Eight Is Enough

A Father’s Memoir of Life with His Extra-Large Family

Tom Braden


To the chief characters portrayed herein, all of

whom are actual persons and not to be confused

with fictional characters, living or dead.





























When I was a boy in Iowa, my ambition was “to become a pullman conductor and see the world.” I know that because I wrote it in a diary I kept when I was seven.

It amuses me now to reflect that my children might have to stop and think before they could tell me what a pullman conductor does. Surely they would smile at the notion that the occupation enables a man “to see the world.”

By the time I left Iowa, I had given up the pullman conductor idea and knew I wanted to be a reporter. As it turned out, I was to be a lot of other things too—a printer, soldier, teacher, intelligence officer, publisher and columnist, among other occupations. But it did not occur to me until my own children began to grow up that whenever I fill out those recurrent forms which require a man to state his occupation, I do not tell the whole truth.

For the fact is that I spend almost as much of my time and energy and more of my patience and my money on being a father than on the more formal calling with which I describe myself on printed forms. I suspect this is true for other men too, though most do not, as I do, have eight.

Moreover, I doubt that there will ever be an end to my job as a father. I know from looking back that there is no end within a twenty-four-hour day, and as I look ahead, I see no respite during a lifetime. I used to think that when a child was twenty-one, a father’s work would be done. But almost any father of a twenty-one-year-old will tell you that’s not true. The process of maturing has grown longer at the same time that the law has cut it down. Maybe the farm boys of the generation before mine were men at eighteen, but does any father have an eighteen-year-old son of whom he would honestly say, “That boy is fully mature”?

A daughter? More likely. But any father who makes such a claim for an eighteen-year-old daughter ought to be able to pass the following test:

Has he stayed up late on any night this past week muttering to himself about where the hell she is?

Has his wife complained recently about missing articles of clothing, toiletry or jewelry?

Have there been any unwelcome surprises in the mail: library fines; notice of an increase in automobile insurance; charges at the department store?

Unless the father of an eighteen-year-old daughter can answer all three questions in the negative, he has not finished his job. Not yet.

And I have not finished mine. I won’t be able to finish it for a long time, because although I have a son who is twenty-three, I also have a son who is nine. Even if I thought that the twenty-three-year-old was all he should be, I would still have to figure on fourteen years.

In between the twenty-three-year-old and the nine-year-old, there are a lot of others. Let me list the children for you, starting at the top, because they comprise the chief characters of this book and if you read it, you may want to refer back now and then to see who these people are now and how old they are as compared to who they were and how old they were at the times they enter the story.

David is twenty-three. He has red hair, great strength in his arms and quickness of foot. For a long time, it did not seem to me that he changed his shirt often enough. I think he got very tired of hearing about this and that may be the reason why he went off recently to Alaska and got a job as a guard in a prison. In his last letter he wrote that he has also enrolled in a college, and this surprised and pleased me so much that it brought about a change of image. When I think of him now, he is wearing a clean shirt.

Mary is twenty-one. When she was a baby, one of her feet was turned a little inward, and the doctor said to rub it. I spent a lot of time rubbing that foot, outward, and while I was doing it, I made up a song about her, a very sentimental and sweet song such as one might sing to a baby. It would greatly embarrass her if I sang it now. But I will if I have to.

Mary is a junior at college; studious, thoughtful, good-looking, and left-wing. I am reserving the song as the ultimate weapon. If the era of campus demonstrations should return and Mary should again feel it necessary to take a leading part, I shall go to her school, approach her while she is in the act of protesting the system, and sing that song. Her foot, incidentally, is just fine.

Joannie is twenty. Very bright-eyed. She enjoys life more than most people because she pays more attention to it. “For Saturday breakfast,” she wrote me recently, “we made ‘fried bread.’ A whole plate in the middle of the table; before each place a bowl of maple syrup. Just close your eyes and imagine the delight. Later I tried skiing straight across the golf course. Then it began to snow, so I read about Hamilton and Burr in front of a fire. I love Saturdays.”

Few people, it seems to me, are able to observe and reflect while maintaining full speed. But Joannie does.

Susan is nineteen and a sophomore at college. She works very hard and plays very hard and regards each hour as a frame in which much must be done: From six in the morning until seven is the time to get up, run two miles and eat breakfast. From seven until eight, one studies a language; from eight until nine, one washes dishes at the college cafeteria or cleans the kitchen when at home. The rest of the day is similarly divided into hourly duties. Susan hardly ever speaks, either of duty or anything else. She has light-brown hair and large, sloe eyes. A fine athlete, she bats right and throws left.

