn’t too sure.

Never take sides against the family

Never take sides against the family

I would also own several horses but never have to clean up after them. The help would take care of all of that, leaving me loads of time to ride, brush their manes, and feed them carrots and apples.

I was so proud of this essay. Unlike Mighty Casey, who got up to bat and struck out, I felt like I’d knocked this one right out of the park. I was sure if Sister Clara was going to hand out prizes, I would win first place.

When time was up, Sister Clara asked one of the “super-smart and always right, my brain is so big it’s hard for me to hold my head up” students to read his answer. I was sure Johnny was going to get into trouble, because he only had one tiny sheet of loose-leaf paper in his hands, and my essay was two pages long, front and back. And they called him a genius (as if).

And so Johnny began:

“If I could choose any family to be born into, I would choose my own. I could never replace my parents or grandparents, brothers or sisters.

Johnny's dream home

Johnny’s dream home

We would live in this town, in our small, attached house. Although I’ve tried very hard to think of another place where we could live, I know nothing could be as special as the home where we live together now. The End.”

That was it? Johnny finally got the chance to move out of his tiny, cramped attached house, get his own room, and get the dog he had been dreaming of since at least first grade, and this was the world he created? He didn’t even ask for his own bedroom or a pet rock. What a dumb essay.

I was waiting for Sister Clara to slap this kid down for his complete and utter lack of originality, but boy was I surprised.

“That’s right!” Sister Clara said, with a 1,000-megawatt smile (wow did that look strange) and a look of pure glee because Johnny got it. “No one could ever replace your mother or father. Of course you wouldn’t want to replace your grandparents! And even if your brothers and sisters tease you or make you unhappy today, some day you will realize that no one could ever take their place. I’m sure you all came up with that answer, right?”

“Yes, sister,” my classmates and I mumbled.

Um…right, I thought, as I crumpled up my paper and threw it in the trash.

I have to admit, I was very disappointed in Sister Clara. I thought we had reached some kind of breakthrough that would result in:

  1. Never having to learn about the Dewey Decimal System again.
  2. Getting a few new books into the library, since I was tired of re-reading Nancy Drew books from the prehistoric era
  3. The end of hearing “And mighty Casey STRUCK OUT!”
  4. Us being treated like children in her care, instead of an enemy to be destroyed through boredom
  5. More assignments that qualified as THE GREATEST THING EVER!

Worst of all, Sister Clara had managed to turn a fun assignment into an exercise in Catholic guilt. I felt really bad that it had never, ever occurred to me to say, “I don’t want to replace my family! I think I’ll keep them, thanks!”

Of course, I should have understood my teacher a little bit better than that, but still. I should have known that she never would have been excited by the prospect of Shirley Jones and Hal Linden coming to the next parent teacher meeting.

Catholic guilt or no Catholic guilt, it didn’t exactly stop me from going to my friends’ houses and wondering what it would be like to be a member of their families.

My friend, Maureen, had two older sisters and a big brother. Her sister Kathy was always ready to take us to the movies or out for a burger. She was pretty and dark to Maureen’s pretty and blonde; they reminded me of Jeannie and her sister in I Dream of Jeannie.

Maureen & Kathy

Maureen & Kathy

I loved going to Maureen’s house, but couldn’t see myself becoming a member of their family. This was probably because her mother couldn’t make spaghetti and meatballs like my mother could.

My other friend, “Fannie,” had a mother who was one of the best cooks I ever met. Her lasagna and lentil soup were two of my favorite dishes in the whole world. The problem with that family was that there were no brothers, only sisters. All these three girls did was scream at each other. Their father would sit at the table, twirling pasta on his fork, or staring sadly into his soup.

If I had to leave my family, it would have to be for a better family than that.

One of the best contenders for the prize of, well, ME, was my friend “Juliette’s” family. Juliette had 2 older sisters and a baby sister. There was always some drama going on in her house, namely because each girl was a very strong personality and someone was always sure that someone else was out to get them. All four girls were always screaming at their mother over something. In turn, their mother would cry while their father simultaneously turned red while still ignoring them completely.

It could be as simple as, “She took my hair brush!” or as complicated as “Maria tried to drown the baby!” For the record, I did NOT try to drown the baby. Apparently, you shouldn’t try to push an inner tube with a baby in it back and forth across a large pool. Everyone got really mad. But now that I think about it, why were two 9 year olds watching the baby in the pool anyway?

All fun and games until the baby falls through

All fun and games until the baby falls through

The family eventually forgave me for almost drowning their youngest member, and stopped glaring at me whenever I came over. As for the “baby,” she came up to me a couple of decades later at her sister’s wedding and said, “Remember that time you tried to drown me in the pool?”

Suddenly, I remembered why I tried to drown her.

