The Flames Burn Brightly! What started out as a single blog post has blossomed into three! There were so many amazing moments one post could not contain them all. Hopefully, you’ve been keeping up. If not, check out the other two posts The Flames Burn Brightly: The eBook and The Audiobook

As we wrapped up the recording for the audiobook version of The Flames Shall Not Consume You, my mom’s book about tragically being trapped and burned in a fire and her journey to survival, my thoughts turned to the launch of these second editions. My original idea was to release them on September 5th in honor of mom’s birthday. It had become clear the ebook and the audiobook would not be ready at the same time. My Plan B was to release the ebook in September and the audiobook on January 4th, the anniversary of the fire itself. 

Given it was August, I had time to plan a launch event around the audiobook. I immediately began to think in terms of making the event a fundraiser for Eskenazi Health’s Burn Center. This was the evolution of the Burn Center that had saved mom’s life in 1980. Since Amy and I had decided to donate the proceeds of the audiobook royalties to the Burn Center, it was only fitting to expand on that through the launch. 

A conversation adds a great twist

Having hosted successful launch parties for my previous books, I had a pretty good idea of the steps needed. I started to gather estimates for a venue, catering, marketing, music…all the things that go into a good book launch event. Enter Amy Brown, you remember Amy, right? The CEO-turned-narrator of the book?

Amy Brown – Narrator

Amy had shared the story of the creation of the audiobook with her pastor, the pastor of the church my mom and dad had attended, and the church where I had met Amy. What if the church were to hold a launch event? Now THAT was an idea I had not considered. Mom would have loved it! Let’s do it! Amy also suggested that Jay Geshay would be interested in helping to coordinate the event. Jay is a lay leader at the church. I have known him almost as long as I have known Amy. Let’s do it! 

Jay Geshay – MC

We began to make preliminary plans…first order of business…a date! On or about January 4th, the anniversary of the fire, perhaps we would need to slide it a few days because of the holiday. Plenty of time to plan. The recording was complete. As soon as I received the final audio files I could send them to Audible for production. “In 2020, every author was publishing a new book. It took them two months to produce my previous audiobook.” I warned Amy and Jay. “We won’t know the exact date for a while.” 

Some things just take longer

Just like I dramatically underestimated the amount of time it would take to record the book, I dramatically underestimated the time it would take to produce the final audio files. September turned to October, October turned to November. At that point, I called Amy and Jay to say we needed to push the date, no way would it be ready by January 4th, not with the holidays. 

I started receiving the files from Mitch, listening to every heart-wrenching second again. Some of the files had issues (hey, that’s why you review them!). Mitch turned those around quickly. However, it was now mid-December and the files were not yet in Audible’s hands. I sent Amy and Jay a note to suggest we meet the first week in January and see where we are in the process. On December 23rd, I submitted the files to Audible, now I could only wait. 

On December 28th I received an email from Audible. The book was completed and was on sale! After all the amazing moments of the last year, I had blinked–I had doubted. The book would have been ready for a January 4th launch!

Oh, ye of little faith….

Plan B

Instead, I decided to use January 4th to start the promotion of the audiobook on social media. Amy, Jay, and I agreed the event itself would be on February 3rd.

With the social media campaign announcing the release of the audiobook in full swing, the buzz around the book began to grow. Because Amy and I are both heavily involved in the tech community in Indiana, tech leaders from across the state began to comment on and share the posts. As people began to listen to the audiobook, they posted some incredible feedback.

—- quotes from LinkedIn and Facebook…

I had the opportunity to read this book in December and was deeply moved by it. Highly recommended.

Powerful and exceptionally moving true story. Thrilled that Jeff decided to revive and share it with the world.

35 minutes into the book and I’m #spellbound! You were right Jeff Ton (he/him), I did need to bring tissues. Picture a grown man shedding tears on a treadmill listening to Amy bring your mom’s voice and story to life. The story and narration are as good as advertised! You can bet I’ll be listening on the way to the office and back, too. Bravo!!

I read A LOT of books. Most of them are good. Some great. Few make me put them down every few pages just to feel everything I’ve read and really take it in. (Oh…and cry in the middle of a Chipotle’s while reading. No shame in my game.) There are such an incredible series of steps here to bring all of this to life in the 21st century for us. Grateful for the Holy Spirit bringing your mom through everything to gift us with this book. And grateful to you for bringing it to life again.

🙏🏼🙌🏼🙏🏼🙌🏼 so excited to listen to the story be told after reading it! Congrats Jeff Ton (he/him) what a beautiful way to honor your mom and her story.

