The Next Page: Cutting Steak With Scissors

The new school year is always a beginning. But for a college freshman, it's a new life: breaking away from family (finally!) and going out on your own. AMANDA OTTAWAY chronicled the experience in her first year at Davidson College.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

12:00 AM

AUG 22, 2010

The late-summer sun blazed off the windows. I was sprawled in every direction over the couch in the family room, staring blankly at the TV. Familiar activity buzzed in every direction, and for once in my life, I was soaking it up, savoring it, storing every bit of it in my memory.

A barefoot little boy heaved himself over my head onto the coffee table; another dropped a bag of pretzels, which was quickly trampled by the massive golden retriever launching himself recklessly around the kitchen. Someone bellowed, "SHUT UP!" from the computer room, followed by the unmistakable sound of a slap and inevitable howl of pain.

From the kitchen, "GIMME some of that!" Then a heavy thunk as the carton of orange juice crashed to the floor. The clacking of excited doggy paws, followed by eager lapping noises, told me the spill was not lost on Maverick.

"Mav-vy! Get away!"

"Zach, you better clean that up."

"I am. Shut up."

"Ew, don't use that! Here -- here's some paper towels."

"Will someone go get Dad please? What are we having for dinner? Does he even know?"

It was mid-August. I was the 18-year-old big sister of four boys, ages 16, 13, 11, and 8, and I'd be heading to college eight hours away in a matter of weeks. The swiftness with which my last couple of months at home had flown by was unnerving, and it was finally starting to sink in that, in a sense, this would not really be my home anymore.

Certainly I would come home for Christmas, and hopefully the following summer, but I would miss almost a whole year of my little brothers' lives. I would miss their school plays, their orchestra concerts, their basketball games, all their birthdays. I would miss lazy weekend evenings watching "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" together; I'd miss playing football in the backyard, shooting hoops in the driveway and sledding down the big hill behind the house.

And most frightening of all, this happy chaos, this vivacious pandemonium, this wildly beautiful cacophony of life, would no longer be a part of my every day.

• • •

The five of us, like any five siblings, are bursting with striking similarities and startling differences. We are all abnormally tall for our ages, skinny and gangling, with big feet and fair skin. We all have different shades of blond hair. The hues in our blue eyes vary from greenish to grayish to pure sky.

We were all born with a passion for athletics, and growing up in a house where, as my dad likes to say, "everything is a competitive sport" instilled in each of us a more-than-healthy dose of competitiveness. We are all awkward, lanky and clumsy (some more than others), with fiery Irish tempers (again, some more than others). We all share a love for sugary cereals and the Disney Channel and a mutual antipathy for milk, which we were forced to drink at every meal.

Our differences present themselves on countless occasions as well. Luke and Casey are our resident geniuses, never requiring assistance with homework, playing chess for fun and earning incredulous words of praise from one dazzled teacher after another. Luke is laid-back -- almost lazy -- and calm, while Casey is a whirlwind of activity and emotion. Zachary, Jesse and I, though not the valedictorian types, tend to express ourselves in different ways. We're the ones sitting at the kitchen counter late at night with our calculators and our tears, struggling through fractions or geometry.

Our parents, Brent and Ellen, met during their freshman year of college, and the rest is history. Mom is smart, organized, passionate and one of the most hard-working people I have ever met. Dad, brilliant in his own way, is the scatter-brained English professor who tends to forget trivial things like cooking dinner, cleaning up spills and picking up kids from basketball practice.

Those two manage us incredibly well. There have been a number of Saturdays where all five of us have had a basketball game: one college, one high school, one junior high, and two elementary, and more often than not they watch every single one, in one way or another. Somehow they balance working, feeding, cleaning, chauffeuring and volunteering. They also balance each other out, and somehow the household runs smoothly. Well -- in a manner of speaking.

People ask me all the time how I haven't gone crazy growing up in a house like that. But the truth is, I learned pretty quick how to tune things out. There were constantly friends over; I'd come home and seven or eight little boys would literally nearly knock me over in the basement, brandishing water guns or light sabers and emitting high-pitched battle cries. I'd just shrug, shove a couple of them around a little, maybe wrestle away a gun and shoot back, and head up to the kitchen, where my mom would be fixing a snack and trying to herd the kids outside.

The number of things that never fazed me is, looking back, incredible.

When Casey was 2 and jumped off the couch, snapping his tibia and fibula, it barely registered to me (his baby-sitter) that he was in more pain than usual; I heard shrieks all the time when people stepped on Legos or got hit with baseball bats. I learned to concentrate in the middle of the action. Even now, I get some of my best work done in busy places. Silence makes me extremely uneasy, I think because I have never truly experienced it while doing homework, reading or eating. I like a lot of happy noise. I am most comfortable and feel safest when I am surrounded by people being loud.

This occasionally convenient habit of filtering, though, came to a screeching halt during that last summer at home. In fact, I began doing the opposite. I'd just sit and soak in the atmosphere, that familiar, friendly tumultuous confusion.

When I got to college, I started learning things about myself that I never would have figured out had I not left home.

My friends from high school all grew up with me and my crazy family and always loved spending time with them, even when I'd had enough. It was a running joke that most people would get a kick out of being a fly on the wall of one of our family vacations (which are, in a word, unique). But the people I hung out with at home were all so accustomed to my style of life that it never rattled them.

• • •

At Davidson, though, the fact that I'd grown up in a house full of boys became glaringly apparent.

Showering in the locker room after basketball practice one day, I couldn't find my loofah, so I shrugged, poured body wash on one of my teammates', and began lathering up my legs. We shared and borrowed everything else, I reasoned, from hairbrushes to deodorant to sports bras, so why was this any different? At home, all five of the Ottaway kids used the same shower. I was initially the one to buy the loofah at home and to use it, but I began to suspect that my brothers started to use it too. So I got another one -- they used that also. It didn't really bother me, and nobody ever made an issue of it.

