My Most Valuable Christmas Ornament

Snoopy Ornament

While decorating our Christmas tree earlier this month, I came across a box ornaments from when I was a child. This box had been at my parents’ house for decades, but Dad dug it out and gave it to us last year. I wasn’t quite sure which of my childhood ornaments were in that box (we had a lot).  But I was hoping one special ornament was still there. And it was…my most valuable Christmas ornament.

Maria Nieto
My great grandmother.

This cheap little plastic Snoopy ornament was given to me by my great grandmother Maria “Nana” Nieto (1887-1974) when I was a toddler. I can remember this ornament as far back as I can remember Christmas. Every year, it was the first ornament I hung on our family tree. Nana died when I was only 4 years old, so I don’t have many memories of her, but I always remember this ornament.

Nana raised my father. She immigrated from a small mining town in San Luis Potosi, Mexico in 1915, with her husband and two small children, fleeing the persecution of the Mexican Revolution and hoping for a new life and freedom in the United States. She had 6 more children born here, was widowed when the youngest was only about 7 years old, and then raised 4 grandchildren.

Nana never had material riches to share with her children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren. There was no money for fancy Christmas gifts (Dad talks about using an Oatmeal box as a football, because they had no money for toys). But she had an unlimited amount of love, which she showered on all of us. She taught the importance of family, of doing right, and of tradition. Every time I talk about Nana with my Dad, his cousins, and Nana’s one living child and his wife, their faces light up from love and joyful memories.

I asked my mom more about this ornament just before Christmas. She said it came in one of those red plastic net Christmas stockings that the Knights of Columbus handed out to families. Nana had found the ornament inside the stocking and wanted her toddler great granddaughter to have it. So, although this is just a cheap plastic ornament that is losing most of its black accent paint, Snoopy is my most valuable Christmas ornament. It is one of those treasures I grab if the house ever catches on fire.

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#52Ancestors: Great Grandfather Patrick Thomas Flanagan Dies of TB Two Days Before Christmas 1928

Flanagan Brothers GRCOH Family Sheet
Family card from the German Roman Catholic Orphan Home in Buffalo, noting Patrick’s date of death. Click for a larger view. Family files, provided by Catholic Charities of Buffalo, New York.

My 51st entry in Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks family history blogging challenge.

The challenge: have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor.

My 51st ancestor is my great grandfather Patrick Thomas Flanagan (abt. 1897-1928). I have written about Patrick in the past, but not as part of the 52 Ancestors project. I have selected him for this week because he remains one of my major research brickwalls. Also because of timing.

Patrick allegedly died from tuberculosis just two days before Christmas 1928. Leaving behind wife Sarah Kennedy (1898-1930) who would die one and a half years later of the same disease, as well as three stepchildren (ages 18, 12, and 11), two older children from a previous marriage, and three younger children from wife Sarah (ages 8, 3, and 1-1/2). My grandfather Michael John Flanagan (1927-1997) was the baby, who at just 1-1/2 years old never got to know his father.

The family was extremely poor, so I cannot imagine that there was ever much in the way of gifts or fancy meals at Christmas time in the Flanagan household. But it breaks my heart to know that these children lost their father/stepfather and Sarah lost her husband right before Christmas. After watching him grow increasingly ill from TB. Sarah kept home, so she (and Patrick knowing the seriousness of his illness) had to be frantically worried about how she would provide financially for her children after Patrick’s death. Sarah died in June 1930 from the same illness, so it is very likely she contracted it from her husband, probably while caring for him.

Sarah’s fears were justified. By 1930, possibly even as early as 1929, the minor age children had to be committed to an orphanage because Sarah was too ill to care for them. The children would lead hard unhappy lives in foster care, getting split up and losing touch with each other. Patrick had an older brother and a sister who lived nearby in Buffalo. The parents of both Patrick and Sarah still lived back in their hometown in Ohio. But none of these families were well off and had lots of other mouths to house, clothe, and feed. So Patrick and Sarah’s children grew up alone, without family. This Christmas of 1928 was the last Christmas the family would ever spend together.

My grandfather lived the the rest of his life trying to heal this hurt by growing a big family of his own and showering his children and grandchildren with affection and love. He made us each feel like the most wanted loved child on earth. It breaks my heart to know that he never experienced anything close to this feeling himself.

