Introduction: 10 kids, 1 bath
My mother always says my memory is bigger than my life. Well, here's what I remember.
I grew up beneath a giant cliff on the bottom floor of a three-story house in New Jersey. It was a sliver of a town called Edgewater, and it was two blocks wide and one mile long, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. My house was easy to find - it was the brown clapboard sitting right below the gigantic L of the flickering Palisades Amusement Park sign - and through most of my childhood it was home to twenty-one people.
Uncle Herbie and Aunt Ethel lived on the top floor with their two teen daughters. Nana Henwood lived in the front half of the second floor; the Roanes and their two Peeping Tom sons lived in the back. My family, the Corcorans, lived on the ground floor - the best floor, we thought. We were six girls sharing the middle room we called "the girls' room" and four boys sharing the back room we called "the boys' room." My parents, Florence and Ed, slept on the black vinyl Castro convertible in the living room.
But I never saw my mother sleep. In fact, she only sat down during dinner and later for about three minutes in the tub of our one bathroom. Although Mom was perennially pregnant, she was always on the move - a blurry blue Sears housedress topped by a wavy blond perm and supported by two sturdy speed-walking legs. She had bulging purple varicose veins that grew with each child, and I was always worried that they were going to pop. But they didn't.
On any given day, Mom could be found in one of two places: the outside landing where she hung the laundry, or the kitchen where she jogged between the ironing board and the oven. It seemed my mother could do a hundred things at once, all the while keeping at least one of her blue eyes on her ten children.
"Watch yourself, Eddie!" she'd shout down from the landing to my oldest brother in the side yard. "Remember, you're a born leader and all the boys are watching you!" Then she'd vroom down the fourteen wooden steps, hip the laundry basket through the banging screen door into the kitchen, and dump it onto the table.
"You're the absolute best helper, Ellen," she'd say as my eager sister did the folding. "You're going to make a wonderful mother!"
Shortly after noon, Mom would begin preparations for dinner, served nightly at six o'clock sharp. "Barbara Ann!" she'd yell down the basement stairs as she peeled potatoes. "Come on up here and take Florence, Tommy and Mary Jean. They need some entertainment and if you're going to be a star, you'll need to practice."
And that was my mother's genius. She kept her house going by putting her finger on the special gift she saw in each of her children, and making each and every one of us believe that that gift was uniquely ours. Whether it was true or not, we all believed it. It was Nana Henwood who predicted my destiny.
Besides being almost a midget, my grandmother also had the honor of being our bedtime masseuse. While my mother packed our lunches for the next day, Nana would make the rounds and spend a few minutes with each of her ten grandchildren, rubbing our backs and whispering happiness into our ears.
One night when I was eleven, Nana came to my bed and found me crying. Dark hair had suddenly sprouted all over my arms, and I was hiding the two bearded limbs under the covers.
"Let me see your arms," Nana coaxed.
"No," I cried, "they look like Dad's!"
She pulled my arms from beneath the covers and rubbed them. "Hairy arms!" she beamed proudly. "That means you're going to be rich!"
A few years later, hoping to fulfill Nana's prophecy, I got my first job as a summer playground supervisor. By the time I turned 24, I'd have 22 others.
It was my 24th job that made me rich. How did I get there?
First, I believed Nana's words.
More important, I used what I learned from my mother.
Excerpted from USE WHAT YOU'VE GOT, AND OTHER BUSINESS LESSONS I LEARNED FROM MY MOM © Copyright 2002 by Barbara Corcoran. Reprinted with permission by Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.