A Guest Post by Jill Renee (Ton) Stollenwerk

It was the Saturday before Christmas. Carmen and I had just collapsed on the couch in front of a roaring fire. We had just celebrated Christmas with our two-year old Grandson Braxton, our son JT, and our parents. We had “just settled down for a long winter’s nap”, when just to my left there arose such a clatter…ok, it was my cell phone vibrating to  alert me to a text message. It was from my sister, Jill.

Text Exchange

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Exchange 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within moments, my phone rang (or rather vibrated).

The Story of Jill and The Little Black Lamb

As I entered the Christmas season this year, I became keenly aware of my mother’s absence. She passed away in July, 2013, but this year I have missed her anew so much.  Mom was the tapestry of Christmas as I grew up and even as I was an adult with children.  Mary Ellen, Mom, Mimi brought Christmas to life for her family and friends. She could do Santa magic, holding on to the Sear’s Christmas catalogue until after Thanksgiving for her children to dream Santa dreams that she knew they couldn’t afford. Yet, observing her, you knew how strongly she embraced the Christmas story of Jesus coming into the world.

I was a PK, preacher’s kid, and was used to our family life reflecting the liturgy of the time of year.  I didn’t appreciate as a child the impact our family rituals would have on me.  This year, I have been looking for Mom.  I wanted to experience her in the ornaments she and Dad had given us kid through the years.  Dating back to 1973, they had given me an ornament each year, in keeping with the tradition given by Mom’s parents.

My precious ornaments had been packed away for several years.  Many circumstances in my life kept them from view until this year when my boxes had been moved to my new home.  I unpacked the boxes of ornaments, hungry for a glimpse of my mother.  I reminisced childhood Christmas memories with my new husband.  One strong memory was how my mother pulled four active children together many evenings during advent each year.  Somehow she managed to slow us down enough to light the advent candles, read a scripture, read a story and perhaps even sing a song together.  My initial memories of those times were how we kids fought over the honor of lighting a candle or reading a passage.  My memory now is of a very patient mother who was determined to bring the light of Jesus’ birth to her children.  And she did.

I continued my search for my mother this Christmas.  I wanted so badly to touch her, feel her, and embrace her.  I thought about all the stories she read to us each year.  “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Other Wiseman”, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “The Little Black Lamb”.  My favorite for some reason was “The Little Black Lamb”.  I remembered vividly sitting by my mother as she read the story and I looked at the drawings in the book. It was a very simple story. I poked around my saved books and found all of the stories, given to me by my parents in the early 70’s.  All except “The Little Black Lamb”.  As if on a mission, I went to Google to find that story.  And I found it finally.  Somebody had typed it up and posted it to their blog.  No credits were given to the author, which I thought was sad. (for the record, the author is Emily S. McCracken).Scan10094

But I had my story and that brought me closer to Mom.  Later that day I went out to our garage to put on my boots for a trek to check on the horses and peacocks with my husband.  On a table next to my chair was a stack of books.  Oh yes, these were the children’s books I had told my husband could go to Goodwill, because we had no little ones around.  He had wisely saved them in hopes I would send them to my grandson, Ben, in Florida.  I picked up one of the books and opened it.  It opened to the story of “The Little Black Lamb”!  This was my mother’s book that she read to me and my brothers.  The pictures were exactly as I remembered.  How could I have had that book in my possession and forgotten how important it was?  I heard my mother as clear as a bell saying, “Why are you looking for me?  I have been here all along.  You just had to see me.”

I was choking back the tears as I climbed the stairs to the office to call my dad and share with him.  There was no answer on his cell phone, so I called the house phone.  The answering machine picked up my call and I heard my mother’s voice over the phone. Her sweet voice recorded long before the stroke that destroyed her voice and took her life.  I called my brother, Jeff, because I knew he would understand. I wanted to connect with my mom this Christmas and, oh my, I did.  My mother was a gift at that time I needed it most. Isn’t that kind of the way it is with God?  “I am here.  Why are you looking for me?  I have been here all along.”

Jill’s gift was “finding” our mother…my gift was sharing the moment with my sister.

 (The Donut Hole referenced by Jill’s text was a post in this blog).

Want to exchange ideas on Twitter (@jtongici)?

Expanding your circles on Google+?

Read more of my musings on LinkedIn.

Interested in IT and the CIO Role? Check out my series “The CIO is Dead! Long live the CIO” on Intel’s IT Peer Network.

 

Christmas came and went. The Journey to Christmas is complete for another year. Before we move on and focus on 2014, I want to relate one more story in the Maranatha saga. As you know it started with the faint memory of a song in Maranatha, in this way, our Lord comes, continued with the discovery My Mother was a Jesus Freak, and the deeply personal The Donut Hole. The final chapter actually occurred the Sunday before Christmas.

