Large Family

Size is relative . . .

Growing up as the youngest of five, I didn’t consider our family to be particularly “large.” Granted, my dad’s siblings had two kids each, so by comparison, maybe we were. But Mom’s brother also had five, and compared to the families in my Catholic grade school with seven, eight, or more, my parents were definitely slackers.

Fast forward 20 years or so, and my gaggle of four children looked rather large — certainly larger than my siblings and I had looked earlier. Different eras beget different expectations and perceptions. I managed to have several friends with four or more children, though, so I guess when you run with a “bad crowd,” some of it rubs off . . . .

Within Mike’s and my ancestries, there are several substantially-sized families. Since they were primarily rural farmers, having many children (read that: free farm workers!) was beneficial. And of course, not all necessarily survived to adulthood — a sad reality. If I have to choose someone to be the “winner,” though, it needs to be my dad’s cousin, Paul.

Paul was two and a half years younger than my dad. While they both were born in the same Wisconsin town, Paul remained there all his life, while my dad’s parents moved the family back to the Chicago when my dad was about six. But he and Paul would have known each other when they were young, and undoubtedly would have seen each other when my dad’s family drove up to visit his paternal grandparents.

There was even a period of time when Paul came down to Illinois and worked for my dad, cleaning rugs with him. It was a long drive to our house, so I believe Paul stayed with my parents during the week, returning home for the weekends. It wasn’t a long term arrangement, but worked out conveniently for both of them for a while.

So, where are the kids? And how many? Well, Paul and his wife had sixteen children over twenty years. Yes, you read that right. Hopefully I have them all in my file! No twins or triplets included. They neglected having one the year I was born, but you were pretty much guaranteed to find someone close to you in age!

I had heard Dad talk about Paul and his wife, and knew they had a lot of kids, but distance and logistics meant we didn’t see them much. But one summer we stopped by their house on the way home from a vacation. It was a fun afternoon for me, with several kids close to my age to play with. Ever the gracious hosts, they invited us to stay for dinner. It wasn’t fancy: hamburgers grilled outside, with some side dishes. It was typical summer fare.

Of course, with such a large family, they had a deep freezer, so pulling out an extra package with a dozen hamburgers (to feed us) was no big deal! And I’m sure some of the older kids (okay, it was the 1960s . . . we know it was probably the girls . . .) were pressed into service, helping their mom prepare the sides. I was at that wonderful age of not being so young that I needed to be watched by my parents, and not being old enough to be actually helpful (besides, I was “company”), so I just got to play with my second cousins. Not that I knew they were second cousins back then . . . While I don’t remember all the details of the day, or the entire menu, I do remember seven extra mouths to feed being treated as “no big deal.”

Driving home after dinner, my mom and I discussed having a truly large family. Somehow their rule that no toys were allowed in the living room was mentioned. I was shocked! “Not even one?” I asked my mom. No, none. She reminded me that even with just ONE item from each child, that would be 16 things, making the living room pretty cluttered! Zero tolerance. I don’t remember where they could play inside (it was summer, so we were probably outside the whole time!), but the living room was not the place!

Transportation would have also been an issue. I don’t think 12-passenger vans were a thing back then, and the Partridge Family hadn’t shown us the idea of using an old school bus! Perhaps they lived close enough to church to walk there, or maybe they attended in shifts? I don’t know, but somehow, like everything else in their lives, they made it work, without a lot of fuss.

You may have read thus far and sensed this post is a little different than most. Where are all the details? The photos? The footnotes? Their absence is no accident. While Paul and his wife have passed away, the kids (some older than me, some younger) are still alive. Even in this era of more of our life is online than we really want to think about, people are still entitled to a little bit of privacy. I was intentionally vague.

If I give too many details, even if they aren’t “potential identity theft” data, people could figure out the family. They don’t need to be put on parade. Close family members will know who I am talking about; more casual readers won’t. But those readers don’t need to know exactly who everyone is. I wasn’t tackling some research problem, where one needed to follow along, knowing who all the people were, and how they were connected. This was just a simple story about a good family with more than the average number of kids.

There’s nothing “magical” about large families. Neither they, nor small families, are better than the other. Each has challenges and difficulties that the other probably can’t relate to, or begin to understand. We need to try to accept and celebrate each family as it comes along. The world loses so much from missing either.


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