Mother of 17 fills her life with her kids

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, May 11, 2014

JANESVILLE--Agnes Debroux, mother of 17, didn't hesitate when a visitor jokingly asked which child was her favorite.

“The one that needs me,” Agnes answered simply. “The ones that are sick or having problems.

“They're my favorites.”

Agnes, a trim woman of 87, has 16 living children. Their ages range from 44 to 66 years old. None are twins. The majority resides here or elsewhere in Wisconsin.

Today, Agnes will celebrate her day with an 11 a.m. brunch at her son's house. All but three, who live outside Wisconsin, will join her.

After bearing and rearing so many children, Agnes appears quite sane and centered. She seems to be a gentle, loving woman with a sense of humor—albeit with a bit of an edge—who revels in the family richness she has nourished. Agnes also has 35 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.

Not surprisingly, she has no pets.

Consider this: Most mothers have lived the frustration of confronting a misbehaving offspring only to run through all her children's names—sometimes even the dog's—before she hits on the right one.

How long could that go on in the Debroux house?

Agnes' daughter Arleen Bier, who was present during a recent interview with her mother, said her mom devoted her life to her children.

This is a woman who wore maternity clothes for more than 22 years.

Instead of girls' nights out, she sewed the families' clothes.

She blew off steam at the grocery store and at church.

Instead of romantic getaways, the family packed picnics and spent the day fishing—Agnes' husband loved to fish. The children played softball—they traveled with their own team—or watched the younger children.

Instead of an exciting job, Agnes and her kids gardened and canned 500 quarts of food a year. She presided over assembly lines of children that produced 50 gutted and plucked chickens ready for the freezer.

Despite the sign outside her Janesville home: “I childproofed my house, but they still get in,” Agnes continues to put her family first.

“There's always something almost every weekend,” Agnes said happily of the family gatherings.

They gather at each other's homes bearing food for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, baby showers, holidays and graduations. They stage open houses and siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews come and go all day.

If that isn't enough family togetherness, they congregate to watch the Packer games, which are usually followed by cards. Someone might spread the word he or she is lighting the fire pit that night. Just recently, one child and family took her out for dinner and visited long enough for Scrabble and popcorn.

All  members of the family are close, Agnes said.

“They might have their disagreements, but it never lasts,” she said. “The next time they get together, it's like it never happened. They are all the first ones to be there for each other.”

Large families weren't unusual up north when Agnes was growing up.

She comes from a family of eight and her husband a family of 18. Her sister had 12 children.

Agnes acknowledged with a smile that she didn't plan to have so many children, but she doesn't regret it, either. They are a testimony to her strong Catholic faith, which she relies on to navigate life.

Agnes and Alphonse Debroux moved to Janesville in 1955, when she was pregnant with her eighth child. He had gotten a job at Fairbanks Morse in Beloit. Through the years, the children attended a variety of schools, including St. John Vianney, St. Mary Catholic School, Edison and Marshall junior high schools and Craig and Parker high schools. At times, Alphonse worked three jobs and did woodworking on the side.

Alphonse loved babies and was a big help, so that made the kids easy, Agnes said.

The other children helped, as well.

“When I brought a new baby home, they were all so happy, so excited and ready to help with them,” Agnes recalled. “It didn't seem they were upset about it at all.”

The kids had chores to do and rules to follow. Agnes cooked and baked every day, including daily dessert. The kids helped each other with their homework and had jobs outside the home.

Agnes recalled people sometimes being shocked by the number of her children and wondering how she managed.

“I said, 'They came one at a time,'” Agnes said.

Agnes weathered a fire that destroyed their home and the death of a son at 16.

She recalls people trying to console her after her son's death, saying: “Well, you got all these other kids."

“That doesn't make any difference,” Agnes said.

“You still miss that one as much.”

Alphonse died of cancer in 1983, leaving Agnes a single mother with several kids still at home.

It doesn't seem possible anyone can go on after the death of a loved one, she acknowledged.

“But you can do it,” Agnes said. “You go on. I had to be there for them (the children). They didn't have anyone else.”

Agnes doubts a family could afford so many children today.

It was a different time then. Kids walked to school. Nobody locked doors. The hospital bill after her first child was $47, the doctor bill about $40, she recalled.

Like all families, they've had their issues through the years, but, overall, the kids have turned out well, she said.

They all graduated. They all own their own homes. All are working.

All good people, she said, adding that all are good to their mother.

“Mom must have done something right,” Arleen said.

Arleen said she is lucky to have such a big family.

“They're my best friends,” she said of her siblings.

“There is always someone to talk to, no matter what the situation is. People will come and help. You never feel alone,”

When other parents ask for child-rearing advice, Agnes might tell them not to coddle their children so much. She'll assure them that their kids will, eventually, one day grow up and mature.

“I'm not saying I did everything right,” Agnes said.

“You have a lot of different problems come up. I have regrets with some things. We all do.”

And she still worries about her children, even though some are in their 60s, she said.

“They are always your kids.”

On this Mother's Day, as she is doubtlessly surveying her bounty, she isn't feeling as if she missed anything.

She has her family, her health, her garden.

“I'm satisfied with what I got."

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