By Alexa West
I come from a tradition of big – and often loud and chaotic — families.
My early ancestors traveled to the New World with six of their seven children in tow. When my grandpa was a boy, he shared three-bedroom house with 13 siblings. He, in turn, reared seven children.
The story of my big family starts in France with Pierre Miville and Charlotte Maugis. Originally from La Rochelle, France, Pierre and Charlotte desired new opportunities. So in the late spring of 1648, the couple set sail to Quebec, Canada.
With six of their seven children in their care, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a three-month voyage, according to genealogy documents. After living in Quebec for decades, some of the family members moved to Argyle, Minnesota. That’s where Leonard Deschene, who would become my grandfather, was born.
“My folks came over from Canada,” Grandpa Lenny said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know why they came here, probably just finding a way to settle.”
Continuing the crowded crew
Born the 11th of 14 children, Leonard Deschene, now 83, grew up on a farm two miles east of Argyle. In the small town only 40 miles from the border of North Dakota, his family raised cattle, wheat, barley, oats, hay, chickens, turkeys and hogs.
“You name it,” he said, “we had it.”
He milked the cows, baled hay for the winter and did other miscellaneous chores around the modest home that sheltered the 16-person family.
The quaint house had three bedrooms: six girls in one room, eight boys in another and the parents in the third. The living quarters were tight with two to three children sharing twin beds.
“It was crowded alright,” Grandpa Lenny said. “But we made out pretty well. Sometimes, we got in a couple tiffs, but nothing too bad.”
Year-round the farm stayed full of noise and commotion whether it was from the tractor plowing the fields or the children playing.
In the summer, the boys played catch and liked to throw a baseball over the roof of their house. They rode bareback on the workhorses, ran around the property and played kick the can. Sometimes after dinner, they’d even play ping pong on the kitchen table.
“We all got along pretty well,” Grandpa Lenny said. “We had nobody else.”
On a new path
After turning 20, in 1952, Leonard left the Minnesota farm to find work at an aircraft company in California. Only a year later, he entered the Army. He was stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas, but on his weekends off, he went to Grand Island, Nebraska, the hometown of one of his buddies. There, he met Marguarite Meister, who later became my Grandma Marcy.
“We all got together to go dancing,” said Grandpa Lenny, reminiscing about the love of his life who died nearly 10 years ago. “It was a Saturday night, so there was a live band. We danced the waltz.”
Grandma Marcy was born in Elsy, Nebraska. She was of Irish and German descent, according to Grandpa Lenny, who doesn’t know the specifics of her ancestry.
Nevertheless, the two settled down in Grand Island, where their seven children would be born.
English ancestral links
My mother was the third oldest, a brown-eyed girl most commonly known as Lynn. At 21, she started dating a lanky man with bright red hair. The man— Philip Walter West Jr. — would one day become my father.
He was from the East Coast with limited knowledge of his family. This was mostly because his father died when he was 19. Since this tragedy, Philip only speaks with his brother, Mike. He no longer stays in contact with his mother or sister.
But according to familysearch.org, his family has links to 1697 England. There, his ancestors lived in a village in South Newton, Wiltshire.
As I have learned more about my family, I have realized several things: We are big, we are loud and we are chaotic. But by some miracle, somehow, everything always works out. And I believe that it is our unity, our ability to stay together, to embrace the chaos instead of fighting it, that makes us so indestructible.