I finished this book in two days (on Audible) – INCREDIBLE story of facing unimaginable pain physically and emotionally and finding your way through with grace, dignity, grit, and faith. The book is inspiring and instructional in so many ways. I find myself thinking about the book and the author Mary Ellen Ton nearly every day. The book has helped me appreciate all that I have and the personal connection to Jeff Ton (he/him) and the narrator Amy Brown is just icing on the cake!

The plan comes together

In addition to the promotion on typical social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I leveraged my blog Rivers of Thought, and its mailing list (if you’d like to be on the mailing list, send me an email). I also sent personal invitations through email to dozens and dozens of colleagues and connections. 

While all this was going on Jay, Amy, and I met several times to discuss the event itself, both from a logistical perspective and from the program perspective. Amy’s parents, John and Carol Brown

Bill Farkas – Eskenazi Health Foundation

graciously agreed to arrange for catering and to cover the costs. Steven Potts, the Minister of Music of the church and pianist extraordinaire agreed to provide the music for the event. Jay would serve as the master of ceremonies. I would share some thoughts on the process of bringing the second edition to life. And, Amy would read some excerpts from the book. 

As plans were coming together, I was able to connect with Bill Farkas, the VP of Major Gifts for the Eskenazi Health Foundation. Even though I warned him the proceeds probably would not amount to a “major gift” Bill was excited to attend and share some words about the Burn Center at the hospital. 

We were all set…except…except for mother nature. 

Mother Nature threatens

A major winter storm was forecasted to hit Indianapolis on February 2nd and 3rd. It was all over the news for days as January neared its close. 

Do we cancel?

What about all of the invitations? 

They could be wrong, they’ve forecasted huge amounts of snow before and we only received a dusting. 

What if they were right? 

No one would attend. 

But, what if they were wrong? 

But, what if they were right? 

So, on February 1st with the temperature over 60 degrees, I made the decision to postpone. We decided to push it out two weeks to February 15th. Before I went on a walk in my shirt sleeves, I started posting about the change of date, sending countless personal re-invitations with the new date, and calling those I could call. 

They were right. The ice started on February 2nd and the snow moved in on the morning of the 3rd. The snow gauge in our backyard registered 11 inches by the time the snow stopped. Planning was complete. The only thing to do now was to wait…oh and to shovel snow…lots of snow! 

The Event

Ed Sheeran (Jasper Ton)

I wish I had the words – a funny thing for an author to say. The event was perfect. I lost track of the number of people who attended…old friends…new friends…business colleagues (who are also friends)…church members (many of them knew my mom)…family. 

Steven’s music was the perfect backdrop to the conversations. We ran the program format three times over the two hours. Jay welcomed everyone, shared a personal reflection about mom or the book itself, and introduced Bill. Bill said a few words about Eskenazi. Jay then introduced me. I told a story or two about creating the second edition (most of which ended up in this blog series). I introduced Amy and she read a selection from the book. Jay would then lead a short Q&A session. Steven played during the breaks. 

Each time Amy read, I was transported back to the recording studio, I was transported back forty years, I heard my breath catch, I felt my eyes swell. I don’t know how she did it. How did she read in front of all those people and not lose it? I do not think I could have done it. 

The Flames Burn Brightly

What a journey it had been…from Rebeca’s Facebook message in January of 2021 to the evening of February 15, 2022…a journey I will never forget. I know mom would have been thrilled to know her book hit number one on Amazon. She would have loved Amy’s reading of her words. She would be humbled by the number of attendees at the launch. 

Mom, your flames burn brightly in all our lives.

By now you’ve read the story (I hope) of the germination of the idea to release the second edition of my mom’s book, The Flames Shall Not Consume You. If you haven’t you can read it here: The Flames Burn Brightly – The eBook. It started with a message from a young woman from Peru asking about the availability of mom’s book and suggesting it be released in digital formats. That message exploded into a project to publish an ebook version that became an Amazon Best Seller. While that project was in full tilt, I started another project to produce an audiobook version. 

The ebook project was filled with amazing moments! To quote me: 

Call them serendipitous moments, call them gobsmacked moments, call them just a coincidental moment, or, as my old friend Melva calls them, divine coincidences…the project to publish the second edition of The Flames Shall Not Consume You has been full of such moments. I mean, who can’t see the handiwork of the universe in a young woman from [the country of] Peru reaching out inquiring about the book? 

