An annual tradition in our house is to sing along with Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”.

 

Listen to how the tradition began…

 

 

O-ree-o“Gampaw, can I have a cookie?” The eyes said it all. Those big twinkling eyes. How could I possibly say no? I looked down and met his gaze. His face aglow with anticipation. 

“You need to ask your Grandma,” I replied with a twinkle of my own. 

With that my four-year-old grandson, Jordan, scampered down the hallway toward the laundry room, calling her name with every step. “Gammaw, can I have a cookie? Gammaw, can I have a cookie? Can I have a cookie, Gammaw?” 

His eyes looked up at her, open wide behind his blue-rimmed glasses, asking the question as much with those eyes as his mouth. 

“Yes, we have Oreos.” Barely were the words out of her mouth when the face squished up, eyes squinting near tears, and the pleading voice said, “but, Gammaw, I want cookies”. 

“Oh, sweetheart, Oreos are cookies.” 

With that, he pivoted quicker than Michael Jordan in his prime and ran back down the hallway towards me, his face lit up by a smile so big it covered it in its entirety. “Gampaw, Gampaw, Gampaw, did you know Oreos are cookies?” The excitement of the news in his voice, the wonder of discovery all over his face, his hands, his body emphasizing. each. and. every. word! 

O-ree-o

Christmas

Christmas. Family. Stacks of presents, wrapped in the season’s finest. Chaos. Sweet, beautiful, chaos. When they weren’t tearing open their own gifts, our grandson’s were busy helping everyone else open theirs. 

“Jordan, would you like to give your present to Grandpa?” my daughter-in-law asked above the din of voices. O-ree-o

Jordan jumped up, ran to the tree, and retrieved a package wrapped in red and white Santa paper. He proudly made his way through the mountains of tissue paper, the sea of torn wrapping paper, and the hills of now discarded boxes and placed the package on my lap. His eyes peering up at me, the excitement of knowing what was inside was evident as he danced and hopped in front of me. 

Channeling my mother, I slooooooooooooowly began to remove the tape holding the paper in place. Little hands reaching out to help, then pulling back, then reaching out, then pulling back. Finally, not able to maintain my tease any longer, I asked him to help and together we ripped the paper off. 

Inside, were a set of matching mugs, emblazoned with the image of an Oreo cookie. The mugs came complete with a tray that attached to the side of the mugs. The trays designed to hold about a half-dozen or so of the sandwich cookie that had become our shared passion. The box also included two pairs of plastic tongs to hold your Oreo while dipping in your mug full of milk. PERFECT! 

O-ree-o

March of the Oreos

Wreck-It Ralph was my grandson Braxton’s favorite movie for several years (it still may be!). Every time he walked into our house, he would head straight for the cabinet with our DVD’s and pull out Wreck-It Ralph. Every time we suggested we watch a movie he wanted to watch…Wreck-It Ralph. Even when I hid the DVD all the way in the back of the cabinet, he would find it and we would watch Wreck-It Ralph. When Braxton and Jordan were both at our house we would watch…you guessed it…Wreck-It Ralph in addition to whatever Jordan picked.

For those unenlightened soles among my readers, the movie features Ralph, one of the characters in a video arcade game. Ralph always plays the bad guy, because, well, he always wrecks things…that is his schtick. Ralph believes if he could just earn a medal, he would be a hero and people would be a good guy for a change. So, Ralph goes on a quest to win a medal by traversing through the electrical connections between the arcade games. 

He ends up in the game Sugar Rush where everything is made of sweets. He soon encounters the evil King Candy. In a scene straight out of the Wizard of Oz, Ralph is spying down on King Candy’s Castle while the guards march into the front gate, a la Emerald City. The guards are Oreo cookies. As they march, they chant, “O-re-o, oree-o! O-re-o, oree-o! O-re-o, oree-o!  O-ree-o

Grandpa Time

3 PM on Fridays. Even before the pandemic forced many of us to work from home, I was working from home every Friday I could. Since the pandemic and my change to being self-employed, I work at home full time. Regardless of needing a face-to-face meeting or a virtual meeting, you will find my calendar blocked from 3 PM to 5 PM every Friday. That’s when I turn into a superhero, or a ninja, or a dinosaur hunter, or a shopkeeper. In other words, I turn into a Grandpa. 

