Do you have a favorite childhood movie? Mine was probably one of my Disney Sing Along Songs videos. I also remember the real movies my mom made me watch: Grease (which I was definitely too young for), The Sound of Music (which is always awesome…when you have 3 hours to spare), and Stephen King’s It (which was a very bad call). She also made me watch Yours, Mine, and Ours, though, which was so much fun, and not just for the novelty of seeing Lucille Ball play someone who was not a caricature of herself. I recently discovered the book upon which the movie was loosely based. It is far superior.
The original Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968) starred Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as a widow and widower with eight and ten children, respectively. They meet, fall in love, and have madcap adventures blending their two large families into one. The movie was remade in 2005 with Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid, but all that remained of the true story was the sizes of the families and the parents’ names. Dissatisfied with the Hollywood edits, I sought out the original book, titled Who Gets the Drumstick? It’s out of print, but the good old Austin Public Library just happens to own a copy.
As a potential mom of a big Catholic family, I was delighted to read a book written by just such a woman. Published in 1965, the nonfiction book begins with the story of Mrs. Helen North’s widowing in the Pacific northwest (her husband died in a Navy plane accident) and how it led her to widower Frank Beardsley (a Californian whose wife died of a sudden illness). They connected over their respective losses and realized they were better together.
A hallmark of the novel is Helen and Frank’s loving, faith-filled marriage. Both Helen and Frank were dedicated 1960s Catholic parents. They were introduced by Frank’s sister, a vowed religious Catholic school principal. All their children went to Catholic schools and to Mass every Sunday. They were married at the Carmel mission founded by Blessed Junipero Serra. Helen reiterates that they each loved their late spouses very much and never saw the new one as a replacement. She had, in fact, decided not to remarry until she saw how much Frank needed her as part of his and his children’s lives. On the birth of her first child with Frank (they had two, bringing the total children to a round twenty), she notes:
The new baby was [...] a blessing over the new love between Frank and me. He was our answer to the weak-hearted, those afraid of life; more, he was our answer to our own fears. We placed little Joseph John Beardsley and his future into the hands of the Lord with faith that was a reflection of Abraham’s. By all the rules of our time and society we should have been afraid. We had by any modern standards too many children to support and raise properly. Now we had another. Joseph John Beardsley was the greatest act of faith we could perform. I hugged him as a mother and loved the life in him and was deeply grateful that his father was a man of faith in an age of doubt.
Helen also offers her observations on raising a big family:
- No pets. With twenty children, the complexity and expense of managing humans was more than enough without adding animals.
- Bulk shopping. This was before Costco. If something was on sale, they bought a case. Someone would eat the peaches; someone would eventually need a new size of that shirt.
- Delegated chores. If forty hands are working on all parts of the house at once, cleaning takes no time.
- Bedroom assignments based on age and personality. The littlest boys needed to be around their big brothers. The “little mothers” had their siblings to nurture.
- Budgeting. Being a Navy family saved them countless medical expenses, and although they were never destitute, they lived with a little trust and a lot of thrift.
Differences between the 1968 film and the factual book abound. The oldest Beardsley boys did not try to get Helen drunk when she came to visit their father. Frank knew Helen was pregnant before shipping out. The children actually liked one another and wanted their parents to get married as soon as possible. The combined clan felt they were normal; they were just a bit more numerous than some other families.
If your local library has Who Gets the Drumstick?, please give it a read. You will find the *true* story of a big family with equally big reserves of faith, hope, and love.