08/28/2010 10:40 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Good, Sacred Memory From a Family Reunion

Clear Lake, Iowa -- Recent demographic studies point to the graying of America as birthrates decline, life expectancy increases and the nation faces the social and economic consequences of a 65 and older population that the U.S. Census Bureau says will account for almost 20 percent of the nation's citizenry by 2030.

But don't point the finger of blame at my German immigrant grandparents, Joseph and Elizabeth Eisele, who did more than their part to assure that their adopted country, or at least Iowa and its neighboring states, would have sufficient manpower, and womanpower, to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.

This despite the fact that two of their grandchildren, who are among my 23 first cousins and siblings, are celibate Roman Catholic priests.

I'm just back from a family reunion with 14 of my 18 cousins and siblings who are still living, in this pleasant resort community surrounded by lush cornfields and giant wind turbines that march Don Quixote-like across the flat landscape of northeastern Iowa.

Now our 60's, 70's and 80's, we were accompanied by many of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. According to a family tree compiled by my cousin Fr. Paul Eisele, my father and his brother and their three sisters produced 23 grandchildren, myself included, most of us before World War II.

We 23 grandchildren produced in turn 72 great grandchildren, most of them now part of the aging baby boomer generation, who in turn have generated a total of 126 great-great grandchildren, some of whom are still having babies. At last count, there are 34, with a 35th expected in September. Talk about prolific families.

It isn't often that one is exposed to as much family history as I just was, and discovers things my forebears either didn't know of chose not to tell me. For example, I learned that I have a Jewish great grandmother, which I'll tell you about in a minute. (Now I can tell Jewish jokes as well as Catholic jokes: A priest and the rabbi walked into a bar -- oh, never mind.)

What my family get-together really reminded me of was that America was built by people like my grandparents, who fled their native country in search of a new life in a new land, not unlike the millions of others who fled political and religious oppression and lack of opportunity in years past, and are still coming..

My grandfather, Joseph Eisele, came to the U.S. in 1886 at the age of 19 with his parents and two brothers and a sister from the Bavarian town of Neufrau, Germany. They settled in Pontiac, Ill., where in 1894 he married Elizabeth Kerker, one of four sisters whose family also emigrated to Illinois from Germany at about the same time. The first four of their six children, including my father, were born in Pontiac before the family moved to a farm in Kossuth County in northern Iowa in 1902. In 2002, the farm was recognized at the Iowa State Fair as one of Iowa's "centennial farms" in the same family for 100 years, and is still operated by a great-great grandson.

(A not-so-quick aside here: As the unofficial family history, I visited Pontiac in 2002 to research my grandparents' lives when I discovered a tragic story about a distant relative -- I wasn't able to establish the exact relationship. Anyway, as the Pontiac newspaper reported on Jan. 23, 1941, Martin Eisele, 54, was arrested and charged with intent to kill after he attacked a deputy sheriff and U.S. marshal who came to his farm near Pontiac to take his 23-year-old son into custody for draft evasion. Ironically, another son was serving in the Army in Korea at the time.

In an ensuing gun battle, the son was fatally wounded and the father was shot five times. He survived but was later sentenced to one-to-14 years in the state penitentiary at Joliet. I couldn't find out how long he served, but he was released and returned to Pontiac, where he died in 1951. His obituary in the Pontiac newspaper made no mention of his tragic past. Lesson: Don't mess with the Eiseles.)

Back to the family reunion. While Joseph and Elizabeth Eisele's descendants are scattered across the country, most still live in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota. They are widows and widowers, single parents and divorced parents, farmers and doctors and lawyers and priests and corporate executives and Wall Street investment managers and high school teachers and college administrators and government officials and yes, even journalists like myself are among them.

But the undisputed star of this reunion was my late Aunt Lydia Bisenius, who with her husband Jim produced five children and 30 grandchildren, evenly divided between boys and girls, and a grand total of 73 great grandchildren, as well as 26 great-great grandchildren.

All five of her children were present, including four still living in Iowa: Luellla Hoft (4 children, 10 grandchildren and five great grandchildren); Maxine Connor (eight children, 20 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren); Bonnie Kavanaugh (five children, 15 grandchildren and four great grandchildren) and Clem Bisenius (eight children and 16 grandchildren, including one, Joe Bisenius, a pitcher in the Washington Nationals farm system who was recently promoted to the Nationals top minor league affiliate in Syracuse). A fifth Bisenius cousin, Joan Woksa of Rochelle, Ill., has five children and 12 grandchildren.

Then there's Aunt Mary Bode's four children, who were all there -- they have 16 grandchildren and 27 great grandchildren; Aunt Jenny Kollasch's family -- Fr. Merle Kollasch, who studied at Louvain, Belgium and said Mass for us, and has three siblings with ten children and 14 grandchildren; my father Albert's family -- I am one of six children, three of whom died as infants -- and my two brothers and I have eight children and 10 grandchildren; then there's Uncle Frank's son Fr. Paul Eisele and his brother Bob, who has four children and two grandchildren; and finally, Aunt Alice Foley's four children and two grandchildren.

Oh yes, my Jewish great grandmother. My two priest cousins, Frs. Paul and Merle, visited my Grandfather Eisele's hometown in Germany last year, where they discovered that his mother's name was Anna Rosenbaum. When they asked the woman at the local Catholic parish who showed them my grandfather's birth records if any of the Rosenbaums still lived there, she said, "Oh no, they all died in the Holocaust."

Even though I never knew my Grandfather Eisele, who died before I was born, and I remember my Grandmother Eisele only as a bedridden old lady whom I visited as a boy, I feel fortunate for having been a part of such a large extended family with its wholesome middle American values.

As I said in a eulogy at my mother's funeral in 1984, the debt all of us owe to our families and the importance of never losing touch with our origins was beautifully and powerfully expressed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. As the youngest brother Alyosha tells a group of boys at the funeral of their friend:

"You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days."

I returned from my family reunion reassured that whatever the uncertain and unpredictable future holds for me and the members of my extended family, we are all safe to the end of our days.