Week 8 – Heirloom

This week’s prompt is Heirloom. This topic could not have come at a better/worse time. Family heirlooms have been very much on my mind this past week and I’m having a hard time even  thinking about writing this blog post without tearing up. To me, heirlooms come in all shapes and sizes. Some are valuable and are worthy of lugging on Antiques Roadshow. Others have nothing but sentimental value. 

One inherited item I cherish is my grandmother’s diary. Marie Elizabeth O’Connell was born 28 May 1924 in Rhode Island. She passed away when I was less than two years old, so this diary means so much to me. I only have a few pages; I don’t know what became of the rest. The pages are from a large book, 11×14, and are yellowed and brittle. The pages I have are from 1939 and 1940 and she would have been 15 and 16 years old when she wrote them. The diary reads like you might expect from a teenager of that era. Or really, any era.  Lots of talk of boys, school, spending time with her friends, and dancing. She was taking shorthand, and used that for the bits she didn’t want anyone else to be able to read. 

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A few times she mentions my grandfather, Bill Shanley, whom she would marry 7 years later. Who says nice guys never win?

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Just a typical teenaged girl – impressed by a classy car even when the guy is not so hot!

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I just love these snippets into the life of a grandmother I never had the chance to know.

A lot of my ‘heirlooms’ relate to cooking…

My grandmother, Nancy Lewonis, was known for her baking. She made the best baked goods. She lived across the street from me while I was growing up, and I would love it when the phone would ring, with her on the other end, telling me to come over to get a loaf of raisin bread that had just come out of the oven. My mother would cut thick slices and I would hover over the toaster, waiting for my piece, ready to slather butter across every bit of surface area. Yum! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Nancy Sheffield Lloyd, or Mimi, as she was known to her grandchildren, was born on 2 August, 1923 in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Perhaps she would have been a stellar baker anyway (as so many of her generation were), but I wonder if her mother-in-law’s skills spurred her on to become even better. Nancy married Bernard Lewonis on 23 October 1942. Gramps’ mother was a pie-baker extraordinaire. Well, according to Gramps, anyway. He would often tell the stories of the many pies of all varieties his mother would bake on a Saturday.

Mimi made delicious pies with perfect crusts, but I loved her breads and muffins best. She passed away in 1997, and while Gramps did not take up baking her breads and pies, he did master Apple Crisp. I’ll never forget the first time he made it for a dessert following a family dinner. He surprised us all! After Gramps died in 2015, I inherited Mimi’s baking pans. They were thin aluminum, ancient, misshapen, scratched and dented, but baked like nothing you can buy today. There were two muffin pans and two loaf pans. I used the loaf pans the most. Quick breads and even meatloaf baked beautifully. And, they were so easy to clean. Nothing stuck. Knowing how much I loved them, my mother bought me a square aluminum baking pan a few years ago for Christmas. I like it and use it often, but it is just not the same. The last time I used one of the loaf pans was to make a loaf of cranberry bread for Thanksgiving 2017.

Mimi collected Franciscan Apple dinnerware and had every imaginable serving dish and accessory. Candle holders, glasses, teacups, butter dish, gravy boat, EVERYTHING! The dishes would come out of the china cabinet for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other family celebrations. The appleware was as much a part of each gathering as the family and food. After Gramps passed and the house was being sold, the tableware was divided. I took just a few pieces to round out my eclectic collection of dishes.


Over the years, I accumulated a hodgepodge of dishes that had belonged to other family members. A few pieces of Corelle to remember my Grandmother Hawkins, Pfaltzgraff bowls to remember my late Aunt Judy, etc. Every time I used one of my aunt’s bowls, I’d remember her loading up the bowl with pasta, me protesting that it was way too much, and her telling me to eat what I could. Every time I used a dish that had belonged to someone else, I was reminded of meals shared with the original owner. The Corelle makes me think of frozen fish sticks (yuck!) and lumpy mashed potatoes.


