By Lisa M. Belisle, MD, MPH
Originally published August 9, 2005, The Notes
The Belisle bunch grew up in Yarmouth at a time when big families were a rarity. There simply weren’t that many people patient (or crazy) enough to parent ten children in the 1970s. This caused unsolicited notoriety. It also led to many questions. These included: what is it like to live with all of those people? Do you have a big house? My personal favorite (frequently asked when I was a mortified junior high student) was: have your parents heard of birth control? I could answer the former questions, but felt somewhat sheepish about tackling the latter. All these many years later, I will now set the record straight. My father is a doctor and my mother is science teacher. They knew about birth control. What they did with the information was another matter.
My parents met as students at the University of Maine, where my father was the captain of the football team and my mother was a Phi Beta Kappa. They were both dark-haired Mainers who had been raised Catholic. As they quickly became outnumbered by their children, their faith and skills were put to good use. Dad tackled unruly grade-schoolers, while Mom matched wits with wily teens. They both prayed. A lot. Through the years, their dark hair became a distant memory, replaced by the grays of late nights and long days. In my father’s case, his hair finally gave up altogether and fell out.
My parents became gray with the stresses of dealing with ten very different individuals. As the oldest, my most egregious sins involved doing poorly in algebra, and pilfering the occasional jar of frosting from the pantry. My younger brothers offered more significant challenges. One of them enjoyed rappelling out of his bedroom window using a bed sheet. Another ‘drove’ his car a half a mile down the road by himself—as a three year old (fortunately he was returned unscathed by a colleague of my father’s). Adolescence was a special treat for my parents. Several of my brothers were on a first name basis with local law enforcement officers. For a few years, I cringed inwardly when someone told me, “I know your brother,” as I was never certain whether that was a good or bad thing.
After wading through ten turbulent toddler-hoods and years of adolescent angst, my parents reached the end of an era this past June. My youngest sibling, Peter, (one of the law-abiding brothers) graduated from high school. He will head to Stanford in the fall. The rest of their children can be found across the globe, from Japan to Oklahoma. My parents now officially have an empty nest, a fact not lost on my misty-eyed father at this most recent graduation.
Though their children have left their house, they have not escaped my parents’ influence. From the moment we were old enough to understand, my parents emphasized the value of education. After years of staying at home with her children, my mother started teaching again once Peter went to kindergarten. Apparently not satisfied with working and parenting, she also completed the coursework for her masters degree. Her children followed suit. Among us, we have eight college degrees, two masters and three doctorates (and counting).
My parents’ unambiguous stance on the value of education was closely coupled to their views on the importance of service to others. My father entered the Navy after medical school, where he completed both active and reserve duty. He is now a member of Maine’s Air National Guard. Dad’s example has not gone unheeded. My brother John just started Officers’ Training School with the Navy, joining our other siblings who are currently members of the armed forces—four in the Air Force, and one in the Marines.
As much joy as they have received from attending graduations and military ceremonies, my parents seem to derive even more pleasure from being grandparents. With four grandchildren and two on the way, Mom and Dad manage to keep pretty busy in the roles of “Memere” and “Pepere.” Between their children and grandchildren, they’ve probably seen more Yarmouth Elementary School and Harrison Middle School concerts than anyone short of the music teachers. My parents view grandparenthood as a hard-earned reward for raising their own children; one in which they intend to take full advantage.
As the supplier of three of their grandkids, I’ve done my part to provide my parents with suitable recompense for being great parents. Mom and Dad raised ten kids who really listened to the messages they offered, while staying (relatively) sane in the process. Maybe they did use that birth control information after all, and Amy, Adelle, Emily, Jeff, Matt, Sarah, John, Brian, Peter and I were just part of the plan.