Michelle Dubert-Bellrichard 2014-02-11 11:23:03
I had seen my grandpa’s name in writing before. He had written me boxes of letters when I was a kid, telling me how much he loved me and that he couldn’t wait for my sister and me to visit. There is a copy of his obituary in my parents’ keepsake cabinet with his name, Lyle Bellrichard, sprawled across the top in bold letters that I studied after his death. That name was so familiar, so common. I had been surrounded by it in so many ways that it began to lose its uniqueness. I would always think of it fondly, as I was close to my grandpa, but it just became a name. However, that feeling of apathy toward my father’s family name rushed out of me one day while I was working a shift on the processing floor at the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). Fortunately, my work station at WHS is positioned next to the friendly people working with local government documents who are eager to get to know their fellow Processors. One student worker and I shared conversations about our cats and families and debated who had the strangest name. Since my parents could not decide on whose last name to give their children, a hyphen was stuck between “Dubert” and “Bellrichard,” making me the only student in my grade school who was allowed to abbreviate her last name to a set of initials. Despite my extraordinary case, we quickly realized that we were both blessed with unique surnames that very few people could pronounce but most could remember because of their oddities. My oddities came in handy that fateful morning at WHS as I was asked by this student worker if I knew a Nettie Bellrichard. I did not recognize the name when I heard it, but because Bellrichard is not a common name around these parts, I inquired about the document she was holding in her hands. The record was a petition for aid for which this unknown Nettie had applied in 1916. I was slightly intrigued at this point but still unsure of whether I was connected to this woman. As we looked deeper into the document, there was his name— Lyle Bellrichard—listed as a dependent of Nettie. Even though I had seen that name thousands of times, I was shocked. In an instant I turned into the little girl from years ago who was excited to see her grandpa on weekly visits. When I saw that name I yelled out, “That’s my grandpa!” Suddenly, I was surrounded by senior archivists who had seen this kind of discovery many times in their careers—you’d figure they’d be numb by now—yet they were just as excited. We celebrated by telling everyone within shouting distance about what had just happened. In honor of the good news, my supervisor granted me an excuse from Work for five minutes to photocopy this record; later I found free time to call my dad with the story. My elation continued through five hours of classes and the evening until I went to sleep that night. Why was this document such a big deal? I wasn’t joyous about the fact that my great-grandmother had to sign up for the dole after her husband died, leaving her to care for two children. I wasn’t thrilled to learn that my grandpa was only two years old when he suffered the loss of his father. Nettie’s petition for aid both saddened me and raised many questions, but even so, I still grinned like a lunatic, similar to the time I met the actor Kevin Bacon when I was in high school (an eighteen-year-old girl couldn’t ask for anything more). To me, this document was a broken story that I had to piece together. When I spoke with my father shortly after the discovery, he started filling in some of the missing information: Nettie’s husband died of tuberculosis and they had to leave Canada and move back to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to be with family. Even though I know very little of the Bellrichard half of my name, I started tracing their story in my head with the little information I was given that day. In mere seconds I was given a name for my great-grandmother, a woman I had no prior knowledge of, and I learned how her family struggled but still managed to survive, despite so many tragedies. And the only reason I was able to understand the people listed on this petition was because of my grandpa and his name. This piece of my family’s past did indeed make me proud. It showed the hardships my grandpa faced in his life, and somehow I feel like his determination to persevere has been passed on to me. This has been one of my favorite days at work, and it reaffirmed why I want a place in the archival profession.
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