Friday afternoons are my playtime with Jordan. Now six, going on 29, he knows when the grandmother clock strikes 3, it’s time for Grandpa to come out of his office. Since receiving the wonderful gift of the Oreo mug set, we have snacked on Oreos…every Friday at 3 PM. For months, I would announce Oreo time by chanting, “O-re-o, oree-o!” as I come down the stairs. That would usually result in a “Grandpa” (said with the tone of a teenaged eye-roll, if you know what I mean), a smile, and a scurry to get the mugs out, grab the package of Oreos, count out four each for Grandpa, Grandma and himself, and then wait patiently while I poured the milk. 

The three of us then sit and have our Oreos and have a scintillating conversation about school, dinosaurs, Marvel vs. DC, and why Grandpa eats his Oreos by twisting the two halves apart, eating the side without the creme, then the side with the creme, saving the milk for last, while Grandma and Jordan love to dunk their Oreos and turn them to mush (yuck!)! 

O-ree-o

Flip the Script

After months of the same script, last week I was engrossed in work. My office door was closed, but it was clearly 3 PM according to the chiming of the Grandmother clock, there was a soft tap at my door and then it slowwwwwwly opens. With a big grin on his face, Jordan greets me by quietly saying, “Grandpa, O-ree-o”. 

O-ree-o

Be an ally!

What is my point in telling you all these stories about a cookie? Are they heartwarming? Yes. Are they cute? Yes. Do they make you smile? Yes (well, at least they make me smile). 

I tell you these stories because I am an ally. I am an ally for gender equality. I am an ally for racial equality. AND, I join with Oreo and their parent company, Mondelez International in being an ally for the LBGTQ community. In the face of a threatened boycott, they stand by their decision to support PFLAG and produce “Rainbow Oreos, and I stand with them. Here’s to you, Oreo…and thank you. 

 

O-ree-o

I played golf with me dad last week

Copyright – Lawsonia

When my son Brad invited me to play golf last week little did I know my dad would be joining us. Yes, I played golf with my dad last week. It was a beautiful fall day, a little crisp when we started the round but warmed up quickly. Now some of you may be thinking, “OK, what’s the big deal?” I had not played golf in over a year. In fact, I’ve probably only played three or four times in seven years since I injured my neck. So, playing golf at all was a big deal. But playing golf with my dad was a really big deal. You see, my dad passed away in December. 

I don’t know when I first noticed him. On the second hole, I bladed a 9 iron, the ball shot across the green and into the woods. Brad and I spent the obligatory minute or two searching for it before I took a drop. There he was. I could see the grin on his face. The grin he would always grin when no matter how deep in the woods his ball or mine went he would walk right in and pick it up. As quickly as he appeared, he was gone again. 

Teeing off on the fifth hole, I had honors. One of the few times I had honors over Brad. After hitting my tee shot, I stepped out of the tee box and stood near the cart watching Br….dad tee off. The waggle of the clubhead, the shifting of the feet, the glances down the fairway as he lined up his drive, the “well, that will play” comment said half out loud, half under his breath, as his drive went right down the center. It was dad. 

It all came back. It all came flooding back. Dad loved golf. He and his buddies would play once or twice a week all spring, summer, and fall. I don’t recall ever playing as a young kid, perhaps we did. I do remember putt-putt golf, but it wasn’t until junior high that I have any recollection of going with him. At first, I was just hanging out as he and his friends played. He’d let me sneak a shot every once in a while. Soon, I could join in for a round. We didn’t play often. Golf wasn’t my thing, baseball was my jam. 

As I got older and moved away from home, we would always work in a round at least once a year. Golf at Green Lake, Wisconsin’s Lawsonia became a fixture for summer vacation. The whole family would gather for a week. Neither of my brother’s played golf, so dad and I would steal away and play a round or two. It was a tough course. As the years went by, they added a second course, and it was even tougher. Dad had names for all the holes. The Quarry (duh, it had a sharp dogleg right, if you missed, you would be in the…quarry. The Cliff (a par 3 that had about a forty foot drop down to the green, with little or now fairway. And, of course, The Dolly Parton (probably the most risque thing I ever heard my dad say…it was the Dolly Parton because, well, uh…the two big hills on either side of a narrow fairway). 

As the grandkids grew, a highlight of the week was going golfball hunting with Popper in the quarry (you see, I was not the only one who always missed the dogleg). Soon, they were old enough to play themselves. It became a passion for Brad. He and I would play a couple of times a week during his junior high and high school years, and, of course, we would play with my dad, a LOT. 

All of this came back as Brad and I played our round. The sounds, the smells, the warmth of the sun…dad was everywhere. It had been years since dad could be out on a golf course. I’ve missed him. But with COVID, starting a new business, publishing a book, I have to say it has been a while since I spent time with him, spent time with the memories. I didn’t know how much I needed those moments until he walked the course with us. 