The audiobook project began with an epiphany on the Fourth of July holiday. An audiobook needs a narrator. Seems pretty obvious, right? But who? I had narrated my previous book and had a great time doing it. It didn’t seem right for me to do it. It had to be a woman’s voice. I considered using Audible’s royalty share program. I had used that program when the outstanding Ron Fox narrated my first book. This program enables an author to produce an audiobook using professional voice talent with no out-of-pocket expense. The author and the narrator agree to split the royalties, with no advance and no guarantees. Pretty sweet program (says the author). 

I REALLY wanted it to be someone that I knew. I felt strongly it needed to be a woman in her 40’s…the same age that mom would have been when the fire occurred. As I sat watching the fireworks at our neighbors’ house, it suddenly came to me…why not Amy Brown? I’d known Amy since she was a kid. I was her Junior High School Sunday School teacher. Her parents were one of the first people that welcomed us into the church in the ’80s. My parents loved her parents. Amy is a woman of faith, my mother was a woman of faith. Amy is an incredible business person and champion of women in the workplace, especially in tech, my mother was a trailblazer for women, especially minister’s wives. I knew Amy’s mother, Carol, had an empathetic soul, my mother had an empathetic soul…and I was betting Amy did, too. 

Then the doubts crept in. No way would she agree to do this. She is the CEO of a new tech start-up, she is a mother of young kids, she is a wife…when would she have time to do this? I barely knew her. Yes, I knew her as a teenager, but we had barely seen each other in 25 years. Aside from Sunday School and a youth group canoe trip, I bet all our conversations could be contained in less than an hour.  

I argued with myself for a couple of days, finally, on July 8th, I sent her an email.

Subject: An “out of the blue” question for you

I am working on a project that I need some help on…and I thought of you. 

As you may know, my mom published a couple of books about 40 years ago. Because of the era in which they were published, they were not available on digital platforms like e-books or audiobooks. I have worked with her original publisher to have the publishing rights released to me via her estate. 

My plan is to publish second edition versions in e-book and audiobook format. The latter is where the question for you comes in. Would you consider being “my mom’s voice” and narrating her books for the audio version? 

I know that is a huge block of time and believe me when I say if you can’t give up that much time or otherwise don’t feel like you want to do this, I will totally understand if you say no. …

…Of course, we would need to discuss compensation for your time. This could either be an hourly rate or a royalty share of the sales of the audiobook.

 

Within 45 minutes I had her answer.

First let me say that I am completely honored that you would ask me to do something so personal, so important.  One of my first reactions when reading this email is a “why me?” sort of question—(with a tone of humility, not annoyance). 

Second, it is true that my time is super super thin but this sounds like a project that would be very fulfilling for me.  If we could work very collaboratively on scheduling and there would be ample flexibility I would certainly be open to doing this with you.

An idea on compensation. . .what if, instead of compensating me for my time, we instead devoted a % of the book to a charity or organization in honor of your mom?  We could promote that?

INCREDIBLE!

After a few more emails back and forth, we agreed to meet at the recording studio to do a one-hour session. This would give Amy a chance to experience the process. I wanted to give her an “out” if she tried it and decided it was not for her. 

The First Recording Session

I don’t know if Amy was nervous, if she was she didn’t show it. I, on the other hand, had jello for knees. We were using 416 Wabash Recording Studio with Mitch Lohman as the engineer. I had worked with Mitch and 416 to record my previous book, so I knew what to expect. For Amy, it was all new. The recording studio is a part of 416 Wabash Event Center. When there isn’t an event, there is very little lighting. The style of the Event Center is kind of industrial. It always reminds me of Gotham City in the Michael Keaton Batman movies…dark…industrial…foreboding. 

When you step into the studio, the first thing you see is the control board with thousands of dials, buttons, and sliders. To a former wanna-be rock star it is pretty cool! Behind the board is a couch. That would be my spot during the recording. Just past the board is a door as thick as a bank vault door, through that door is the sound booth. Mitch helped Amy get comfortable with the set up of the boom microphone, headphones, and teleprompter. We were all set. 

Ready to begin…

I took my place on the couch and Mitch swung the sound booth door shut. From where I sat, I could not see Amy. Mitch and Amy could see each other through a window in the wall of the booth. After a few sound checks, Amy began. We started with the Acknowledgements section, challenging because of all the names mom mentions, but pretty straightforward. We were ready for Chapter 1.