Nancy is eighteen. As a baby and a little girl, she early developed the habit of taking her clothes off as fast as they were put on, so that she earned the nickname “Barechild.” But now that she is grown into a tall, voluptuous and rather langorous blonde, we are embarrassed to call her that any more. Nancy is very bright but is nevertheless having a love affair.

Elizabeth is fifteen. Long red hair, graceful, high tempered, with a habit of tossing her head in disdain, and of large spirit. Elizabeth has a great many freckles and for many years was the subject of a popular family song entitled “Too many freckles.” But like Nancy’s sobriquet, the song has now been relegated to history, for it turned out as Elizabeth grew into an astonishingly pretty girl, that it was not so.

Tommy is thirteen, with blond hair and a mouthful of braces. Wise for his years and rabbinical in his garb, he wears both in and out of doors a large and nondescript stocking cap. A mine of accurate information on starting line-ups, he sees life as personal combat. Witness his definition of the word “evidence” as I found it on a school paper, graded “B”:

“If for breakfast, two people have eggs and one person leaves and when he comes back his egg is gone and there is egg all over the other guy’s face, that is evidence, though it is not proven.”

Nicholas is nine and often has egg on his face. He also has mischievous eyes, and it is perhaps the look in Nicholas’ eyes that Tommy regards as proof. In any event, Nicholas gets beaten up more than anybody I know and, considering this, he remains remarkably cheerful and fun to be with.

In addition, there is a person named Joan who is the mother of all these children and who is an extraordinarily capable, bright, lively and good-looking girl.

All these people live in or come home to a big yellow house in Maryland which has sufficient bedrooms and a yard and food in the refrigerator.

Also, the house nearly always holds and often sleeps a number of friends, some of whom you will meet in the pages that follow. If the names of some of the friends are familiar to you, you must consider that my job is writing a newspaper column from Washington and therefore a lot of the people I know are known by many other people too.

Inside the house with all these children, the well-known people behave just like other people, discussing with the children the problems of state and the problems of children. On the latter subject I have found them generally supportive of a father’s point of view.

Well-known or not, no one who visits the big yellow house would, I think, dispute my contention that after the word “occupation,” I ought to write “father.”

How I Resigned as a Father

It gives me great pleasure to look back upon the time that I resigned as a father. Solemnly, I handed the eight children what remained of their eight airline tickets. Solemnly, I bade them farewell.

We were nearing the end of that ghastly Christmas trip to the Caribbean, and I had had plenty of time to think the resignation through. So there was nothing angry about it; no bluster, no threats, no demands.

But I have never been able to decide which event in that whole series of events, each more exasperating and demeaning than the last—which event was it that forced me to the final step. And how did it start? Did it start, as resignations so often do, with doubt? Was it the sinking doubt I felt as I heard my wife say, “I’ll pay the difference”?

Joan frequently offers to “pay the difference,” and it is a sincere and generous offer because Joan is a sincere and generous girl. She buys her own clothes with the money she earns and always has some left over to be generous with. But what she has left over would be spent ten, nay a hundred, times if she indeed were required to pay the difference as she so often says she will.

Joan never worries about money. She is constantly and quite genuinely astonished that I should be worried about it. In moments of deep gloom, when I predict poverty or ask how she thinks we’re going to live when we’re old, she replies, “How do you know you’ll be old?”

So when it comes to something everybody in the family wants to have or to do, I’m the one who says, “We can’t afford it,” and Joan is the one who says, “I’ll pay the difference.” Usually I reply with an appropriate snort. But sometimes, as on this Christmas occasion, I relent.

We were having an argument about taking eight children to the Caribbean for Christmas. Joan thought it would be a bargain. To stay at home and have Christmas presents for everyone, she contended, would cost about the same as to take everyone to the Caribbean, with the understanding that the trip would be the present; no others to be purchased; no others to be anticipated.

To buttress her position and to give it authority, as well as class, she had consulted, over a cocktail and a wafer, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Arthur Burns, or at least she told me she had. And I didn’t doubt it, for Joan and Arthur Burns are friends, and Arthur Burns, a kindly and pleasant man, might well have agreed with Joan that she could do whatever it was she wanted to do.

Braving the contrary opinion of Burns, I tried arithmetic. “Ten airplane tickets at one hundred and fifty is fifteen hundred. Plus, say, five hundred for the motel. Have we ever spent two thousand dollars on Christmas presents?”

“Closer to a thousand,” she admitted, “but you’re not counting the tree and the decorations and a big dinner and guests and bringing in help. Anyhow, I’ll pay the difference.”