From “Down an Indian Trail in 1849” by Mary K. Rowlands

Last month, as you may recall, I invited you along on a journey: a journey of discovery into some of my family history. I’ve learned a lot in one month..but have a lot more to learn. I’ve exchanged LinkedIn messages with LeRone Branch, the Eagle Scout turned Tax Accountant, who helped develop the memorial to my great-great-grandparents Jan and Aagje (Vander Sijde) Ton. I’ve emailed several times with Paul Ton of Michigan, descended from Jan’s brother, Harmen, and I’ve read two and a half books that mention Jan and others in the Ton family. 

Correcting the Record

Part of what I have learned is that I had some of my facts wrong in my post last month. In that post, I mentioned Jan and Aagje immigrated to the U.S from Holland (Netherlands) in the 1840s with eight of their nine children. That is not correct. As is often the case with old records, it is easy to get confused when children carry the same name as one of their parents. Many times records do not include suffixes such as Jr. or Sr. or even II and III. 

My great-great-grandfather, Jan, was 23 years old and single when he immigrated to the U.S. aboard the ship, “Massachusetts of Boston”, sailing from Le Havre, France in April of 1849. Jan was the son of Jan and Peterje (Stam) Ton, my great-great-great-grandparents. THEY had nine children. It was eight of their nine children who, over time, immigrated to the U.S. So, you can see how confusing that can get! The “Massachusetts of Boston” carried two Tons across the Atlantic, Jan and his married sister, Jannetje (Ton) Eenigenburg. Many of the families settled south of Chicago near Lake Calumet. Jan and eight other immigrants are considered the founding fathers of what is now Roseland, Illinois. 

It appears from the records I can find there might have been some shenanigans going on onboard the ship. Jan and Aagje’s first son, Jan Jr. was born in February of 1850. Jan and Aagje would marry in 1853 and raise 14 children to adulthood.

The Underground Railroad

I am certain to have many more stories to tell as I learn more, but, I do want to relate a story that directly connects Jan and Aagje to the Under Ground Rail Road. The story is found in the 1923 book “The Wonder of the Dunes” by George A. Brennan. You see, what is now Indiana Dunes National Park was along traveled by many freedom seekers on their way from Chicago to Detroit and on into Canada. The Hollanders settlement new Lake Calumet was leading station along that portion of the underground railroad. 

This particular story was retold many times over the years by Cornelius Kuyper, a dear friend of my great-great-grandfather’s and the town constable. Mr. Brennan records the story in his book. In his capacity as the constable, Kuyper was often called upon to assist in capturing run-away freedom seekers. He would attack each request with such zeal and effort, he would receive praise from slave owners and sheriffs alike…though…he never succeeded in capturing any freedom seekers.  

A Story to Tell

As Kuyper tells the story, one day he was visited by a slave owner from Kentucky, a sheriff deputy from Chicago and a posse. They were pursuing three freedom seekers, each with a $3,000 price on their heads. As was his norm, Kuyper searched high and low for the runaways, even taking the posse as far as the Illinois-Indiana state line. Once again, he came up empty-handed. 

When they returned to Kuyper’s home, his wife Maartje prepared and served them a meal before they headed back to Chicago. After they were safely on their way, Kuyper headed into his cellar, opened a trap door, and summoned one the freedom seekers who he had hidden away. He then went to the barn and moved part of an immense stack of hay, the other two freedom seekers emerged. He fed them, had them climb in his wagon covered them with cobs of corn, and took them to the home of Jan Ton. Jan hitched up his wagon, transferred the precious cargo, and headed out toward Indiana. Near the town of Hohman Bridge (today’s Hammond, Indiana), the cargo was transferred to another wagon. The freedom seekers were well on their way to Canada. 

One can only imagine the countless times these men and women provided this service to others on their journey! 

As I learn more, we will continue on this journey together. Until next time! 

 

A Journey - Ton FamilyIn the twelve years, I’ve been writing this blog I’ve taken you on many journeys. This time it’s different. This time I don’t know where we are going. Join me as I explore. Together, we will explore the past, and maybe, just maybe, there will be some lessons for us today and in the future in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others. 

Our journey begins just a few short weeks ago. In the midst of the civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a window to the past opened. Those of you who know me personally, know I love exploring the past. Carmen and I have followed the Lewis and Clark Trail from its beginnings in Monticello, Virginia, to the shores of the Pacific Coast near Astoria, Oregon, and back to St. Louis. 