I say that Patrick Thomas allegedly died in 1928 of tuberculosis. This is because I have no real proof of his date or cause of death. I have been unsuccessful in obtaining a death certificate from Erie County or the city of Buffalo, or in finding one at the Family History Library. There is no obituary. And I cannot even locate his burial site. Patrick does not appear to be buried with his wife Sarah or with his older brother Michael, both buried in Buffalo. The only record I have of Patrick’s death is from the orphan records I obtained for the children from the German Roman Catholic Orphan Home in Buffalo. The orphan records note that Patrick died on 23 December 1928 from tuberculosis.

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#52Ancestors: Mom, Keeper of Grandma’s Awesome Pumpkin Pie & Pie Crust Recipes

My 22nd entry in Amy Johnson Crow’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks family history blogging challenge.

The challenge: have one blog post each week devoted to a specific ancestor. It could be a story, a biography, a photograph, an outline of a research problem — anything that focuses on one ancestor.

I’m closing the gap at just 1 week behind in this series (the challenge is on week 23)!

Colleen's Mom as a baby
Mom as a baby.

My 22nd ancestor is my Mom, whom I will not identify by name, for privacy reasons, because she is still living. In particular, I am profiling Mom’s awesome pies.

Let me proclaim here and now that my Mom makes THE BEST pumpkin pie and THE BEST pie crust in the world. Hands down. Even people who don’t like pumpkin pie like hers. It is light, airy, and creamy like a custard. Not at all heavy. Mom doesn’t just make a few pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving and Christmas, she makes about a dozen. Because our family slices her pies into quarters, not the normal six or eight slices to a pie. We like to eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. For several days. And she makes some to send home with each of us kids, and sometimes for her siblings.

But, the best thing about her pumpkin pie — all of her pies — is the crust. The crust is perfectly flaky, very thin, and just melts in your mouth. Sometimes, as much as I love her pumpkin filling, I scrape all of the pumpkin filling off (still eating it, of course!) just to take my sweet time enjoying the crust alone.

Mom's Pumpkin Pie
Mom’s pumpkin pie and mouth-watering crust. This photo doesn’t do her pie or crust justice. This is one she made in a disposable pie plate for me to bring home last Thanksgiving. It’s a big banged up from the long commute home in traffic. But it still tasted perfect! Didn’t last long! Only yielded 4 servings 🙂

Mom learned how to make her perfect pumpkin pie and perfect pie crust from her mother, my grandmother Elsie Charlotte HAYES (1926-1992). Grandma was a terrible cook (terrible is an understatement)! But, the lady could bake…especially pie!

And Mom is the keeper of Grandma’s pumpkin pie recipe (which I still need to learn) and Grandma’s pie crust recipe (I still need to learn this too), which I was shocked to discover a little while back, comes from…<gasp!> a cookbook!

Grandma taught Mom both recipes when Mom was young, and when Mom got married, my grandfather’s foster brother gave Mom this same cookbook as a wedding gift. A Better Homes and Gardens cookbook! I must confess, I was a little disappointed to learn that BH&G is the source of Grandma’s family recipes. I’d hoped these were passed down from her own mother and grandmother. But, these recipes ARE still part of my family tradition anyways.

Mom's cookbook
Cookbook given to Mom at her wedding. The 1966 edition. Inscribed by my grandfather’s foster brother Norm (or Norm’s wife). I bet Grandma told Norm what specific cookbook to buy for Mom, since Mom learned how to bake pies from Grandma, and Grandma used the same cookbook. I blacked out Mom’s name for privacy reasons.

The cookbook is falling apart. The spine is completely broken from decades of being propped open on a kitchen counter while Mom made her perfect pies for the family. I work in a library, and we do book repairs, so I am taking it in to get Mom’s wedding cookbook fixed. Hopefully, I’ll inherit this cookbook. I have her favorite recipes scanned, but I want the tangible book that is stained from decades of use by Mom.

Mom's cookbook
The well-stained page for Mom’s pie crust recipe. Single crust Plain Pastry.
Mom's cookbook
A post-it from Mom marks her custard filling recipe, with modifications.

I really do need to take a weekend day to go to Mom’s and learn how to make her crust and her pumpkin pie filling, audio or video recording her talking me through each step while she recounts memories of baking with Grandma. These traditions and memories are so important to preserve!