I recall a sense of foreboding, not only about what the difference would be, but about Joan’s ability to pay it. Was that the first ingredient in the amalgam of anger, weakness and inability to cope which resignation implies?

Or was it Pan American Airlines? “We won’t be able to get all of you on,” said the man behind the counter as I handed over the ten tickets shortly before departure time. My jaw dropped. “What?” “That’s right, sir. We have seven available seats but I may be able to find one more.” He was businesslike. “Just wait till I finish counting.” He bent over a huge chart. “Jim, did you say 230 or 231?”

My mind raced back over the morning: the five-thirty rising, the cup of coffee brought to my wife in bed by her namesake child, Joannie; the two taxis; the fourteen bags; the enforced jettisoning of the inevitable odd paper bags full of gum and dolls which always turn up at the front door whenever we go any place; the resultant tears; the trip back to the house because six-year-old Nicholas had to go to the bathroom; the airport; the tips; the fourteen bags again.

And now, what had the man said? “We won’t be able to get all of you on.” I was thunderstruck. Before my mind’s eye, there flashed a picture of my friend Stewart Alsop, the Newsweek columnist, practicing his technique of a “puce face.” Confronted by outrageous conduct on the part of those who are engaged in the business of serving the public, Alsop would inhale deeply until his lungs and cheeks were fully extended. He would then hold his breath while at the same time jumping in place, on both feet. The sealed-in air, combined with exertion, caused the face to turn bright red and the eyes to bulge. The room clerk who had sold out his hotel reservation, or the ticket agent who had presided over the surrender of his seat often assumed that he was dealing with a man about to have a stroke. Often, he would yield. I thought of making a puce face.

But Joan had beaten me to the tactic of demonstration. First, she screamed; then she began to cry. It was not going to do any good. The man behind the counter adopted that air of wounded patience so necessary to employees of airlines which regularly oversell their space and seldom get caught except at Christmas. “Take the seven seats, Mr. Braden, or I’ll have to put the stand-bys on.”

Behind me a sea of faces pressed forward eagerly, eyes estimating the chances if I should decide to spurn an offer of less than that to which I was entitled. Joan was still crying and I could hear sentences between the sobs. “I made these reservations two months ago; I reconfirmed them yesterday.” The moment had come. Quickly, I counted off the children according to age, separated the baggage according to ownership, and ordered seven—Joan and the six youngest—across the barrier. The two oldest and I would arrive a day late.

It was maddening; it was abject; it was unfair; it was more than inconvenient; it was destructive of joy and of the pride of family. It was also fate, proving that I was a fool ever to have consented to this nonessential, expensive and exhausting expedition. But it was not a moment of resignation. I did not flag or fail. I sat in the airport all that day and halfway into the night and tried to be cheerful the while. It never occurred to me to bug out.

In fact, I do not believe that the thought of bugging out actually crossed my mind until Christmas was over and the trip home was well under way, and we were at an airport again and I had counted the fourteen bags again and handed the ten tickets over again, and the man had said, “Go right on board, Mr. Braden,” and I looked around and five of the party weren’t there.

I was panic-stricken. There was no time to lose. “They went to the restaurant with Nancy,” one of the loyalists volunteered. Quickly, I strode through tables and chairs; quickly, I collared Nancy, who is sixteen and has long blond hair and blue jeans; quickly, I dragged her and her fellow deserters aboard. People looked up from their eggs. “It was embarrassing,” Nancy said later, and I suppose it was. But I found her defense maddening. “After all,” she explained to her mother, when she found her seat and the engines were starting, “I was spending my own money.”

The other children sided with her. And Joan said she could see two sides. Two sides! Maybe that was the moment of decision. But if I was maddened, irritated, angry at Nancy’s “own money” or at my wife’s seeing “two sides,” the last straw, the thing that drove me up the wall, was the remark about the platoon leader.

It was two-thirty in the morning and I was standing outside the elevator on the eighth floor of a hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport. I had supervised the loading of the fourteen bags from the conveyor belt and helped carry them to the bus and into the lobby, and now they were scattered in front of me and I was mentally trying to assign them and ten people into three double rooms with cots in two. “Dad,” said my daughter Mary, with that air of supreme superiority which only college sophomores attain, “You act as though you were some kind of platoon leader. Don’t you think running things as though we were all in the army is a little bit, shall I say, old-fashioned?” Her eyebrows arched and her lips pursed the final words.