Our love for that epic story unlocked our love for our family’s story. We have stood in the tiny abandoned farmhouse where my grandmother was born near Randolph, Nebraska. We have stood near countless graves of our ancestors. For us, history goes beyond the names and dates, it’s about people and their stories. What did they do and why? What were they thinking? What were they feeling? 

We have read pages and pages of journals to uncover the stories behind the names and dates. That is why my sister’s note surprised me. Her note included a link to an article she had stumbled across, a link that takes our exploration back further than a few short weeks ago. It uncovers a story. A story that involves a professor, an eagle scout, a retired Chicago police officer, and that is just going back 10 years. The story takes us back 171 years. It takes us back to 1849. It takes us to the story of Jan and Aagje Ton, my great, great grandparents. 

Life Magazine!

Despite all the journals, despite all the graveside visits, what I knew about Jan and Aagje was from a 1945 issue of Life Magazine. That issue ran the story of the fiftieth Ton family reunion held in West Pullman Park on the South Side of Chicago. Over 500 Tons were in attendance. Jan and Aagje were immigrants from De Zaan, Holland. They and eight of their nine children came to the U.S. in the 1840s to flee persecution and high taxes. 

Cool story, right? Life Magazine! As an aside, the cover of that issue was of one Jimmy Stewart, the actor, returning home after the war. The article even had a picture of the old farmhouse on the north side of the Little Calumet River.  A lifetime of trips to and through Chicago not once were we inspired to track down the story, to visit the graves, or to find the location of the farm. The Life Magazine article is framed and hanging on the stairs in our home. I pass it a dozen times a day. 

Surprising news!

And then I received the link from my sister. What I learned floored me, blew me away. Jan and Aagje did more than farm on the banks of the Little Calumet River. You see, their farm was a stop along what is now known as the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers would arrive at the farm on foot, in wagons (hidden under hay or sacks of corn), and sometimes by train. All of them traveling hundreds of miles to find their freedom. Jan would assist by taking them by wagon halfway across Indiana toward Detroit and the Canadian border. 

I learned the farm was located at what is today “Chicago’s Finest Marina”. It is is a historically black-owned marina. Ronald Gaines, a retired Chicago police officer now owns the marina. 

I learned there is a memorial to honor my great, great grandparents near the church they helped found when they immigrated to the area. The memorial was an Eagle Scout project of LeRone Branch. LeRone is now a tax accountant for Deloitte. 

Where do we go from here?

I’m hungry to learn more. My curiosity is aroused. Why didn’t we know? How was the story lost to our branch of the family? There isn’t anyone left to ask. My grandparents never spoke of it that any of us remember. My grandfather died in the mid-60s. My grandmother was fiercely proud of being a Ton. Though she married into the family, she was first and foremost a Ton. In all her journals, not one word of this appears. In the countless stories, she told in the years before her death, not even a whisper. I suppose the easy answer is she didn’t know. My grandfather was born nine years after Jan died. He never knew his grandfather. It’s true my branch of the Ton family tree scattered throughout the country in the early to mid-1900s. Perhaps that explains it. 

Perhaps the answer is darker. 

Come with me on this journey. As I learn more, you will learn more. 

As faithful readers know, my father recently passed away. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in one final breath, I became the patriarch of the Ton family (going back at least four generations). It is now my responsibility to pass on the stories, to pass on the traditions, to respect the past and those who have come before. 

One of the joys of the last few years has been taking my grandsons, Braxton and Jordan, to visit my dad, Popper (or great-Popper) – to see his face light up when those little guys would bound into his room, show him their new games, or demonstrate their latest artwork. Dozens of images come to mind…Braxton pushing my dad in his wheelchair on the last Thanksgiving he would visit our house, or crawling onto his bed to play games with him when Dad could no longer get up. Jordan telling a story so funny both of them were laughing and giggling, or Dad wearing Jordan’s Easter hat to the delight of the little red-head. 

Two months almost to the day of dad’s passing, we welcomed Jasper Bryant Ton into the world. The second son of my second son. What an amazing joy to hold that little life in my arms, to look into his eyes. I could not help but think of my dad. He did not have a chance to meet Jasper, but I know he would adore him. My heart was overflowing with love. 

Braxton’s and Jordan’s memories of their time with my dad will fade, Jasper has no memories to fade.  Yes, there are pictures, hundreds of pictures, but it will be the stories that provide the connection. I want them to know of his laugh, his smile, his compassion, his goofy sense of humor. Most of all, I want them to know of his love, love for my mom, love for his family, and love for his fellow man and woman. 

I treasure the moments I have with my kids and my grandkids. Even on days when I am preoccupied with work, or too tired and crabby to be patient, or when there thousands of tasks that don’t get done. I celebrate my role as patriarch – to tell stories of Mary Ellen and Gene, Lawrence and Sara, Hallie and Mary and the generations who came before. 

