#249 – Dick Bernard: Beginning a family history

Monday I mailed the family history of my Dad’s French-Canadian family.
It is a weighty tome. Its 500+ pages read 3 lb 9.4 oz on the post office scale. It represents my efforts to condense 400 years of several families French-Canadian history in North America. More info: here and here.
Whether the book turns out to be a ‘weighty tome’ in an intellectual or even family interest sense remains to be seen. Other ‘scales’ will measure that, and I have no control over them. I did my best, collecting information over the last 30 years, and during the last year attempting to organize and make some sense of it. Being a family in 2010 means, already, that I have sent books to California and New Jersey and Montreal and Winnipeg and Santa Fe and many other places. The family is hidden in plain sight, everywhere. Like a bunch of needles in a haystack.
Mine is an ordinary garden variety kind of family, like the vast majority of families who have built every nation and community in every era in history.
I built this history around the families of my Grandma and Grandpa’s root families: on one side, Bernard and Cote; on the other Collette and Blondeau. (I did a similar history of my mother’s ‘side’ some years ago.) My French-Canadians came from an era where French-Canadian married French-Canadian, and above that, lived in a French-Canadian culture in a French-Canadian community, speaking French. When my Dad was born in 1907, the fairly rigid ethnic boundaries were breaking down in northeastern North Dakota, but even so, when Grandpa died in 1957, a majority of the 116 names (usually the wife, it seems) who signed the book at his funeral in Grafton, North Dakota were French surnames, and some of the non-French surnames I know had French maiden names. That is how it was, then.
I like to think – again, the critics will be the judge – that this document I labored over for the last twelve months approaches the status of legitimate history.
Such histories are difficult for common people to do.
My roots families were farmers and grain millers and sometimes small merchants, and for the most part not very educated in the formal sense. There were no journals to quote from; no treasure trove of family letters found in somebodies attic; no scribes recording their daily activities.
Still, once one is identified as having an interest in the history of the family, information begins to accumulate, and it did, in my project. I gratefully acknowledge at least 37 people who had at one time or another over the 30 years provided information of one kind or another. And I was lucky in that this family had some sense that photographs might be useful in documenting its members.
Importantly, I could use stories about the French-Canadian experience gleaned from a newsletter I edited for over 15 years. There are about 50 of these in the book, presented as they were presented in the ‘cut and paste’ days of the 1980s, forward.
And now it’s done…at least for me. I shipped the several boxes that constitute the archives off to the University of North Dakota library, ready for some unknown researcher in the future.
I noted, in all of this, that people of my generation – I am 70 – are truly the final keepers of what can legitimately called ‘the old days’, before television, computers, rapid transportation and the like.
If memories are to be carried on, it is people like myself who are well advised to take on the task, now, before memory fails.

Dick Bernard and Family History Book September 28, 2010