Thanksgiving Guest Columnist Biff Barnes: What My Mom Knew

Biff Barnes has been telling his sons, James and Ed, stories about family history for 33 years. Biff is an editor who specializes in creating family history books and memoirs. An educator, a journalist and a widely published San Francisco historian, he works with his wife, Nancy, as partners in Stories To Tell, a company which helps authors with editing services, consulting, book design and publishing. You can learn more at

Dear James and Ed,

It’s my 65th birthday today. So I’ll indulge myself in a little bit of reflection.

You guys know that I spend a lot of time telling clients about how to turn their genealogical research into family history books. As their editor I advise them to look beyond the facts they’ve uncovered to the family stories that reveal who those distant relatives were. For in their beliefs and character traits we will find things that shaped us. Family history offers a lens through which to understand who we are.

Looking back across more than half a century I can see the source of values that survive in me and which you have, each in your own way, inherited. Here are two of those touchstones.

The fall of my 4th grade year my teacher got pregnant. In those days the powers that be immediately pulled pregnant teachers out of the classroom. It was shortly before report cards when the substitute arrived. She did the grading. I got all “satisfactories”. That had never happened before. The only “satisfactories” I had gotten were in handwriting; the rest were “excellent.” My mother made an appointment for a conference with the teacher. I had to accompany her.

The teacher was quick to tell Mom what a good boy I was. Then she delivered the line that rings through my memory almost 60 years later: “Biff is a good average student.”

Mom looked her in the eye and said, “Biff will never be an average student. He knows that being average will never get him anywhere. He knows that he needs to work hard enough to be way above average.”

Mom probably understood what I did not. The substitute teacher had no idea who I or any of the other kids in my class were. She hadn’t been with us long enough to find out. Mom might have been looking at the teacher, but she was talking to me. The message was clear and simple: If you want to get anywhere in life, you had better be willing to work for it.

But there’s a flip side to me that seems to believe something diametrically opposite to my Mom’s admonition about the value of hard work. Your Mom, Nancy, Jersey girl that she is, likes to say to me, “Biff, you’re such a Californian.” It’s a reference to the feeling that somehow, through sheer good fortune, I’ll grab the gold ring on life’s merry-go-round.

It is, I think, a particularly western belief that you will discover the path to “the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” It’s a belief that brought the 49ers across the country. I think I probably inherited it from a man I never met, my grandfather.

An itinerant printer, he traveled the West looking for his main chance. The quest took him to Alaska to find gold in1898. He had more success there as a boxer than as a miner and eventually headed east with pockets empty. On the way he stopped in South Dakota long enough to meet and marry my grandmother before turning west once again.

This time he sought fortune by purchasing a hog ranch in Roseville, California. Hog cholera depopulated the ranch a couple of years later. My grandparents moved again, this time to San Francisco, where my grandfather opened a print shop near 29th and Mission. Grandpa never got rich. Fortune lay just beyond the horizon, but he always believed that someday he’d get there. It’s a faith in the future that my Dad passed on to me.

Knowledge of family stories doesn’t require that you carry them on. It presents you with a choice of which character traits, beliefs and values you want to embrace and which you’d just as soon relegate to the past. My own life has provided a good deal of evidence of the value of hard work and almost none that I will discover a gold nugget that will lead to the mother lode. So when you listen to the family stories it’s useful to have a healthy dose of objectivity.

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