Welcome to the world, Jasper Bryant Ton. You have been born into a family that loves you dearly. You have been born into a family with an amazing story. I can’t wait to share it all with you. 

 

The story it could tell

“Once upon a time then [sic] was Braxton then he save [sic] his mom from the tower and they were happy ever after the end.”

The typewriter in my office was manufactured in 1927. It belonged to my mother’s mother and was purchased in the middle of the Great Depression when she was a teacher of teachers at a Normal School in Milwaukee. 

Oh, if that Underwood could talk, the story it would tell! It sat for years in her home on Ellen Street. Not only was it used for coursework, but it was also used to write letters long since gone…letters to friends, letters to family, letters that told stories. Stories of her young and growing family – their births, their graduations, their marriages. Stories of pain at the death of a child days after her birth. 

Through the generations

Her family grew. Her seven children began to have children of their own. As they moved away, her letters would keep them connected to home. 

There would have been a story of sons-in-law who went off to fight in World War II and grandkids went to Korea and Vietnam. She would have written:

  • of events back home to keep them all connected
  • of homecomings and celebrations
  • with pride. 

One of her daughters would become a preacher’s wife…and author. Was her writing inspired by typing on the old Underwood? The question remains unanswered…asked too late. The stories continued. 

As the years took their toll, my mother’s mother could no longer type. The old keys took too much effort from the old woman she had become. The Underwood was given to one of the sisters. Over time, it found its way to the garage where it sat silent – silent for years. 

The story of a new home

The typewriter found its way to my home, a gift from my cousin to celebrate my writings and the publication of my first book. For Christmas, my wife had it refurbished. Good as new! Its clacking keys and ringing bell have become a thing of fascination for my grandsons when they “visit” my office next to their playroom. With my gentle coaxings of “be gentle” and “one key at a time,” they learned to type their names…and then…

Braxton who is my firstborn’s firstborn, my mother’s first grandchild’s child, came to play. He, now seven, has been diagnosed with autism at two, non-verbal until almost five. Braxton, the sweetest little boy you will ever want to meet.

As he is wont to do, he headed upstairs to the playroom, barely giving his daddy a goodbye. I followed, but instead of the playroom, he turned into my office and began to type. “Braxton”. He then looked up at me, his expression one of someone following an idea in their head…then he smiled…and typed, pausing occasionally for help with the next letter. 

“Once upon a time then [sic] was Braxton then he save [sic] his mom from the tower and they were happy ever after the end”

The stories continue…

This eulogy was delivered at First Baptist Church on January 11, 2020, and at Hoosier Village Chapel on January 13, 2020, in honor of my daddy, coach, dad, popper, pop, Gene Ton. If you are interested in watching a video of the entire service, you can find it here: L. Eugene Ton. (Note: the first 30 seconds are a black screen with the brass quintet playing. The video then fades in.)

=========================================

My heart hurts. Our hearts hurt. 

Despite the pain, we want to celebrate. Celebrate an amazing life and a truly incredible man. 

Before I get to that, I want to let you in on a little secret. Dad wasn’t perfect. I can remember as clear as day. He and I were repairing the gutters on our home in Evansville (you see, someone’s basketball kept crashing into them, must have Joel’s, mine always swished through the hoop). Anyway, there we were, dad up on the ladder and me holding it steady. When it happened. With a mighty swing of the hammer, expecting to hear the metal on metal clang of the hammer, I heard instead, metal on thumb. Yes, that might blow smashed his thumb. Time seemed to slow down. I could see it building up. His face growing red. I thought, here it is, I am finally going to hear my dad say “damn”…or worse. His face now covered in a grimace. Here it came…”fffffffiddlesticks!” Yep, Fiddlesticks. That was our dad. 

I am sure all the family could regale you with other stories of dad, probably some that actually show some imperfections. He truly was special. We are so happy to celebrate him with you. We shared him with all of you for most of his life. I’d like to do something a bit unusual. I always loved it when dad would do something unusual in his sermons. One of the things he did that always caught my attention, was when he would come out from behind the pulpit and step down to be with the congregation. Sometimes he would become a character in his sermon: Peter; James; Paul. Other times he would just talk with us. I’ll tell you, for a junior and senior high kid, it really made me sit up and pay attention. Heck, it made the whole congregation sit up and pay attention to what he was saying. 

No, I’m not going to be one of the disciples today, THAT would be a bit of a stretch. But, I am going to involve all of you for a moment. 