That was the moment; that must have been the moment. “How else?” I said to myself, “how else do you get ten people to the Caribbean and back? How else do you hassle their baggage, count their tickets, parcel out their passports, pay their head taxes, get them out of restaurants and onto airplanes? How else, but by being a platoon leader? An honorable post, platoon leader. I have been a platoon leader once in my life and at no time during my tenure in that office did I have to put up with this kind of thing.”

It was about nine that morning that I resigned.

How Everything Became Unwieldy

Probably I should never have had eight children. It seems odd to reflect that as recently as ten years ago, large families were not frowned upon. My mother was one of seven; my father the youngest of thirteen. Today, according to the Census Bureau, the average American family has 2.2 children. It is not only no longer fashionable to be polyphiloprogenitive; it is considered a positive crime against the environment. I understand this. I agree with the felt need, and I remember very well when it first occurred to me that eight was, if not too many, at least enough.

We were lying in bed in Oceanside, California, where I ran a newspaper, and Joan was nursing Nicholas, our eighth child. First we had had a boy, and then we’d had five girls, and though I never admitted to myself that I had a sex bias, the arrival of Elizabeth, the fifth girl, had seemed, at the time, redundant.

But an odd thing happened. Elizabeth turned out to have red hair, which made her very different. And then had come Tommy and then Nicholas. Stub Harvey, who was my golfing and touch football partner as well as the family doctor, pronounced the odds: “From now on you’ll have boys.”

Anyhow, on that morning the mail had come, brought to us in bed by one of the children, and Joan, opening it, paused over a telegram and laughed out loud. “Wonderful,” she said, passing it on to me. With the tolerance due a mother with a newborn son, I refrained from remarking that it was addressed to me.

It was signed by the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy. “Congratulations,” it read, “I surrender.”

I was amused and proud. How many did the Kennedys have? Seven? But then a horrifying thought struck me. How much money did the Kennedys have? Somewhere I had read that each of the children of the Attorney General’s generation had been made several times a millionaire. What was I doing accepting congratulations from a Kennedy on having more children than a Kennedy? Eight, it seemed to me at that moment, was enough.

It was, as I recall, my first major doubt and as it grew into decision, the Kennedys remained helpful. For example, I remember one summer in Aspen, Colorado, where we used to take the children from time to time, camping high. One morning, before the expedition was to start, Susan, who was ten, came into the motel bedroom bearing coffee for her mother and a copy of the Denver Post. I noticed that she was excited as she watched over the brimming cup she held in outstretched hand. “Mom,” she said, “a terrible thing has happened. The Kennedys have caught up.”

There it was, a small squib on the front page. “Number Eight for Ethel.” Unanimously, the children urged that I do something about it at once. Joan thought it was funny. I pretended to laugh, but inwardly, I had made a resolution.

Was this joke about rivalry with the Kennedys transformed, in the minds of the children, into real rivalry, even animosity? On a subsequent summer, the Kennedy family also turned up in Aspen, and Bobby and Ethel and Joan and I all went out to the movies, leaving the Kennedy and Braden children in a rented house. When we came home, we found that the Braden children had locked themselves inside the house and were holding it as a fort while the Kennedys stood outside in the dark, some throwing rocks as cover while others made periodic assaults in an effort to storm the doors.

Looking back now, I’d like to pretend that it was all very friendly, which was, of course, what we pretended at the time. But it was not friendly. Those rocks were real. Do large families develop intense tribal loyalty and more than average consciousness of turf? Are they, therefore, inclined to be quarrelsome and aggressive when as a tribe they are placed in proximity to another tribe of relatively equal strength or self-esteem?

I had not liked that moment in the dark with the rocks flying. Too many rocks. Too many children.

But that was in 1963. It was not until late in 1966 that resolution turned to embarrassment and that I realized I could be charged with being an over-consumer of the world’s goods.

“You’re his type of guy,” Kirk Douglas had said, speaking of Charlton Heston. “He ought to come in for at least a thousand.” Douglas was having a fund-raising party, and the funds were for me because I was running for lieutenant governor of California. Kirk had been a stalwart in my campaign and that afternoon he had packed his house with friends and acquaintances and made the money pitch. Then, while the hat was being passed, Kirk brought Heston over to a corner of the room for a private chat; just Heston and me. Heston broke the ice with the subject of planned parenthood and we never got off it. He was, it turned out, an ardent advocate, a committed committee man. He told me how he had enlisted in the battle against population growth. The figures which proved the soundness of the cause came readily to his mind. Sometime during the conversation, he pulled out a check and wrote on it, holding it against the wall, and when he departed, he handed it, folded, to me. Not until I had turned it over to Kirk and saw the disappointment on his face did I remember that at one point the conversation had taken a personal turn.