Of course, some heirlooms aren’t just sentimental and have monetary value as well. Years before my Grandmother Hawkins died, she passed her aunt’s ring on to me. Bertha Mae Brayton was born 23 June 1879. She was my grandmother’s father’s older sister. Her father, Charles Brayton, was a farmer. Her brothers were also farmers and Bertha may have been the first in her family to attend college. After finishing college, she worked as a bookkeeper in Providence, Rhode Island until 1912, when she was appointed Postmistress of the Post Office in Hope, Rhode Island. My grandmother said her Aunt Bertha was a formidable woman who didn’t take any guff from anyone. She never married. When she was in her 40’s, she decided to buy herself a diamond ring. It’s a stunning vintage ring in a setting with gold flowers and onyx accents. I don’t wear the ring often, but always get compliments when I do. 

I still have my precious diary pages and family jewelry, but no longer have my dishes or bakeware. Unfortunately, last week I lost 99% of the contents of my kitchen when a car missed a turn whilst fleeing the police, and crashed through my kitchen. I do still have one Franciscan apple glass and a saucer, now chipped. While I may have lost the physical objects, I still have my memories. And isn’t it the memories attached that make an heirloom so valuable?

Week 7 – Valentine

This week’s prompt is Valentine. My first thought was to share the love story of my grandparents, Bernard and Nancy Lewonis. Their story began in elementary school when she used to walk behind him on the way home from school, tossing pebbles at him. The pebble tossing story was much loved by their children and grandchildren and was told again and again. Each would declare the other the perpetrator.  After many years, my grandmother finally admitted that she had been the one throwing the stones. After that ‘rocky’ start, their love story had a happy ending. But not all do. I’ve chosen to write about one that didn’t.

In a departure from the typical genealogical blogpost, I won’t be providing any biographical details of this couple. My goal with this blog is to share discoveries I have made and to hopefully show that researching family history is far from boring! It is not my intent to hurt or upset anyone. In my research, I have unearthed long buried secrets that would likely upset people living today. While I’m all for full disclosure, and want to know everything there is to know, I understand that not everyone feels the same. This post is one of those secrets that I’m sure was thought to have been taken to the grave.

My paternal grandparents, Nick and Rita were childhood sweethearts. They grew up in the same neighborhood. He was a first generation Italian American, and she was of French Canadian and Irish descent. Nick was 5 years older. Their lives could not have been more different.

Nick’s father worked in a mill and his mother ran a variety store out of the first floor of their home. This was fairly common in the 1930’s and 40’s when they were growing up. Some of the stores even remained through the next few decades. There were quite a few in the small neighborhood they lived in. Coincidentally, my mother and her siblings grew up nearby, and they all remember the stores. They were great places to stop for a snack or a cold drink. With two sources of income, I imagine Nick’s family was a bit better off financially than some of their neighbors.

Like Nick’s father, Rita’s father worked in a mill. Rita’s mother did not work. Rita’s father was a veteran of WWI, and spent a lot of evenings at the VFW swapping war stories, having a few drinks, and spending money his wife could have made better use of. Rita’s father died young, and left 6 minor children. His wife found work in a factory, and the oldest daughter quit school to go to work as well. Rita was the next oldest, and after a while, she too quit school. Besides the age difference, it seems Nick and Rita’s home lives were also very different.

It has been said by one of Rita’s siblings that Nick’s parents did not approve of their relationship. Rita was just not good enough for their son. I don’t know how serious their relationship was, or for how long they dated before going their separate ways. When Rita was 17, she was married in New York City. Her husband William was 16 when they wed on 15 January 1945. He would turn 17 twelve days later..

In March of 1946, Rita and her husband had a son. In 1950, William petitioned the court for divorce and cited abandonment as the reason. The divorce documents state that he had not seen her since 1945. The divorce decree said they had no children together. I wonder if at the time he did not know he had a son. I know that as the child grew up, William would come visit and take him on outings, so William did eventually know they had a child together.