In honor of dad, I’d like you to stand if dad officiated your wedding (some of us had the honor of him doing that for us more than once). Now, stay standing. 

If dad officiated one of your children’s weddings, please stand. 

How about baptism? If he baptized you, please stand. 

Please stand if he officiated a funeral for a loved one or family member. 

How many here were the benefit of his wise counsel over the years, you don’t have to tell us why, your secret is safe. Please stand. 

How many here felt the warmth of his smile, the comfort of his greeting, the guidance of his leadership? 

If you are not standing by now, please stand. Please join me in thanking him, by repeating after me. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat} 

Thank you, you can be seated. 

We all experienced dad in different ways. Even those who he and mom raised experienced him differently. 

For me, first, there was daddy, playing in the yards of the parsonages in Lafayette and Lebanon. Pushing me in the swing. Teaching me to ride a bike without training wheels in the alley. Building Pinewood Derby cars for the annual Cub Scout tradition. His annual tradition for Memorial Day: take his small transistor radio out to the garage, tune in the Indy 500 and wash and wax his car. It was an exciting day when I finally got to help! We learned quickly that daddy was different than most. Daddy was Reverend Ton, unlike most kids not only did we live next door to his “office”, but we went there multiple times a week. People treated him differently, people treated us differently. What I remember most about daddy was his smile. 

Next came Coach…Little League Baseball…Flag football, teaching me to shoot a layup on the goal behind the garage. He was there with patience and gentle coaching (sometimes not so gentle coaching). This is where dementia may have been a bit of a blessing. To hear him tell it today, I was an all-star catcher in Little League. Uh, dad, You coached the all-star team because our team won first place. I said the Little League pledge for the Allstar game because I wasn’t didn’t make the team. How he became my Little League coach is a microcosm of the type of man he was, the type of father he was. After watching a couple of my team’s practices and observing the way the coach treated us; yelling, screaming, cursing. Dad tried to coach the coach on a better approach. Professionally, not in front of the kids, in private. The guy quit. Rather than going to the league to find another coach, dad stepped up and became a coach. What I remember most about the coach was his patience. 

By the time we were in Evansville he was just “dad”. Evansville was much bigger than Lebanon. Dad was learning how to lead an urban church, and I was learning about high school. Dad was still “Reverend Ton”…I can remember my mom and dad giving a tour of the parsonage to a group of “old ladies” from the church (they were probably 60!). As they passed my brother’s room, she remarked, “Oh and this must be Reverend Ton’s room.” Uh, no! He slept down the hall with my mother. There were four of us for Pete’s sake, as far as I know, there has only been one immaculate conception. Despite the fact that he was Reverend Ton to most, to me he was dad. He was the guy I could go to for anything. He was the guy that would do anything for us. During this time, he taught me the game of golf. Dad loved golf. Of all the sports, golf was king. At first, I got to tag along with the foursome, take a few swings here and there. Later, just the two of us would go. Inevitably, they would pair us up with another twosome. I noticed dad always introduced himself as “Gene”. Not Reverend Ton. When I asked him about it, his answer was simple, “if I introduce myself as Reverend, they will act differently because I am a pastor. They may not enjoy themselves as much, so here I am “just Gene”. When I was a freshman in college, and homesick…it was him I called. It was him who provided the reassurance I needed to hear, not only in his words but in the sound of his voice through the phone. What I remember most about dad was his quiet leadership. 

Along about 1978, he became grandpa…Popper as my kids and my sister’s kids called him. Dad would have been in his late 50’s and into his 60’s. The great Reverend Doctor, the leader of leaders, the pastor of pastors became putty in the hands of those little creatures. He would laugh, and joke and smile ear to ear. Popper loved Christmas, he and Mimi both did. But if Mimi was the queen of Christmas, dad was the king of Easter. He would spend hours hiding eggs in the yard. So many eggs, he had to have a map in case the five grandkids couldn’t find them all. And, then. And then, there was the Easter play. A silly little play about Captain Dan the Fried Egg Man. We all had a role. Even the littlest ones could do sound effects. But it was popper, it was dad, who took it up a notch. Creating costumes for his characters, using different funny voices as he played different roles. He may not have been a hit on Broadway, but he was a hit with the little ones! What I remember most about Popper was his humor. 