Laughing At Old Family Christmas Photos

While I am sure that our children will someday poke great fun at photos from this year’s Christmas, I can’t help but share a couple of my favorite funny Christmas photos from my own childhood.

My grandma, with cigarette in hand, on Christmas or Christmas Eve. This photo must have been taken in the late1960s or early 1970s, at their home in Santa Fe Springs, California.

My beloved Grandma sure did love cat eye glasses…I have many photos and memories of her in this stylish eye wear. And don’t you just love the lit cigarette dangled between two fingers while she sat next to the Christmas tree opening gifts?…blowing secondhand smoke at the grandchildren surrounding her.

Christmas Sean and Ronnie
Another early 1970s Christmas at Grandma’s house. My brother Sean and cousin Ron.

And this big sister just can’t pass up the opportunity to laugh at my baby brother and cousin — even though, at that age, they had no say whatsoever in how their parents chose to dress them. At least my parents only subjected my brother Sean to footie pajamas with a big hole in the big toe. Poor Cousin Ronnie (I mean, Ron — he is a grown-up now!) is still traumatized from all the horrid 1970s baby leisure suits my aunt and uncle used to dress him in for special occasions.

Christmas Traditions: Betty Greene’s Christmas Treats

Christmas, 1974, in South Bend, Indiana.  Dad, mom, me (front left) and Gregg.
The 70’s were not a stylish time in Indiana.  And how fortunate are we today to have instant digital cameras that immediately let you know the picture is off center and you need to re-take it?

Growing up, my mom, brother and I always made iced pretzels and decorated sugar cookies to give as gifts to our friends and neighbors.  Iced pretzels were quite easy (see our recipe at our food blog The Taste Place), but the Christmas cookies were a major production.  In fact, I think my mom started doing the iced pretzels to take up space on the gift plates so we wouldn’t have to make as many cookies!

Maybe some day we’ll post the recipe we used for the sugar cookies, but you had to set aside at least one full day, if not parts of two.  We would make the dough, and then had to let it rest for at least an hour, to let it get solid and easier to handle.  Then came rolling them out on the floured table, and pressing with the cookie cutters.  We had Christmas trees, reindeer, Santa, stockings, bells, stars, and candy canes, and each batch of dough was like doing a jigsaw puzzle as we tried to make the various shapes fit in together as closely as possible to leave as little excess dough in between as we could.  Once the dough cut-outs were lifted out and put on greased cookie sheets and put in the oven, you would re-roll the excess dough (at least the excess dough that Gregg and I didn’t pop into our mouths when mom wasn’t looking) and do it again.  This part could take several hours, as we would do somewhere around a hundred altogether.

If we did this on a Saturday afternoon, then Saturday after dinner would be the decorating.  Or if we did it Saturday night, we’d decorate Sunday after church.  This was the most fun part.  We would make a simple icing with powdered sugar, milk, and food coloring, and always had white, red, green, and yellow bowls to use.  Then we also had red and green colored sugars, cinnamon red hots, and sometimes the multi-colored sprinkle balls to further decorate with.

We always started out working on every cookie like a piece of art, painstakingly icing each one, using multiple colors of icing on a single cookie, and drawing designs on them using toothpicks like a fine tipped paintbrush for accents on Santa’s clothing or the stockings, or the reindeer’s facial features.  But after the first few dozen, things tended to get sloppy as the novelty wore off and the latter cookies tended to be mono-chromatic with a random shake or two of sprinkles on it.

Mom working on the cookie decorating.
Notice the elaborate cookies on the left, versus the slapped together versions on the right…

We’d then deliver our plates of cookies and pretzels door to door to some of our closer neighbors, and I know my mom took them to her Bible Study friends as well.

I did the decorated cookies with the kids for years, but more recently with Colleen we’ve done the less labor intensive, but still very pleasing other treats to give to friends–peppermint bark, Missouri cookies, bourbon pecans, peanut brittle, and, of course, my mom’s easy iced pretzels!

The picture of mom above decorating cookies may be the worst of her ever, and if she were alive today, she’d probably kill me for posting it, but it’s the only pic I have of her doing Christmas cookies.  So I’m making it up to her here by posting this random picture of her looking hot.  ;-D

Flanagan Memories: Providing Christmas Without Letting The Kids Know They Were Poor

Uncle sitting on his “new” Christmas bike, with Grandpa .