Chapter 1

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home

January 4, 1980. A date as indelibly engraved on my mind as the day of my birth. It began like so many other days. The alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. I dragged my body to the shower to the music of WXTZ—the “old people’s radio station,” my rock-fan sons called it.

I was transported. Transported in place and time. Suddenly, I was back in 1980. I was listening to my mom tell the story. Tears welled up in my eyes and began to stream down my face. After a few minutes, Amy paused. She started again and paused. “I need a–I need a moment”, she said. Mitch stepped out of the studio to give her some time. I opened the door to the sound booth, tears in my eyes, and approached Amy. Her eyes were filled with tears as well. I could only croak, “Thank you” as we embraced. This would not be the last time tears were shed during that session and the sessions to come. 

When we finished with the hour, the three of us paused in the studio. 

“Amy, thank you so very much for this. Now that you see what it’s like, go home and think about it for a few days. Let me know if you’d like to do this.” 

“Jeff, I don’t need to think about it, I’m doing this!” 

Let’s Do This!

The next morning I sat down at my desk and found an email from Amy in my inbox.

Good evening Jeff,

I wanted to share this with you in person today but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to share it without getting choked up again…

When you asked me to do the audio-recording of your mom’s book in July, I was both honored and terrified.  But here is why I knew this was something God wanted me to do….

I consider 2017 to be one of the most spiritually pivotal years of my life.   That year, in January,  I chose a special word to be my “beacon” or call for the year.  Actually, the word chose me.  The word was “fire.”  And the scripture that was placed upon my heart when God gave me that word in 2017 was the scripture of the burning bush and particularly the line about the flames not consuming you. 

Fast forward to your request, and it was as though God was calling me by name.  Today being in that sound booth, I truly felt the presence of your mom and dad.  It felt like holy ground.  Thank you for inviting me into this sacred place.

Amy

INCREDIBLE! Another one of those “moments”. 

Isaiah 43:1-2 “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Exodus 3:2 “And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” 

English Standard Version

In my return email, I told her the story of the cover design and my dad’s ashes. I had not told anyone that story except for Carmen and Brad. 

Recording Continues

As we progressed through the next several recording sessions, we shared more tears. Truth be told, I think Mitch might have shed a tear or two. It soon became obvious I had grossly underestimated the number of sessions it would take to complete the book. I assumed the book to be about the same length as my books, yet after four sessions we were not even halfway. With a great deal of apprehension, I checked the manuscript…over 63,000 words! Mom was a prolific writer, my books were only 35,000. Now, I really was apprehensive as I sent an email to Amy telling her how many more sessions were needed! 

I gave her the out. She could stop, no hard feelings, I would totally understand. This was a huge commitment in the first place…now it was twice what I initially told her. Her response? No way am I stopping! What if we made each session 90 minutes or even two hours? 

Can I say INCREDIBLE one more time! 

Doe a Deer

We continued to share the experience of bringing mom’s words to life…

…when the book told the story of the nurses encouraging mom to sing to help her endure the pain of the dressing changes, the only song mom could think of was “Doe, a deer, a female deer”.  When Amy read the passage, she paused and asked quietly, “Do you want me to sing it?” And then she did! (and it was beautiful). 

…when mom confessed to swearing at her mother, “Bull–”, Amy again paused and asked, “Do you want me to say the whole thing? “Bullshit!”

…when mom’s vocabulary stumped us all and Mitch had to Google pronunciation after pronunciation. 

…when Amy would stumble over a phrase and have to repeat it…and repeat it…and repeat it…and we all laughed! Trust me when I say, it is easy to get tongue-tied when you’ve been talking for two hours straight! 

…when I learned Amy was doing the narration cold…no rehearsal…because she wanted to experience the emotion as the story unfolded. Uh, amazing! I don’t know if you have ever tried to read out loud, in front of an audience (even an audience of two), and have it recorded but it is very difficult to make it sound like you aren’t reading, it is even more difficult to put the emotion in your voice and the emphasis in the right place when you don’t know what is coming next. I am a professional speaker and narrated my second book and I certainly rehearsed. I am in AWE. 

…when Amy got to the chapter about, well, about my mom and dad’s sex life after the fire. I was VERY glad I could not see her at that moment. I was 50 shades of…red! 

The Gift

As we neared the end of the book, Amy arrived carrying three boxes. She gave one to Mitch and one to me. Nestled in paper inside each box was a stone…a red stone…carved to look like a flame. “I wanted each of us to have one to remember this experience.” Mitch proudly added his to the curio shelf in the studio. Mine is sitting on the desk in my office. I see it every day. I think of Amy, I think of Mitch, and I think of mom.

