Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is seen last December at Germania Cemetery in Galloway Township, where she decorated the graves of several family members, including her husband, George, twice each year. She is now buried in the cemetery herself.

Photo provided by Thomas family

Emily Thomas grew up without much family, mainly in foster homes. But by the time she died last month, at age 96 in her Absecon home, her family tree had almost as many branches as Bank of America.

Thomas and her husband, George, had 13 children before he died, at 56. And by the time all her kids had their families, Emily ended up with about 200 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, by her family’s count.

At her last family reunion, last summer, almost 250 people showed up. The party was at a small farm owned by Emily’s son, Howard, and his wife, Peg, in Egg Harbor Township. Peg figures that at least 2 of their 10 acres were taken up just with parking for the Thomas family reunion.

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Everybody brings food to the reunions, but one staple on the menu is clams — a family tradition partly because George, the father of the clan, was a clammer. Peg Thomas remembers the order for that latest family reunion being 3,000 or so clams.

“You had to stand in line for food, that’s for sure,” she says.

Along with raising her family, Emily worked steadily for most of her life, including 35 years as a waitress at Galloway Township’s landmark Smithville Inn, when it was owned by Fred and Ethel Noyes. And after she left the inn, Emily was the Noyeses’ housekeeper.

To become the matriarch in a five-generation family, Emily had to start having her kids early. She was just 16 when she married George in 1932, and 17 when she had her first baby, Mary. Then she had her last son, Herbie, in 1962 — after an 11-year-gap following Howard, the 12th child.

Daughter Emily Brett lives now in Easton, Pa. She remembers her mom’s stories of growing up in foster homes, “some where they were mean to her and some where they weren’t. ... She’d tell us, ‘If I did that when I was a kid, I’d have gotten hit.’”

But as a mother, and grandmother, and beyond, Emily had an expansive definition of family.

“There are lots of adoptions and multiple marriages” in that count of 200 grandchildren and so on, says Bonnie Thomas, of Absecon, the wife of Emily’s son Charles.

“It’s a conglomeration — in-laws, outlaws, you name it,” Bonnie adds. “One (grandson) had four kids, his wife had four kids, and they took in two of her sister’s kids.”

To Emily, they were all family. And they were loyal — most of the 200 grandchildren, etc., still live in visiting distance, and they often did.

“Near the end, it got to where we should’ve just had a swinging door on the house, people were in and out so much,” Bonnie says.

And it’s fitting that Emily’s funeral was “standing-room only,” Bonnie says, adding that the family count at the service was just about 200 people.

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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