I grew up with the best grandparents a kid could want. They spoiled us with little gifts, and they spoiled us even more with love and attention. I still miss them, especially around the holidays.

During interviews with my mom over the years, about her childhood and what she knows about her parents’ early lives, one comment stands out in my mind more than anything else. Mom says they (the kids) never knew that their family was poor, until they grew up. Grandma and Grandpa worked hard to hide their financial hardships and worries from their children. Especially at Christmas.

Going through old family Christmas photos this week, I came across one particular photo that always chokes me up. It’s a picture of my Grandfather, Michael John Flanagan, and his youngest child, my uncle. They are posed in front of the family Christmas tree, Grandpa (ignore the scowl, he always looked grumpy in photos even though he was full of laughter) is standing next to my Uncle, who is sitting on a new bike and wearing a big smile. The reason this photo always gets to me is because, as Mom explains, Uncle’s “new” bike really wasn’t new. There was no way Grandma and Grandpa could afford a new one. It was actually a girl’s used bike disguised as a boy’s new bike. Grandpa worked at a company that made tubing out of steel, so he used some steel tubing and turned it into a boys bike and repainted it for my Uncle.

Grandma and Grandpa lived for loving their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It must have torn them up not to be able to provide brand new bikes at Christmas. So, instead, these two Depression-era children learned how to improvise and still lavish their own children with gifts and attention. My mom, as well as my aunts and my uncle, all seem to have such fond memories of their childhood Christmases.

A Christmas Memory From Mom 

After coming across that photo of my Grandpa and Uncle again, I emailed my mom yesterday asking her what sorts of other things Grandma and Grandpa did for them to make it special for the kids when they had little or no extra money to spend on Christmas.

Mom always made clothes for each of us and clothes for our dolls every year. Every year we got new pajamas. All of our gifts were inexpensive things like games (new sets of jacks, jump ropes, crayons and coloring books, paper dolls and a few board games). Back then, other than the year all of us girls got bikes there was never a big gift for any of us, and we never as little children made a Christmas list. The year we all got bikes I think they were used bikes that Dad repainted and cleaned up. What made Christmas special was that Mom & Dad spent the entire day playing with us. We never had a big dinner that required them to spend the day cooking instead they would cook a ham and we would eat ham sandwiches on Christmas.

Christmas Traditions: Maria Nieto Robledo’s Tamales

Maria Nieto Robledo (1887-1974).

Homemade tamales are a Christmas tradition in many Mexican families, and my family is no exception. I can’t remember a single childhood Christmas, and very few adulthood Christmases, without my dad making the wonderful savory tamales (with the world’s most perfect masa) that he learned how to make as a child from his Mexican-born grandmother, Maria “Nana” (Nieto) Robledo — who in turn, learned how to make them from her own mother, Maria Aurelia (Compean) Nieto.

About seven or eight years ago, my father decided to start hosting a massive extended Christmas tamale-making party for our extended Nieto and Robledo family, to carry on the memories and traditions passed down by my great-grandmother Maria Nieto.  We haven’t been able to host it the last couple years, due to recent family hardships, but this event has come to be our family’s favorite Christmas activity — and I think my entire extended family of Nieto and Robledo cousins would agree.  We laugh, cry, eat, drink and share stories about Nana and her children.  We make sure Nana won’t ever be forgotten.

If you’d like to enjoy some of our family dishes passed down or inspired by my Nana, you should try Dad’s Red Chili Sauce or our Holiday Pork Posole.

Dad makes sure the tamales get just the right amount of masa and fillings…just like Nana taught him.
We get a house full of four generations of Nietos for tamale day.

Biographical Snapshot of Maria (Nieto) Robledo

My great-grandmother, Maria Nieto, was born October 28, 1887, in the municipality of Armadillo de los Infante, located in the state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The village in which she was born is referenced as Tomascal in my records, but is also spelled Temascal and Temazcal in other sources. She immigrated to the United States circa 1915-1916, settled in Los Angels County, California (Long Beach, Glendale, then Norwalk), and died in 1974 (when I was a child) in Norwalk, California.

View Robledo-Greene Family History in a larger map

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