Not a finite commodity

Public safety versus civil liberties is on display in the United States. Can’t we all get along?

Not a finite commodity The McGlynn siblings, Christmas 1963
It’s hot in Jakarta these days with the noontime temperature around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and, what with everyone asked to stay within the confines of their homes due to the Covid-19 virus running amok globally, it appears from media reports that this situation has given rise to two reactions: a siege mentality among one portion of the world’s population and a sense of persecution among another. (For example, whether people should be compelled to wear facemasks.)

While the former group is saying “Protect your home and family; all others be damned!” (Irrespective of the fact that we live in a world in which we are dependent upon the assistance of others.) The latter group is saying “Screw you. This is my world, my place to control.” (As if their behavior, as irresponsible and reprehensible as it is, might not have a negative effect on others). Both factions are blind.

It was in early 1963, in either January or February, on a Wisconsin winter’s eve so cold that only the fear of God and Daddy could pry the nine McGlynn children from the house. My brother Mark and I had already stoked the huge furnace in the cellar with additional wood to make sure the fire would last the night.

It must have been a Sunday evening because even though I was on the top of the steps on the second floor of the house, having just come out of the bathroom, I can see my siblings scattered about the downstairs rooms, much in the way that was common on a Sunday evening at Glynnspring. We’d already had supper, the remains from Sunday dinner prepared by Mother earlier in the day after early Mass at Saint Anthony’s, plus all the other leftovers that were to be found in the refrigerator: a mound of tuna fish casserole from Friday’s no-meat meal, a bowl of Grandma’s noodle soup from the day before that, one-third of a ring of bologna, and other dibs and dabs.

My older sisters of high school age Maureen, Eileen, Kathleen, and Mary had taken control of the kitchen where they are munching on popcorn as they whisper and giggle about such earth-shaking subjects as the rumor of courtship between Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, only stopping to sing along with “Big Girls Don’t Cry” when it starts to play on WRDB-Radio. Middle child Jane is at the dining room table, chewing on an eraser and grumbling as she dots her i’s and crosses her t’s in a school report she must turn in the next day. Younger brother Mark is absentmindedly shuffling a deck of cards as he lounges on the daybed in the dining room and hogs the warm air coming from the hot air vent behind it. Like Siamese twins joined at the hip, Colleen and Chris, ages 6 and 4, are kneeling on the threadbare sofa in the living room, their backs to the room, staring at the black window as if it were a television screen and the billowing snow outside, their private show.

I’m not sure where Daddy is because I can’t see him in his usual place, the rocking chair in the living room with a book in his hand, and guess that he’s in the basement, cracking another pail of hickory nuts from the several bushels we had gathered in the fall. I envy him. He’s an expert at this task and almost always manages to crack open the hard shells perfectly, leaving the two halves of the nutmeat inside perfectly intact so that they can be used to decorate the fluffy white frosting on Mother’s angel food cakes.

Mother, who is wearing a chenille housecoat over her long dress, is standing below me at the bottom of the stairs, in front of the hot air register in the entryway that separates the living room from the kitchen. She, too, is trying to keep warm.
As I come down the stairs to join Jane at the dining table I, too, have a report to finish Mother looks at me and says, “John, come here.” I think: “What did I do now?” But only for a brief moment because she is speaking so softly, no tone of reproach in her voice at all.

I stand before her and look up, my eyes asking what it is that she wants of me. She takes my hands and places them on her stomach, moves them around her abdomen, and then smiles at me. “I have a surprise.” Her stomach is slightly bloated and I wonder if she is ill. Then I felt something, a movement inside her, and I almost yank my hands away, but she presses them more closely to her flesh. “I’m going to have a baby,” she says with a smile. Looking up again at her, my eyes wider than before, I see her smile break into a grin of pure delight.
In a family as large as ours, there were enough members for factions to form and for us to engage in childhood games of siege and persecution. Sometimes it was the older sisters telling the younger kids, “Get out of our room; you don’t belong here!” Other times it was the brothers willfully maiming their sisters’ dolls. On top of that, however, with each one of us having eight competitor-siblings, there was always the nagging question: “Who does Mother and Daddy love the most?” Though each of us proclaimed “They love me the most!” I know we all secretly feared that the correct answer was someone else.
We are all in this together; there is no other world than the one we ALL share.

Thus it was that at that moment when Mother placed my hands on her stomach and smiled as she shared the secret that there was to be yet another child in the house, I came to realize that love is not a finite commodity, not something to be reserved for only “me” or “us.” That Mother could love a child who was yet unborn and glow with joy from having another child growing inside her when there were already nine other children yammering for her affection, taught me the senselessness of caring for only the people one knows. Even as we love and watch over “mine” and “ours,” it is essential that we look out for what is best for “them” and “theirs,” for we are all in this together; there is no other world than the one we ALL share.

John H. McGlynn is chairman of the Jakarta-based Lontar Foundation, which promotes Indonesian literature and culture through translating works into English. (

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