Anyway, this particular teammate -- we'll call her Kathryn -- called from another shower, "Can someone pass down my light blue loofah?"

I made a face and began rinsing it off, preparing to toss it over to her.

"Why's there soap on it?" she demanded indignantly a few seconds later. "Did you use it?"

I laughed uneasily, not sure what to say. "Um ... maybe?"

"Amanda!" Kathryn exclaimed. "That's disgusting!"

"No, no, I just did my legs, I promise!" I insisted. That was the day I learned that while it may be OK to take a squeeze of someone's shampoo if mine ran out, it was absolutely forbidden to borrow a looofah.

Another time, when we were sitting at dinner, I was wrestling with a piece of steak on my plate. Tongue between my teeth, I struggled to keep the slippery piece of meat in one place with my fork as I sawed it awkwardly with my knife.

My friend looked over at me and said, in the most scornful voice imaginable, "Why do you cut like your hands are broken?"

All I could do was laugh. At home, we had a pair of heavy-duty scissors we called our "kitchen scissors."

When you're serving five hungry youngsters, time is of tremendous necessity. So my parents, at the suggestion of my aunt (who has three children), bought these scissors and used them to cut all our food. When we got old enough to cut our own, impatient as we all were, we continued to use the scissors -- it didn't bother me in the least to stab the piece of meat with a fork in one hand and cut it like a piece of paper with the other, then do the same for whichever brothers were too little to cut their own. Nobody saw me except my family, and the boys who could all did the same thing, so it didn't really matter.

When friends visited for dinner, they eased flawlessly into this culture -- try it sometime! -- but it has since occurred to me that perhaps many people in the world consider it extraordinarily offensive to touch your food with your fingers, to belch loudly at the table, and to chug your milk, slam the cup down and, with the back of your hand, swipe at the excess across your upper lip -- all thrice-daily activities where I grew up.

• • •

Not to say that our parents didn't encourage good manners. We all went to Catholic mass every Sunday (except my dad, who is Presbyterian). We did well in school; we had lots of friends; our parents both held good, steady jobs and were active in the community; we lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.

But most evenings, one or two of us were away at practice, another two were rushing to practices of their own, and yet another was headed to a friend's. Meals were, therefore, rushed. Always delicious -- my mom is an excellent cook -- but always eaten as quickly as possible. Also, if you wanted seconds, you better be sure and eat your first helping faster than everyone else ate theirs. Manners were never really a big deal in my house.

It is to this day a conscious effort for me to eat slowly, to cut neatly and not to talk with my mouth full. I often forget to swallow my burps, check my teeth in the back of my spoon, and, needless to say, have endless difficulty on dates with table etiquette.

Dinner-table conversation is also an issue. In the Ottaway house, we talked about everything at the dinner table, no-holds-barred. It was all guys -- they didn't care! But interestingly enough, some people don't want to hear about the volcano-sized wart on your middle toe while they're chewing on their green beans.

Speaking of dates, the way I act around boys is likely the reason I am currently single. I never played with Barbies; I owned two once, and I tore their heads off for reasons I cannot recall. Instead, Luke and I vroomed Hot Wheels all around our playroom and beat each other up for the biggest piece of cake. I feel simultaneously awkward and at ease around guys my age, mainly because I'm not sure which way to comport myself. Should I crack the latest crude joke I've heard, to make them laugh? Or should I sit demurely, not curse, cross my legs and only say dainty things like, "Oh my God" and "That's soooo cute!"?

I've never been a girly girl, and I've always scorned that type. I know sports. I know what's happening when I watch an athletic contest, and I don't pretend to be confused to get attention from the males in the room. I burp a lot and I curse like a sailor and I have big muscles and I wear T-shirts five times a week, and my brothers don't care about these things. They love me anyway, and they look up to me as an example.

But other boys -- I'm pretty sure other boys feel uneasy around me, because I often act like one of them, because I grew up surrounded by them. I remain, however, firmly convinced that the man I marry someday will love me especially for these reasons.

• • •

Despite everything -- despite the social awkwardness, the questionable habits, the cynically amused, sophisticated college friends -- I wouldn't trade the way I was raised for the world.

From day one, my parents could not have been more caring and selfless.

We were brought up to see the beauty in everyday life. We were all allowed to borrow Dad's video camera and write, direct and perform our own movies; we also took pictures, listened to audiobooks in the car and were encouraged at a young age to tackle the classics: "The Prince and the Pauper," "The Gift of the Magi," "Huckleberry Finn." We read hungrily and shamelessly, often at the dinner table (all of us are huge Harry Potter fans).

We conducted deep philosophical conversations there as well, when we weren't gulping down everything in sight. We were always encouraged to think, to analyze and, most of all, to write and express creativity. We were taught to watch TV commercials with a critical eye and to question the world around us.

If one of us were extra hungry, which was often, Mom would willingly fork over her pot roast and get by on salad. She sat and helped us with our homework endlessly; memorized every jean, shoe and shirt size and medical condition; and kept the household in order with a gentle, watchful eye.

Two, and almost three, of my brothers are taller than me now. The youngest is now over a decade old, and they are all becoming their own extraordinary people, with developing personalities, girlfriends and worries of their own. I have always felt protective of each of them, but those roles are gradually reversing and they are becoming the ones taking care of their big sister.

Someday, our children will hear stories about their aunt and uncles' crazy escapades and laugh and proceed to involve themselves in silly antics of their own, and their blue-eyed parents will simply shrug, smile -- and use scissors to cut the Thanksgiving turkey.