“A hundred dollars,” Kirk announced flatly. Then, “What in the hell did you say to him?”

“He only asked me one question,” I replied. “I told him I had eight.”

I still do have eight. I was reminded of it only yesterday. I had to write a column, get started on the income tax, do a radio broadcast, and have lunch with the Indian Ambassador. In addition, there were a lot of telephone calls. About 7 P.M. I settled into a brown leather chair to have a drink with my wife and review events. The following had occurred:

1. Joan had been called at her office in the early afternoon to be notified that Elizabeth was at the police station.

2. Mary had not eaten since her arrival from college for a brief vacation three days previously. Joan explained that she had become a Buddhist and was fasting.

3. Tommy’s teacher had called to say that he was doing well at baseball but paying no attention to classroom activity and would we please exercise influence?

4. There was a nice letter from David, who was traveling around the world and had reached Afghanistan. The mail also included a notice from the American Express Company acknowledging the loss of his traveler’s checks.

5. Joannie had backed the station wagon into the stone pillar at the end of the driveway. Estimated damage: $150.00.

6. We had an inconclusive discussion about what to do about Nancy, whom Joan described as “in a state of rebellion.” Would we confront her, risking defiance? Or should we leave her out of family plans and hope she cared?

The problem of Elizabeth and the police station had been solved. At least, she was now in her room. It had been a warm day; she had skipped school and gone window shopping and a policeman had noticed. Should I go to her now, while I still think it’s serious, or should I wait and risk revealing that I know she’s not the first truant in history?

As I say, Joan and I were discussing these problems when Nicholas skipped excitedly into the room. “Dad,” he said, “tonight’s the finals of the basketball tournament and you promised to watch with me.” I looked shamefacedly at Joan. She broke the news. “Daddy and I have to go out to dinner.”

When Nicholas had left, I remarked gently, “Maybe we have too many children.”

“You’re wrong,” Joan replied, “we just don’t have enough time.”

Why We Had Eight

I know how I had children. The same way everybody has children. But eight is different. And the difference was Joan.

The first time I ever saw the girl, I was sitting in the outer office of Nelson A. Rockefeller, waiting for an interview. I had been teaching at Dartmouth College, and one day the President of Dartmouth, an ebulliently kind and interested man named John Dickey, asked me if I would like to talk to his friend, Nelson Rockefeller, about a job at the Museum of Modern Art. I don’t think John Dickey was trying to get rid of me. I think he thought I was too much interested in too many things to be interested forever in teaching English to college freshmen.

So there I was in Nelson Rockefeller’s outer office. I remember the magazine I looked up from. Business Week. I haven’t read Business Week very often in the years that have passed but I have always honored its name.

So I looked up and there was a girl in a dark-green taffeta dress with a skirt that sort of swirled, and she had a marvelously fresh and open face and freckles and curly, brown hair. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life.

The mating rites have changed a lot since then, so I am told. Women have adopted what was once the man’s role. They no longer lure, they suggest; at times they attack; they no longer wait for the light to be dimmed, they dim it; or even don’t care if it’s dimmed. A great emancipation is at work. I’m sure women feel less unnaturally subservient and men less unnaturally responsible and uptight. But it all came too late for me. Joan had never called a man on the telephone in her life. She still won’t do it. I had to be the aggressor, and when I think about the aggression, I think of its symbol. Without doubt, I should say, it was Joan’s skirt.

I’ve seen Joan in a lot of skirts, and I’ve bought a lot of them. There was the taffeta skirt she wore that day in Rockefeller’s office, and the blue and purple plaid skirt that I bought for her in Scotland that first summer after we were married. Once I bought her a dress in Paris off the back of a model who was almost as pretty as she was. On the model, the bodice was transparent. I wasn’t used to buying clothes from models and it was embarrassing. I wouldn’t let Joan wear it with the bodice transparent, but the way other people looked at her when she wore that dress, she might as well have. The dress was around the house for a long while. When did I last see it, faded now, and no longer crisp, but still beautiful? I remember. Elizabeth wore it last Halloween.

What was it about Joan? What is sexy? Was it a good figure? Was it that she blushed? Was it that she was so pretty? You’d have to work very hard not to have babies if you were married to Joan.

But I’m capable of hard work, so why didn’t I work hard not to have babies? At least, not to have eight babies? Was it simply that people tend to behave within the bounds of societal permission, and that when Joan and I were having babies, society had not yet signaled that we shouldn’t?