A week or so before Christmas, I learned that my father had also written a blog post for the church’s advent devotional (as a retired Baptist minister he was probably much more qualified to write a devotional than yours truly). In a lot of ways, my dad is a very private person so reading his thoughts and feelings on his journey to his first Christmas without mom was very touching (though I have to admit, it DID take me back to the days of sitting in the rock hard pews and listening to him preach). It was especially poignant to read him share his memories of the Maranatha advent tradition. Now, I don’t if my earlier inquiries about the song sparked the memory for him or if it was one of those coincidences of life that had us both write about the same memory, probably doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that we HAD to do it. We HAD to pay him a visit and “Maranatha him”. (You can find his post “Christmas Comes Whether We are Ready or NOT!” It’s the second one on the page)

I sent an email to all my siblings and all the grandkids asking them if they would be willing to join Carmen and I. All the ones in town agreed. Knowing that NONE of us could sing and that NONE of us even knew the tune to sing, I asked a friend of mine to record a track for us so we could sing along.

There we were, Sunday morning December 22nd, 8:45 AM, 35 degrees, and rain/sleet. Three generations gathered at Hoosier Village outside his door. We rang the bell (ok, multiple times, in the annoying way my brother and my oldest son do, just so he would know it was family). Soon the door opened, and there was my dad, in a t-shirt and skivvies (glad it WAS family, though I could hear my granddaughter exclaim “He’s in his underwear!”). Undeterred, we broke out in the absolute worst rendition of Maranatha that the world has ever heard (The track was perfect, it was us that stunk, seems like only a handful of us practiced or even listened to the track beforehand). By the time we were done, dad was in tears (not sure if it was the emotion of the moment or our singing), we all gave him a hug, wished him Merry Christmas, and sang “We You a Merry Christmas” as we gave him the gift of Stollen and left.

We later heard that when he arrived at church that morning he was “happier than he had been in some time” and was bursting with excitement as he recounted the story (and just to be clear, he was fully dressed by then).  I think of all the gifts given, or received, THAT was the most special of all.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, find me on Twitter (@jtongici), or connect with me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Snow gently falling – Check
Deer feeding at the feeders – Check
Squirrels frolicking in the snow – Check
Christmas music on the stereo – Check
Ingredients at the ready – Check
Donut Man Apron donned – Check
100 Year Old Donut Machine pre-heated – Check

Wait…something is missing. There is an empty stool this Christmas

If I were Dickens, I would have had the Ghost of Christmas Future foreshadow the empty stool by the fire when I wrote Do This in Remembrance of Me last year, but alas, Dickens I am not.

Someone is missing. There is a hole in my heart this Christmas…Mary Ellen Ton 1933-1980-2013

J

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

My mother was a closet Jesus Freak!

Who knew!??! Do you remember that group of hippies in the early seventies? OK, if you are too young to remember the early 70’s, look it up! Instead of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, they were all about Jesus, God and rock ‘n roll. My mom had to be one of them, the coincidences are just too many. This will be a long story, but, allow me to explain…

I received an email a couple weeks ago from a dear friend, asking me in short, to write a devotional for an Advent Devotional Blog he was putting together (A devotional? Me? OK, quit laughing). He suggested I could use a previous blog post I had written about our Christmas Donut tradition, “Do This in Remembrance of Me”. I could update it with my thoughts of how the tradition might be different this year after mom’s passing.

Coincidence Number 1: I explained to him I was already thinking of writing a post for my blog about a tradition we had when I was a kid so his timing was perfect. Believe it or not, mom and dad would get us up early on a Sunday morning (remember, my dad was the minister) before church each of the four Sundays of Advent so we could go carol (unannounced) for a family in the church and give them a gift. No, I am not kidding. For the full story check out  “Maranatha, in this way, our Lord comes”. My friend thought that sounded like a great idea.

My quest began. Quite honestly, the only thing I could remember was the chorus of the song we would sing, “Maranatha, maranatha, maranatha, Our Lord Come”. I needed more. I sent a note to my three siblings asking for their memories. Unfortunately, they remembered less than I did!

I turned to the internet to try to find the song itself, which is where I hit Coincidence Number 2, or rather it hit me. Family, Tradition, ChristmasAfter, reading the Wikipedia entry for “Maranatha”, I was intrigued to learn that Maranatha! Records was one of the first Christian rock record labels and part of the Jesus People movement. Returning to the Google search list, I clicked on the next entry, when WHAM! There on the page was a photo of a 1971 Time Magazine cover. The cover was a pixelated rendering of Jesus. The SAME pixelated rendering of Jesus that hung as a poster in my bedroom for years when I was a teenager. I even have a picture in a box someplace of myself sitting in front of that poster.