The last few years, he became “Pop”. I’m not sure if that was a shortened version of “Popper”, the name the grandkids call him, or sign of the change in our relationship. The parent became the child, and the child became the parent. It has been an honor to be on this journey with him, whether we were going toe-to-toe: “Quit treating me like a child!” “You quit acting like one!” Gee, where have I heard THAT before; or taking in an Indians game, telling the same stories, laughing at the same jokes game after game, year after year; or sitting quietly in his room at Hoosier Village just “being”. A few years ago, when I was contemplating a career move, the decision to leave Goodwill, a job I loved, a mission I loved and people I loved…I went to Pop. You see, he was still in there. I went to him for guidance. He asked questions, he told stories, he answered my questions about his own career and the choices he had made to leave one church for another or to leave the pulpit and take an executive minister role for the denomination.  True to form…he never gave me the answer. What I remember most about pop was his wisdom. 

We have all experienced dad in different ways…but always the same: funny, caring, compassionate, empathetic, and loving…pastoral…ministering us all…even at the end. 

Join me once again. “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat}

Well done good and faithful father. Enter into the joy of your Lord.

A few years ago I was inspired to write a fairy tale of sorts – a fairy tale about my dad’s progressing disease and the need to move him to the next stage of care. Today, I write the concluding chapter of the Trilogy of Serendipity. 

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a King, his three Princes and his one Princess, and their wonderful spouses and families. Much has changed since our fairy tale began. Much has changed since our last visit to the land of Serendip almost two years ago. You see, the King had moved once again. He had to leave the Village of Hickory to reside in the Centre of Soapberry. It is there in the Centre of Soapberry where our story begins anew. 

A call went out to the Prince and Princess of Whitetail. The King, whose health had been slowly declining, was in distress. They rushed to the King’s Chambers and found him barely able to speak but resting comfortably. Barely returning to the Forest of Whitetail, they were once again summoned to his chambers. It was time. The nursing saint declared the King’s body was too frail. It was time to think only of his comfort. 

The Prince sent messengers to the Prince of Raymond, the Prince of the Western Lands and the Princess of the Green Lakes. Should they be able to travel and should they desire, they should set forth for the Centre of Soapberry. Alas, the Princess’ health would not allow her to make such a journey. The Princes joined the Prince and Princess of Whitetail. Sir Larry of Sayre arrived to join them by the King’s bedside. 

Several days passed. They were days filled with retelling of stories, sharing laughter and sharing tears and providing comfort to the King. The nursing saint was joined by a number of nursing saints, all of them the most beautiful, caring souls the Lord hath created. The time was drawing nigh. 

The Chaplain of the Castle arrived, recited the Prayer of the Lord, and the King breathed his last. The King is dead…long live the King. Remember him in your hearts.

On December 16, 2019, The Reverend Doctor L. Eugene Ton passed away. He will be missed by his family, his friends and the congregations of the churches he served. 

For those readers who do not know this, Dad suffered from a rare form of dementia: Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia or bvFTD. It is considered rare in that it occurs far less often than Alzheimer’s. It is also rare in males, and even rarer for someone as old as Pop was when we first started seeing signs. I’ve written several posts over the years about the journey we have all been on with Dad since Mom passed in 2013.  I will be writing more in the future – of this I have no doubt. 

First, the other two stories in the Serendip trilogy:

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

The Land of Serendip Revisited

And then all the others. Some relate to lessons learned from my dad, while others are specific to this journey with dementia. 

Dad Paddles the Roosevelt River

Shadows of Days Gone By

Are Those Smiles Identical or What?

Love is…

The end of a very long week

The Sprinkler Head

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

Love is Thicker than Blood

The Window – A Divine Coincidence

The Land of Serendip Revisited

Sounds of Silence

Just Gene

What is YOUR Vision for the Future?

Just Gene - Rivers of ThoughtFor some, the title of this post will conjure up images of Sean Hayes’ character on the first iteration of Will and Grace, Jack McFarland, throwing both his hands up, palms forward to face-box himself and exclaiming, “Just Jack”. While that moment became iconic in the annals of television, I’d like to share a different moment…a moment I had recently with my dad, Gene. No, face-box, “Just Gene”.

Many of you know, my dad is suffering from a somewhat rare form of dementia: behavioral-variant Frontotemporal Dementia or bvFTD. This evil disease, although in the same family as Alzheimer’s, doesn’t manifest itself in the same way. Dad still recognizes everyone, can recall the minutest detail of something that happened 30 years ago, or 30 minutes ago, and, other than having an 88 year-old body, is in decent physical health. I sometimes describe him as a person with cognitive abilities of a 5 year-old, with the memories of 88 years.

One of the ways in which this disease manifests itself is in the form of delusions. The formal definition according to Dictionary.com is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.” For dad, this means he experiences things around him that are not real, but he firmly believes they are. For example, my mom comes to visit him quite often. Mom passed away five years ago…and he knows this, yet she visited, or they took a trip, or even played golf together. Like a “real memory” he can describe these events in great detail and these details rarely change as he retells the story time and time again.