In the meantime, Rita had returned home. One day, Rita was in the variety store owned by Nick’s mother. Nick was working there at the time, and he and Rita rekindled their romance. The fact that they were both married to other people didn’t seem to be a concern to them. Rita’s youngest sister was about 9 years old at this time and remembers how much fun Nick was to be around and how deeply Rita loved him. In 1948 Rita found herself pregnant and gave birth to a daughter on 23 December 1948. She told her family that Nick’s family would not allow him to marry her. I guess that sounded better than telling them he was married. Though, she was also still married…

I don’t know if Rita and Nick continued seeing each other, or if they were on again/ off again. Before too long, Rita was pregnant again, and gave birth to a son on 18 September, 1950. Rita made the choice to place this child, my father, for adoption. With an absent husband and a married lover, she was struggling to provide for the two children she already had. I don’t know if she and Nick still continued seeing each other or if this pregnancy ended their relationship. Her divorce was finalized in December of 1950. In 1951 she married again and had 5 more children. That marriage was rather unhappy and also ended in divorce. Rita dated, but never married again. Two of her daughters have said how in love Rita was with Nick. She rarely said much about him, except to say that he had broken her heart.

I often wonder what Nick’s feelings were. Was she just a bit of fun? Or was he as madly in love as she was? Perhaps his family really did prevent him from marrying her. Maybe he was willing to divorce his wife, but his Italian, devout Catholic family wouldn’t hear of it.

I tend to think that Nick felt as Rita did. I don’t think he would have spent so much time with Rita’s family if she was just a casual fling. It makes me smile to think my father was born to a couple who loved each other, but circumstances kept apart.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Week 6 – Favorite Name

Favorite name? Ugh. It’s so tempting to skip this week! I’ve got names that some may find unique or unusual. Experience, Silence, Deliverance, Thankful… Though, if you have ancestors from colonial New England, you likely won’t bat an eye at these names. I’ve got names that I find unusual, but perhaps people who have been researching their French Canadian ancestry see as ordinary. Names like Isaie, Leocadie, and Exina.

One of my favorite names is Roger Williams. The Original Rebel is my 12th great grandfather. Given the boot by Massachusetts in 1636 for heresy, rabble-rousing, and spreading “new and dangerous opinions”, Roger gathered some like-minded friends, and traveled south a bit. He purchased a parcel of land from the Narragansett Indians and formed the settlement Providence Plantations.

There are also names that have been passed down through the generations. In some cases, the parent choosing the name had no idea it was a family name, or there was an adoption and the adoptive parents coincidentally chose a name that was in the birth parents family, causing the continuation of the name to be just a happy accident.

I’m pretty sure my grandmother told everyone she met after 1972 that my name went back 5 generations. The name Ellen began with my grandmother’s grandmother, Ellen Cylinda Andrews. Ellen Cylinda was born in Johnston, Rhode Island on 31 March 1854. Her daughter Mary Ellen Wilbur was born on 09 April 1887 most likely in Cranston, Rhode Island. Next in the line of Ellens was my grandmother, Hazel Ellen Brayton. Gram was born in Scituate, Rhode Island on 30 March 1916. My aunt was christened Judith Ellen Hawkins. When I was born my mother put some thought into my name. She wanted a name that wouldn’t generate a bunch of nicknames. She went through her mental Rolodex of women she knew, and remembered a woman named Ellen she had worked with at Sax 5th Avenue a few years before. She mentioned the name to my father who replied that his mother would be happy because Ellen was in her family beyond just being the middle name of her and his sister. It was settled – I was to be Ellen Lee.

Another name that has been passed down through the generations is Elizabeth. Even with an adoption in the family, the name has endured. The first Elizabeth was Elizabeth O’Donnell who was born around 1848 in County Donegal, Ireland. Her first daughter was born in Providence, Rhode Island 24 November 1871 and was given the name Rose, presumably after her mother Rosanna. Her second daughter was named Elizabeth. Rose gave birth to Elizabeth Marsden on 30 Aug 1899. Rose’s sister Elizabeth also named one of her daughters Elizabeth… Elizabeth Marsden’s daughter, my grandmother, was Marie Elizabeth. My mother is Elizabeth Rose. My sister and her daughter both have the middle name of Elizabeth.

