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.

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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.

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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 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”.