When he first started experiencing delusions, I would calmly and matter of factly explain to him that they are not real, that he really didn’t go to Chicago last week, or that his ceiling light did not move three feet across the room. As this delusions grew longer, more involved, and more intertwined with reality, his doctors advised us to just go along with the story. Unless he is frightened, endangering himself or others, just go along.

We have had many visits these past few months where he is in midst of a delusion and incorporates us in. On one such visit, he was clearly leading a church meeting. There were twenty people in his room. When we arrived, he interrupted the meeting to introduce us to the group, told us he would be wrapping the meeting up shortly, and then we could visit. As you probably deduced, the room was empty save for me, my wife Carmen, our grandson Jordan, and, of course, dad.

All of which brings us to my story of “Just Gene”. I stopped in to visit with dad a few days ago. When I entered his room, I found him like we find him quite often. Laying on his bed, fully clothed (including shoes), resting. It was about 5:30 in the evening and he had just returned from dinner down the hall. I pulled up his walker, which has a seat as a part of it, and sat down next to the bed for our visit. We talked about his day, we talked about his meal, we talked about his tv not working (uh, I turned the cable box on and wha-la it worked). I changed his clocks, it being the Monday after the fall time change. I crawled on the floor and picked up his phone, knocked there when he had tried to get up at some point in the last few days. We talked about my upcoming trip to LA, we talked about Carmen not feeling well, we talked about little Jordan and Braxton.

“So, Dad, what else have you been doing? Have you been down to activity time?”

“No, I’ve been way too busy.”

“Busy, doing what?”

“Well, I don’t know how these groups find me, but I keep getting asked by these church groups to help them with this problem or that problem. Groups from Chicago, from St. Louis, from all over. I don’t know how they even know who I am.”

“Well, dad, of course they know you. You lead the baptist churches here in Indiana for years. You were a very well respected expert on congregations and church management. Of course, they want insights from the Reverend Doctor.”

“I suppose you are right. But, this last one did not go well.”

“What do you mean?”, I asked.

“They just weren’t getting it. I could not get them to understand. I finally had to give up. I needed to get back here and they just wouldn’t listen.”

“I suppose that would be frustrating, but you had to run into that many times during your career, right?”

“Not often, but sometimes. One of my congregations was especially difficult. It always hurt deeply when I saw them going in the wrong direction, for the wrong reasons. We had a couple of churches leave the Association. They felt that was what was best for them.”

“I have always been proud of being the son of Reverend Ton. I loved to listen to you preach. I loved it when you got into character and acted like you were one of the Apostles, that always got my attention,” I told him. 

“Yes, sometimes you have do something a bit different to get your point across. You just can’t stand up there behind the pulpit week after week. But, you know, here I am not Reverend Ton. Most don’t even know or care. Here I’m just Gene. And, I kind of like that.”

There you have it. Just Gene. And that feels good to him.

I have to admit, it is something I rarely have thought about…the sacrifices. The sacrifices he, and countless others, had to make to follow their calling. The long hours of running the business of a church during the day, rushing home for dinner, only to have to go back to oversee the various meetings of the church at night. The need to always be “on”. Always “special”.

Just Gene.

Dad spoke of missing so much of our lives as kids, instead, having to rely on mom as the primary parent because she was home…and he was not. It occurred to me, even something as simple as visiting someone’s home for dinner, and always being called upon to say the blessing, because, after all, he WAS the Reverend.

Just Gene.

I remembered the times he and I would go to play golf. Invariably, as a twosome, the course would pair us up with another twosome to complete a foursome and off we would go. Dad always introduced himself as Gene. Just Gene. Not Gene Ton, not Reverend Ton, just Gene. After one such round in which we had been paired with a particularly “rowdy” gent, who liked to swear and tell off-color jokes, I asked him why he didn’t tell him who he was or what he did for a living. “Well, because it would make him uncomfortable and he would change the way he was acting. He was here to relax, play golf and blow off steam.”

I have no doubt, knowing my dad, he would do it for the other person. But, the realization was dawning on me, that maybe, just maybe, he was giving himself a break from being the Reverend Doctor Ton. Maybe in some deep recesses of his brain, he needed to be “Just Gene” occasionally. Maybe that is part of the battle going on within his mind today. As the disease takes over more and more of his brain, it is a tug of war between the calling of his lifetime…to lead, to counsel, to challenge, to comfort…and his desire to be…Just Gene.