 

You would think the story would end with the last audio wave of the recording…but this story was to continue…

 

The Flames Burn Brightly, a story I hinted at in some of my previous posts. This is the story of bringing the second edition of my mom’s book, The Flames Shall Not Consume You to life!

Since first writing about my mother’s passing in 2013, I occasionally hear from people whose lives she impacted. The notes come via comments here on Rivers of Thought, emails, or even Facebook Messenger. Most of them had never met my mother, yet her stories changed their lives in some way. Mom was an author. She was a speaker. Her words and her story were powerful. 

Whenever anyone reaches out, I am moved. I want to learn more about the person. I love to know how mom or mom’s words moved them. Through my mom, my network has expanded to include some incredible people. 

A year ago, I received a note from a young woman from Peru…the country, not the city in Indiana. 

The Flames Shall Not Consume You

The Adventure Begins

Hmmm, digital. To the best of my knowledge, mom’s books had never been released in ebook or audiobook format. Those mediums have been around much longer than you’d think, but in 1980 when mom’s books were published they were not mainstream. Where to start? I had no manuscript, I had no publishing rights. 

I wrote to David C. Cook Publishing, the original publisher of mom’s books. Several weeks later I received a letter from their legal department. To paraphrase, it said, in part, those books were published long ago. There is no information in our records pertaining to the books. Therefore, to the extent David C. Cook Publishing has any rights to those works, we pass those rights to the estate of Mary Ellen Ton.

Hmmm…no records…wasn’t the definitive answer I was looking for when it comes to publishing rights…but what the heck, I can always claim ignorance and beg forgiveness. Let’s rock and roll! Almost a year later, while cleaning out some old files of my mom’s I found a letter from David C. Cook to mom, transferring all rights back to her…heck, I had permission before I even asked (I’m not so much a rebel as I thought). 

Mom wrote two books that were published by David C. Cook. While I wanted the rights to both books, I was particularly interested in The Flames Shall Not Consume You since my new Peruvian friend mentioned it specifically. My mother was nearly killed in a tragic fire back in 1980. She suffered burns over 50% of her body and a broken back. The book is the story of her journey through the fire, its aftermath, her wrestling match with God, and ultimately, her transformation. 

The Manuscript

But now…the manuscript. I could type it all in from a copy of the book. That would only take, like, forEVER. I started Googling transcription services that could help. I found a bunch but I was nervous about using an unknown service. Then it struck me. Why not reach out to my editor Lori Paximadis. She may have a service she recommends. As it turned out, Lori provides that service herself! She bought a copy of both of mom’s books from eBay, ripped the spine off of them, ran them through an OCR scanner to convert them to text files, and then corrected all the OCR misreads. 

Once she had the manuscripts in a usable format, she reviewed them and recommended minor changes to bring them to modern editing standards. I reviewed each of her recommendations and accepted most of them. One item got past both of us…and the original editors. It’s like nails on a chalkboard every time I hear it now. To anyone that spots it or hears it, let me know, you will win a fabulous prize! 

The Cover

While Lori was working her magic on the manuscripts, I reached out to my graphics designer, the amazing Jennifer Vogel. Jennifer (or JVo as we call her) and I have been working together now for about four years. PowerPoints, social media, webinars, webcasts, and book covers…she brings my words to life through imagery. There was no one else I would entrust with bringing my mom’s book cover back to life. 

The Flames Shall Not Consume You

I think you will agree, she did a beautiful job! 

Call them serendipitous moments, call them gobsmacked moments, call them just a coincidental moment, or, as my old friend Melva calls them, divine coincidences…the project to publish the second edition of The Flames Shall Not Consume You has been full of such moments. I mean, who can’t see the handiwork of the universe in a young woman from Peru reaching out inquiring about the book? 

Another one of those moments occurred just weeks before the publication of the ebook when I received the cover images from JVo. I wrote about this moment in part two of my series A Journey Through the Land of Serendip. Rather than making you click through to read the story, I will share it here…but you SHOULD click through and read the full series after you finish this post! 

A Serendipitous Moment

In the summer of ‘21, Carmen (my wife), Brad (one of my sons), and I traveled to Greenlake, Wisconsin to scatter dad’s ashes in the same place we had spread mom’s back in ‘14. As we spread his ashes, some fell on the surface of the lake. As the waves rolled in, the ashes began to spread. To me, they looked like wisps of smoke. The next morning, I was reviewing the cover designs Jennifer had sent. Her design of flowers, flames, and smoke is a beautiful reimagination of the original cover.