Despite the number of unusual names and the over abundance of Johns, Marys, and Michaels, I have to say that Elizabeth is my favorite name. Whenever I hear it, it makes me think of the women I love and our maternal ancestors.

Week 5 – In The Census

One of the first things I learned when I started researching and using census records was to look at the neighbors of my ancestors. Quite often there were other family members living nearby. It turned out my groundbreaking research strategy was not as original as I thought… At an early conference I attended, I learned of the FAN Club principle. The term “FAN Club” was coined by renowned genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills and is a research strategy in which one expands their research to include the Friends, Associates, and Neighbors of an ancestor.

You never know what you will discover when looking at a census record. The information collected varied from year to year. The 1870 US Federal census told if an ancestor’s parents were foreign born. The 1900 US Federal census included immigration information. Here you could find out what year your immigrant ancestor arrived in the United States, how long they had been here, and whether or not they were naturalized. In 1910, the US Federal census revealed if your ancestor had served in the Civil War by indicating whether or not they had served in the Union or Confederate Army or Navy. The 1930 US Federal census indicates if the family owned a radio. That’s a fun little tidbit! There is so much information to be gained from Census records other than just the usual name, age, and location.

Canadian census records typically list the wife’s maiden name. Such great information for researchers! The UK census was conducted a bit differently than in the US. In the United States, the census taker went from door to door collecting the information from the person who was home at the time. In some cases, neighbors provided the information. As a result, ages tended to vary from census to census, names would often change spellings, etc. In the United Kingdom, a form was left with each household with the instructions that they were to complete it on a specific Sunday. The census taker would go around and pick up the reports on Monday. They would then transcribe them into their census books, and the originals were destroyed. With the exception of 1911. The household schedules were retained and if you’re lucky enough to have had ancestors in the area in 1911, you will see their signature on the form, and know that they completed all of the information. In 1911 my 3rd great grandmother was widowed from her second husband and living in Bolton, England at 35 Halstead Street with her three youngest children.

I spent a lot of time with my father’s parents growing up and heard many stories about the ‘good ole days’. My grandmother played piano and organ and my grandfather played saxophone, so there were frequent gatherings where friends and neighbors got together for sing-a-longs. Everyone would gather and bring whatever instruments they could play, and the music would go on until the wee hours. They put on skits and held variety shows at the church. They had cookout and picnics and got a little silly at times…

I heard about these shenanigans so often, I felt I knew them all, even though many had died before I was born. I was so excited to look through the 1930 and 1940 US Federal census records and see so many familiar names! Even though I had only known a few of them, it was delightful to find them in the census records. “Oh! There’s Helen Card who was my grandmother’s main scholastic competition. And Annie Remington as a young bride!” I had never known Helen, but had heard plenty about the spelling bee she won. She was the pet of the teacher in charge of the bee, and my grandmother was certain Helen had purposely been given an easy word enabling her to win. (My grandmother was capable of holding a grudge for decades…)

It was interesting to find that my great great grandparents lived on Pawtucket Avenue in East Providence, RI just a few blocks from where I rented an apartment nearly 70 years later.

The 1900 US Federal Census shows my maternal 3rd great grandparents living on the same street in Providence where my paternal 2nd great grandparents lived just a few doors down with my 4 year old great grandmother. The two families were not close and each probably knew little about the other. My third great grandparents certainly had no idea that their great granddaughter would marry the son of the little girl down the street 47 years later.

Looking at the census now as I am posting the photo, I’ve noticed the O’Donnell family living next door to my McKenna’s. Since Elizabeth’s maiden name is O’Donnell, it seems likely that this family next door is related. Is William her brother? When I began my research and first viewed this census record, I did not know Elizabeth’s maiden name, so the O’Donnell’s next door meant nothing to me. Looks like I have a new line of research to pursue! See ya next week with the prompt, “Favorite Name”.