Rawd's Display Boards 2012
It seems there are no limits to the ways family history can be documented.
In the past two decades I have compiled and printed three score books and more coming. They are similar only in broad strokes: their origins and the material used to make them all differ. Many of them fall roughly into categories, for example those based on letters, those based on diaries or journals and those based on stories. One of the most challenging, largely because it was physically awkward, was made from the display boards of the Rempel and Thiessen families of Great Deer, Saskatchewan.
One of the principles governing my family history efforts is making family history accessible to the family. Diaries in tiny cramped handwriting must be deciphered and transcribed to be accessible, and footnoted to be comprehensible. Photographs without captions are meaningless two generations later. Display boards are accessible only at reunions where they can be seen.
My first cousin John Rawdon Bieber, called Rawd, was a family historian from his late teens. He made a point of seeking out the elders on both sides of his family, to sit with them and invite them to talk about their lives. He made copious notes and intended to make books of these family histories. This did not happen; he died in his fifties, having outlived medical prediction of a year to live by seven years. One of the projects he did complete was in the form of display boards, ten panels three feet by four feet intended to show the descendants of his great-grandparents, one being Elizabeth Niebuhr of the Aron line - the mother of his grandmother (and mine) Katharina Thiessen Rempel.
Not long before he undertook this project, the descendants of our grandparents Katharina and her husband Jacob Rempel had begun to have regular family reunions. To the third of these in 2002 in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Rawd brought his display boards. Through the period of the reunion his cousins and their families pored over them. Because of his in-depth research of the families, he had on display many pictures and stories which were new to the cousins. He took orders for making duplicates of the photographs.
There have been six Rempel Cousin reunions, the last in 2011 in Canmore, Alberta. There was the wish to continue them but the will was not present among us -- many of the cousins by 2011 were in or nearing our eighties. The passion for family history which was strong in Rawd and influenced others in our generation was not to be found, at least not to the extent of taking on the work of planning a reunion, in our younger generation. The value of the display boards, however, continued.
Shortly after the Canmore reunion, Rawd arranged for the display boards to come to me, which they did through the efforts of several of the cousins in a long chain. While ideally suited for display at a reunion, the boards are large and difficult to transport. My sister and I decided to transfer their content, word for word and picture by picture, to the pages of a book, and this was done. Picture us, I at the keyboard, and Mary struggling with reading off the extended captions and the stories from those boards! The pictures were easily removed to be scanned and included; the texts were glued down. We felt the effort was worth it. We made forty or so copies and sent them to all of the cousins and to a few other people we thought should have them. The display boards and the books made from them are but two of the ways by which Rawd's memory lives on.
When he approached his final illness, Rawd arranged that after he died, his family history material about the Rempels and the Thiessens would come to me, to do with it what I could. In August of this year, I heard from Rawd's spouse that the material would be on its way to me in a few weeks -- five or six boxes of it. I contemplated the arrival of the material with both excitement and a certain amount of dread. I am always excited with the arrival of new family history material, whether it be a listing of the changes in a cousin's family to be entered into the family tree database, or a "box of old stuff" which may contain wonders. The feeling of dread relates to my age, and the time and effort that will be required to make Rawd's material accessible to the extended family while I am still functioning well enough to complete the work.
There were just two of us among the thirty-odd people, grandchildren of Katharina and Jacob Rempel, who felt passionate about family history. My sister Mary and our brother Barry are interested, but not passionate about it; while they have been helpful, they have not initiated family history books or other material. Cousins Phyllis Siemens and Margaret Mehler are also interested and Phyllis has indeed produced a book, Kirghizstan to Canada, 2009, and Margaret has produced family calendars. I have detected no more than mild interest among my children's generation, which is why there have been no more Rempel cousin family reunions. That leaves those boxes of Rawd's to me and whoever of my nearest family can be persuaded to aid me. Some days the burden of being committed to connect FAMILY past, present and future is heavy, but I intend to shoulder it with enthusiasm and carry on, confident that the excitement of learning ever more about my forebears will keep me at it.
There will be another blog soon about Rawd's family archive. It arrived while I was in hospital for hip replacement surgery; David opened the boxes a couple of days after I was home. I have been working on it ever since. I have missed Rawd SO MUCH while working on his files that I need to call him consciously to my mind, which I have done by writing a running letter to him. I think this letter will become a part of a book entitled Dear Rawd. In it I tell him what I am doing with his archive, the challenges, the discoveries, the fascination of knowing him probably better from his archive than I did in person.