Anyway, I realized that I was NOT ever going to fit into this family. This family of four girls was so different from my family of six boys that it would be like trying to fit in with a pack of cheetahs. Sure, they were beautiful and fun and energetic. But in the end, I would never be able to keep up with them and someone would have ended up mauling me.

I had another friend (let’s call her Kristy) who had a big sister and brother, and a little brother. Her parents were kind and funny; her mother was a great cook. When this family ate together, they spoke quietly and laughed quietly; food was passed around to each member of the family on platters. Older siblings dished out food for younger siblings. The little kids drank milk and wiped their faces with napkins. No one ever screamed if a fork was dropped on the floor or became homicidal if a milk glass was overturned. Instead, they would laugh like the child performed a hilarious Vaudeville act, clean it up, and move on.

Don't let this happen to you

Don’t let this happen to you

In my house, if you didn’t grab the food fast, you had a good chance of losing a digit when one of your big brothers stabbed you. My father was usually red-faced and screaming because someone (usually Chris) dropped a fork on the ground or knocked over his cup. Crying over spilled milk was raised to a new art form. My mother was usually yelling at someone to stop wiping his mouth on his sleeve and drinking so much soda while she slung a pot pie on his plate. As one of the youngest siblings, if I had ever just sat there waiting for one of my older brothers to hand me a plate of food, I would have starved to death. The television was usually blasting whatever was on the 4:30 movie while we ate, and we would all scream over it just to be heard.

Was life in my family loud, crazy, unpredictable, and filled with a daily dose of sensory overload? Yes! But in the end, did I really want to switch my allegiance to another family? No. All of my friends were really good people, and I enjoyed spending time at their houses. But there was really only one family for me. Which was good, since no one else was clamoring to adopt me.

Maybe Sister Clara had it right all along.




How could you not love the “World’s Best Lasagna?”


Here’s another recipe for those of you who need to eat gluten-free:


So, Hungry Lifers: if you could choose anyone for your family, who would it be? Yeah, yeah, I know: your own family. But just make believe for a second that you HAD TO CHOOSE SOMEONE ELSE because you’re only 9 and you are very literal. Who would you choose? Was there ever a neighborhood family that you wished would adopt you? Do you like lasagna? Please leave a comment below and let us all know. Thanks!



  1. I love laughing early Wednesday mornings. Too many funny things in here. I was onto sister clara before you got there. I always thought of being a part of another persons family. Because I had such a mean father I feared everyone’s father except one friends dad. They owned Henry’s in Glen Cove. It was a diner/coffee shop and Easter time people came from all over for their candy. My friend Lisa’s mother was so pretty and nice. We would go to the coffee shop, sit on swivel barstools and her dad would make us cheeseburgers. Her mom would always kiss her dad hello and goodbye and he was always happy to see us. Her mother took ballet and her house was always clean. She had a little brother who she loved. That was my fantasy family. Then I would go home, my mother would have a big fat housecoat on, curlers in her hair, Lorna doones in her mouth, my sister would ignore me and then my fathers headlights would shine through the house and we would all scurry like mice into our rooms. At least I would be full from my cheeseburger.

    Comment by Suzanne — September 11, 2013 @ 7:39 am | Reply

  2. Where did you ever get the idea that your father got upset if one of his little darlings ever dropped a utensil or spilled milk? I just don’t know how kids remember their childhood..Anyway when I was a kid I didn’t want to be with any family much less one with a mother like mine that wouldn’t let me smoke, I started when I was six, or drink, I started when I was about 13, or make me go to school, I started when I was six, in fact that was got me started smoking and drinking. I wanted to break away from all families and live by myself, for myself, die young and have a good looking corpse. How I ended up with a family of seven children, a great but a little eccentric wife who had a very eccentric family, a mother and brother who stayed with me and I with them until their deaths and living to this ripe old age I’ll never know. One thing though, I wouldn’t trade a minute of it all unless I could’ve played for the Yankees in the summer and played my Trumpet, for money of course, in the winter.

    Comment by Bglou — September 11, 2013 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  3. love, love, love

    Comment by Mo Wine — September 12, 2013 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

  4. First, I want to address the kid who should have failed the assignment. He did not do what was asked (pick another family) so an “F” grade would be given. You know his mother gave him that idea or even wrote the paper for him. He probably has killed one of his siblings by now and is in prison. Maybe he got to his mother first and is in prison for that. When I was growing up I would have picked a family with a big house and a lot of money. Who the hell cared about personalities? I wanted my own room. If I could close the door and have my own space that would have been heaven. The kid across the street was an only child and I thought what does he do in that big house all day. Well it turned out when I see him as an adult now he thought it was cool to have so many people around. The grass is always greener. I say the assignment Sister Clara should have given was to pick a family worse than yours and see how you think you would fare. Now that’s an assignment or another blog for you to write.

    Comment by Tony Lagalante — September 15, 2013 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

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