The website described the Jesus People movement. In some circles they were referred to as Jesus Freaks. A label that was mean to be pejorative, but was later adopted by the movement itself. The movement had its roots in Berkeley, California. Further down on the page were some references to some of the founding musicians. In a minor coincidence (call it 2.5) , one of the artists listed was Larry Norman. At one point, I had all of his albums (for you youngsters those were 12 inch vinyl disks that had music on them). His logo eerily resembles my favorite rock band’s logo (an open mouth with a tongue hanging out…his has crosses on it though 🙂 ).

Larry NormanRolling StonesThinking I was getting close the song lyrics, I went to the website for Maranatha! Records and found the track listing for the first album produced. It was a collection of artists. There on the listing, was a song called “Maranatha”. Underscoring the fact that you can find anything on the internet, I found a recording of the song. BUUUUUZZZZZZZZ! Wrong song.

Dismayed, I called dad to see if he could shed any light. Coincidence Number 3: Yes, he remembered. In fact, every Advent since 1972, my mom would pull the song lyrics out of her Advent folder, and the two of them would sing it during their daily devotional (they always did know how to party)! He was sure he could find it. I learned more about our Advent caroling from dad as well, but that is a different post. My younger brother was flying in for a visit from Dallas, so, I gave him the assignment of digging through mom’s folders and finding the song.

In the meantime, I had lunch with the same dear friend who asked me to do the devotional in the first place. Coincidence Number 4: He and his wife were the first family we caroled to way back in 1972! As we talked, he remembered the gifts we gave them. One of them was a banner (my mom was the banner making queen back in the day). The banner simply said “Maranatha!”. I remembered that banner! It had a flying dove, carrying an olive branch in its beak! Coincidence Number 5: THE LOGO FOR MARANATHA! RECORDS WAS A FLYING DOVE WITH AN OLIVE BRANCH IN ITS BEAK!

A few days later I received an email from my brother. He found the song! He sent me a scanned copy. I was ready! I knew I could get somewhere now! Armed with the true title “Come, Our Lord” and the composer, John Harrell, and the Copyright of John and Mary Harrell 1966. I went back to the internet. First the song…”BUUUUUZZZZZZZZ”!…you CAN’T find everything on the internet. A search on John Harrell also was fruitless…who knew there were so many people named John Harrell. OK, let’s try “John and Mary Harrell”. Boom BABY! There was a link to the online catalogue for the University of California and there I found Coincidence Number 6. John was an episcopalian minister and had donated a collection of the audio visual materials that he and Mary had developed over their lifetimes. Guess where John was in ministry in the late 60’s and the 70’s…Berkeley, California. For those of you not paying attention…that is where the Jesus Freak movement had its roots.

Man, if Mom was not a Jesus Freak, she was at least following the movement!

A day or two later, I received an email from my brother. Actually, it was a group email to all of the siblings, apologizing that it appeared the website he had chosen to host all of the family photos from Mom’s collection he was scanning did not allow downloads. What the heck does THIS have to do with the story, you ask? Patience, my dear reader, patience. I could not believe there was an online photo store that did not allow authorized users to download photos…especially, Flickr. I jumped over to a new tab went to Flickr, found my brothers share and promptly downloaded a picture.

Humph! I knew it would work. About that time, I noticed an album titled “Jeff’s Box”. I had to take a moment and browse. I learned that not only were there photos, there were other documents. My commencement program from my high school graduation, my grade report from first semester of college (was THAT ever embarrassing to see!), the program from my wedding to Carmen, and Coincidence Number 7. It was a scan of an article from the Newsette, the newsletter of the American Baptist Youth of Indiana. I was editor (which meant I wrote a lot of the articles) in the early 70’s. The title was “Very Special Gifts”. It talked about receiving a gift from my Mom on each Sunday of Advent! This had to be Christmas 1974. The gifts were meaningful, but it was the note she wrote on the first Sunday that caught my attention. “May your journey to Christmas be as this candle’s flame and as warm as its glow. Maranatha!”. THIS is where the second part of the tradition started…giving meaningful gifts and a note and each Sunday of the Advent season!

Whether my Mom was a Jesus Freak or not, doesn’t really matter. What DOES matter I was reminded of next. The morning my Mom passed away, that same dear friend was by her side with the rest of the family. Taking some time of quiet reflection, he walked into their bedroom and began to look at the picture collage they had by the by the bed. Pictures of family, very old pictures of a young couple in love, but what was in the center is what caught his attention. It was a typewritten page with the words from a hymn, “Find Us Faithful”. It struck him so much, he read it at Mom’s Celebration Service. I barely heard the words. And yet, months later, in an email I was reminded and my journey of discovery was complete, or is it just starting?

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone,
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind,
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.

Words and Music: Jon Mohr / Copyright 1988 Birdwing Music/Jonathan Mark Music

 If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.