By Christine Galeone, Contributing Writer
Hudson – Is it possible to move forward into the future while looking at the past? Doris (Parker) Blais Bonnell, a genealogist and genealogy instructor, thinks so. That’s what she’s been doing for nearly her whole life.
“If you don’t look back over your shoulder, there’s so much that’s buried back there,” she said.
What she’s unearthed “back there” is nothing short of amazing. Hidden in her family tree were horse thieves, war heroes, Scottish nobility and historical figures Captain John Parker, Eli Whitney and Rebecca Nourse (known as Rebecca Nurse). Her fascination with genealogy has also uncovered a great deal of joy.
When she was 8 years old and growing up in Westborough, she adored her grandfather, Charles Otis Parker. Besides teaching his granddaughter about beekeeping, he would tell her family stories. But, Bonnell recalled, when he revealed to her that he didn’t know anything about one of his grandmothers – even her name – Bonnell was stunned. Because the curious child couldn’t understand how that was possible, she started taking notes when he spoke about the past, and she visited the Westborough Library to explore the history of the town where she and previous generations had lived.
Even though she wouldn’t realize what she had been doing until she was an adult and a friend told her about genealogy, that childhood curiosity is what launched her passion for studying ancestry.
“I have always been interested in family history,” said Bonnell. “It’s just so fascinating. You never know what you’re going to discover.”
In 2003, two years after Bonnell retired, a friend whom she had attended Framingham State College with encouraged her to teach genealogy. With that encouragement and a desire to share her passion with others, she taught a course at Assabet After Dark’s Adult Continuing Education program for 12 years. A member of the Middlesex Chapter of the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists, she now gives presentations at historical societies and is considering teaching small groups of individuals next year.
Bonnell said she wants to continue to share her love of discovering family history with others. Warm and effervescent, Bonnell recounted how much genealogy has brought to her life. It has led her to destinations, including Canada and France, surprised her in ways she couldn’t have imagined, and inspired her to find strength in courageous family ancestors who have gone before her. It has also connected her to her ancestors in a more meaningful way. When she found the toppled headstone of a Civil War veteran, for instance, she honored her ancestor by having the headstone put back in its proper place and secured.
Additionally, she appreciates the life skills it has taught her. She believes that a systematic, focused approach to problems is as helpful in life, as it is in genealogy. She also enjoys the epiphanies it brings.
“I’ve found out so many things about myself that I didn’t know,” she said. “You have a continuity of who you are.”
And the mother of three, grandmother of 10, and great-grandmother of seven (with one happily on the way), has a home library full of notebooks that include photos and details from all of their lives. She also has notebooks containing their family history, so that the people most precious to her can find their own life-enhancing discoveries.
“It’s a legacy that I will be leaving for them,” she said.
Currently, Bonnell, who lives in Hudson with her husband, Bradley Bonnell, is thrilled to have more time to pursue the fascinating hobby that has brought her so much joy.
“How could I possibly be bored with life?” she asked. “Every day, I’m finding something new. It’s wonderful!”