By Riley Bowden

The Irish. Everyone thinks they know everything about the Irish.

Here is where I want to dispel every assumption about Irish families, but the reality is I can’t.

Yeah, my family loves carbs. Bread, potatoes, you name it. We love it, and we aren’t afraid to admit it.

Wherever my mom’s side holds a family reunion, the location pretty much becomes the third most populated city in South Dakota. We all genuinely try to remember everyone’s name, but it seems like there is a new name to remember every other month. My mother is one of 10 children. Three branches of her family’s tree have more than six children — and counting.

Big families, carbs and Catholicism. That’s the big three. When I’m having an issue, my mom is quick on the draw with the patron saint I can pray to for a resolution.

When you grow up in a big family, I guess it is natural to wonder where the hell all of these people came from.

 ***

My mother, Rebecca, is the daughter of Elgin Edward Lemon and Ann Keating.

Elgin died before I was born. I never got to know his side’s story. His grandparents came to America by way of Germany in the mid-1800s and settled in the Midwest. His parents were farmers, he was in the Navy during World War II and, according to my mom, he liked routines. And disliked when they were broken.

Ann was raised in Yankton, South Dakota, where she still lives and where five of her 10 children live. The Keating side of the family is so well documented someone could write a book about them.

I have gotten the best impression of the roots of my family from the stories I have heard about the Keatings. My dad, Jeff Bowden, is from a small, tight-knit family. I haven’t ever gotten to know much about his side outside of my grandparents and my one aunt’s family.

Ann’s paternal grandparents, Edward and Mary Keating, came to America from Ireland in the mid-1800s and met in Wisconsin. They had 14 children; only 10 lived into adulthood. John Laurence was the 14th child born to Edward and Mary. He is my grandmother’s father.

Rumor has it Mary, who was widowed when John was five, had a tough time keeping John in check. He was a big fighter (check fighting Irish off the Irish assumptions list). He only ever attained a fourth grade education, which wasn’t all that uncommon.

John grew up and moved to Yankton, where he began working at his brother Frank’s creamery. Keating Creamery would later be called Keating Dairy, but it started out selling only butter. When milk was added to the list of products, it could officially be called a dairy.

Mary liked Wisconsin because it reminded her of Ireland. Her children working in South Dakota got her to move West in the early 1900s, but she moved back to Wisconsin two years later because the plains weren’t enough like her old country.

***

My grandma Ann’s mother was Patricia Hart. She was John Keating’s second wife. He had two children with his first wife, who died in 1922 of tuberculosis. John and Patricia had five children together.

Patricia was my great grandmother’s name on her birth certificate, but everyone called her Bob. Her father, Patrick, who had three daughters and a son at the time Patricia was born, wanted to name another son Bob. So he called his daughter Bob.

Patrick was born in Canada. His parents, Cormac and Winifred, both came to Canada from Ireland because it was $10 cheaper than sailing to America.

Patrick moved from a small town in Ontario to Minnesota by way of covered wagon. He married my great-great grandmother Ellen in Minnesota. Ellen’s parents were both born in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Her mother paid her way to America by agreeing to work as a maid for two years in the ship captain’s home in New York.

My great grandmother Patricia was Pat and Ellen Hart’s youngest child.

My great aunt described her mother as “CATHOLIC” — in capital letters. She was a heavy religious influence on her children. One of her children, Larry, became a priest. Another, Ginner, became a nun — Sister Angeline.

Grandmother Ann was influenced by her mother as well. My mother remembers Sundays when my grandparents would lug 10 children to mass. Everyone attended Catholic grade school. Ann played the organ at church.

She learned piano by ear. She is 89 and in the late stages of Alzheimer’s now so she does not play piano. I haven’t even heard her talk in the last five years. Even when she struggled to remember the names of her children though, she could still play piano. You could whistle her a tune and she would be able to play the entire song. It was incredible to see how piano was what she remembered best.

***

Big families, carbs and Catholicism.

I grew up in a house with six people. We have always been competitive. We stress out our mother with our arguments. But when I need advice, or just need to vent, I have someone to confide in.

My siblings and I give my mom grief when we all get back together and dinner is, like clockwork, pork loin and potatoes. In between the banter at the table, we jokingly ask mom when the menu will be different.

The answer is never — and we’re alright with that.

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