Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy is a freelance journalist for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, who grew up with eight siblings in a delightful Victorian house in 60s and 70s. With the release of her new book, a memoir, Many Hands Make Light, Cheryl shows fun family life and many memorable and laughable moments that offer insight to raising kids in today’s world. Cheryl took the time to share bits of her story with TBAP today. Take a look!
Miranda ~ Hello and welcome, Cheryl! Glad to have you on TBAP today. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Cheryl: Miranda, thanks for having me. About myself: My memoir, Many Hands Make Light Work, is the rollicking tale of growing up in our family of nine children in the ‘60s and ‘70s in a Midwest college town, in an old Victorian house in the middle of fraternity row. I’m the sixth of those nine kids. Our dad was an eccentric professor who tried to make extra money by acquiring tumbledown frame houses for us kids to renovate. Mom was an organizational genius disguised as a housewife in Bermuda shorts. Together they forged us nine kids into a tight-knit work crew they dubbed their Baseball Team. Dad, who changed out of suit and tie into carpenter’s overalls, sort of like Clark Kent into Superman, managed us by tossing off infernally cheerful sayings, such as “Details make perfection, but perfection is no detail!” We kids poured concrete, painted houses—and, at odd moments, broke into song, because we sang as we worked, like a Von Trapp family in painters caps. It’s a fun, upbeat, and entertaining book.
Miranda ~ Given your history, you’re quite big on diversity and community. Looking at the world today, what would you say is its biggest problem in this regard and, what do you think can be done to make things better?
Cheryl: I can’t say what the world’s biggest problem is in regard to diversity and community, but I can tell the stories of growing up in a big family that was made bigger because we took in college-student boarders from across the country and around the world. From before I was born until after I went away to college myself, our family welcomed students into our home to live, eat, and study with us. lo Though they came from diverse cultures and religions, our household remained harmonious, because we kids thought everyone who came to live with us would be like our own brothers and sisters. Our college-student boarders felt that and responded in kind. One example is that we had boarders for 27 years, did not lock our doors, and never had any theft. Some of the laugh-out-loud parts in Many Hands Make Light Work: A Memoir involve inadvertent culture clashes.
Miranda ~ Fear is a major factor that contributes to nationalism and prejudice of every kind. From the vantage point of your personal journey, and as a Christian, how have you conquered this fear such that you believe it can be taught to kids while raising them?
Cheryl: It’s not that we conquered fear, it’s more that we didn’t have any to begin with. The students who lived with us came from different cultures and religions, but it never seemed to be a problem. For example, we were a Catholic household, so we said prayers all together before and after every meal. I remember one student who was an atheist and antagonistic about the prayers, though she didn’t have to join in. My parents just kept treating her with their everyday, ordinary kindness. She didn’t warm up during the whole year she lived with us, but much later, my parents got a letter from her that said their example had made a difference in her life, she’d joined a church, and now said prayers herself before meals. Another student, a Muslim, of course could not eat dinner with us during Ramadan, because we always ate at 5:30 pm and the sun was still up. No problem; Mom kept her dinner warm until after sundown. This was the ‘70s, and we didn’t know anything about Islam, but we kids understood that. It wasn’t too different from Lent. It was just another way to learn discipline and self-restraint. So we felt kinship with her that way. On the surface we were different; on a deeper level, we were the same.
Miranda ~ Clearly, people, families and communities can be happy without much, as was the case with your family. Where do you think most people miss it?
Cheryl: Our parents, who grew up on farms during the Depression, remained deeply frugal. Though we nine grew up during economically blessed times, we absorbed that culture of thrift from them. Our Mom and Dad lived like this: do it yourself whenever you can (house repair, gardening, landscaping, sewing, canning); spend money on what matters, such as education, nutrition, and safety; acquire land and property because you can input your own labor to make it eventually increase in value; and don’t waste resources. For example, we never ate out or stayed in a hotel. There are some funny and affectionate stories within Many Hands Make Light Work: A Memoir about Dad’s extreme frugality.
Miranda ~ In your new book, Many Hands Make Light Work, you show concern on how kids are raised today. What, precisely, do you want your readers to walk away with?
Cheryl: I’m not concerned about how kids are raised today. Lots of different ways of parenting work just fine. I do believe we have something to gain by looking back at how this one family, in this old frame house on a tree-lined street in a Midwest college town in the ‘60s and ‘70s, built a family for the ages. Readers will enjoy the entertaining and upbeat book—one reviewer called it “the most cheerful childhood memoir ever”—while they absorb the example of how our parents did it. And how, specifically, did they do it? First, by a strong partnership with shared goals. Second, by real work for their children to do, which taught useful skills, imbued us with a sense of capability and importance, and kept us away from bad influences; and, finally, consistent social rituals, which in our case were supplied by our religion.
Miranda ~ Apart from your parents who greatly influenced your beliefs and approach to life, who else would you say has inspired/challenged you?
Cheryl: Aside from my parents and siblings who greatly influenced me, I am inspired by a sermon I heard 10 years ago from a Catholic priest, a Jesuit scholar who was the son of illiterate immigrant parents. He illuminated the meaning and purpose of life in two words: serve others.
Miranda ~ You clearly take on a bold outlook on life. What advice would you offer someone who wanted to change their lifestyle and the manner in which they raise kids according to your advice?
Cheryl: Train them, then trust them. The saying “don’t do for your child what he can do for himself” halts our inclination to over-serve youngsters. That works whether it’s a toddler picking up his own toys or a high school senior taking a test to get into college. One of my favorite chapters within Many Hands Make Light Work: A Memoir is about an evening babysitting job I took in 1972 when I was 13. The young couple had a baby who was asleep when I arrived, but they also had an unusual pet: a real, uncaged, adolescent lion. It was the size of a Labrador. That chapter is a favorite because I look back at my 13-year-old self in wonder: though it was a long and terrible night (and a most entertaining chapter now) it did not occur to me to call my parents and have them rescue me.
This or That (The Fun Qs)
Coffee, Tea, or Mocha? Oh, hot chocolate with a dash of coffee.
Dresses or Pants? Summer dresses with sandals; snuggly winter dresses with boots.
Boots or heels? Any cute shoes that are comfortable to walk in. It is possible!
Breakfast or dinner? Both, please. Home-cooked and eaten outdoors on the back patio overlooking the bay.
Music or Movies? Both, enthusiastically!
Juice or smoothie? Hmm… water. Got to save calories somewhere.
Chocolate or vanilla? Ah, homemade vanilla ice cream with ripe fruit on top. Today that was blackberries fresh-picked from our backyard.
About the Author
Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy and her eight siblings grew up with a paintbrush in their hands and a song in their hearts. As soon as they were old enough to wrench a nail out of ancient lumber―so it could be used again―they were put to work renovating old houses in Ames, Iowa. Cheryl’s growing-up years included babysitting for a local family that kept a lion as a pet. A real, adolescent-aged lion. Uncaged. Using a flyswatter to defend herself, she survived the lion, and today is a freelance journalist for The Wall Street Journal as well as the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. The Tribune distributes her articles to newspapers and websites around the country, such as The Seattle Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Baltimore Sun, and Orlando Sentinel. McCarthy holds an MBA from City University in London and a bachelor’s in journalism from Iowa State University. She lives in Bellingham, Washington. For information, visit cherylstritzelmccarthy.com