I saw it immediately…wisps of smoke…wisps of smoke…the ashes spreading across the surface of the lake. I immediately pulled up the photo of the water I had taken the day before. The wisps of ashes on the lake were a perfect overlay of the wisps of smoke in Jennifer’s image. Chills ran down my spine, and tears ran down my cheeks. 

Climbing the List

With the book cover in hand (well, not physically in hand, more like with the book cover in cloud), I finalized the ebook version for release on Amazon. My goal was to release the second edition on September 5, 2021 on what would have been mom’s 88th birthday. My dream was to sell enough copies for the book to hit the Amazon Best Seller List, my fantasy was to have it hit number one. I began to publicize the launch to family, friends, acquaintances, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, Twitter and Instagram followers, and my newsletter subscribers. My message of “Buy an advance copy, help make my mom a best-selling author” was spread across every channel I could find. 

The Flames Shall Not Consume YouIt worked!! The Flames Shall Not Consume You was the number one new release in five different categories…but it was better than that…it hit number one bestseller (not just new releases) in the Survival category!!! NUMBER ONE! Mary Ellen Ton was a best-selling author!!

The Flames Shall Not Consume You

 

But! The story doesn’t end here! Wait until you hear the story of bringing mom’s words to LIFE. The project to create the audiobook is filled with more of those amazing moments! Until next time…

 

This past fall was to be my 45th high school reunion (yes, FORTY-FIFTH, I know, I’m old). We also learned last summer that the re-dedication celebration of the memorial in honor of my great-great-grandparents was to be held the very same day.

Let the wrestling match in my head begin…

…attend the reunion and see friends I had not seen in five years (or 45 years) …

…attend a celebration in Chicago with people we did not know…

…spend three days in Evansville attending dinners and lunches…

…drive to a celebration we knew little about…

…my high school days were far from my glory days (queue Bruce Springsteen) …

…being a direct descendant of the honorees would make us mini-celebrities…

…I was a shy, quiet, nerd in high school (I know, hard to believe, right?) …

…we would undoubtedly learn more about our family history…

…it would be a chance to see Hal, Beth, Tim, Kim, Jim, Harold, and others…

…besides, we’d already paid for the reunion…

…Chicago is a long way to go for an hour ceremony…

I chose the reunion.

A Funny thing happened on the way…to the reunion

As summer turned to fall, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the decision a time or two (or, three), but did not waiver. Just after Labor Day, I received a message from a buddy of mine from high school. He needed to talk to me about something, could I jump on a call? Of course! Hal was one of those high school friends that I had reconnected with over the last decade. He and his wife, Beth (who I knew from church youth group as a kid) are one of the couples Carmen and I make a point to stay in touch with and to see them when we can. They have both had health scares since our last reunion five years ago. I dreaded the news he was likely to share.

As it turned out, Hal wanted to talk about the reunion. He was one of our class officers and has been involved in planning each reunion. Boy, was I relieved?!!? His news? It seems the planning committee had reached an impasse on masks/no masks, vaccines/no vaccines related to the pandemic. Rather than push the issue and cause hard feelings, the reunion was being canceled! No offense to Hal nor any of the other committee members, but I almost cheered. We immediately started making plans to attend the re-dedication celebration in South Holland.

A Funny thing happened on our way…to the re-dedication

I don’t recall when Carmen and I got the bug for tromping through cemeteries, nor do I recall how many we have tromped through. We have visited the graves of ancestors, historical figures, and servicemen and women (known to us and not) across the U.S and in Europe. It only seemed fitting we should visit Jan and Aagje’s graves in Mount Greenwood on our way to a ceremony rededicating a monument to their honor.

The 16th of October found us heading up I-65 early enough to spend an hour or so investigating the graves, grab lunch, and make it to the church on time. It was a crisp autumn day, a great day for exploring a cemetery for graves of ancestors and pioneers. Locating the Ton area was easy-peasy (thanks to FindaGrave.com!). Many of the headstones had been updated since the original internment. Some, however, were old enough to render them unreadable. We decided to venture over to the Cemetery office to investigate the plot maps.

The woman in the office was incredibly helpful. She pulled out records from 125 years ago when Jan died and was buried. We reviewed plot maps (and wished we had stopped in before trying to make sense of the headstones, would have made THAT a lot easier!). We learned enough to know we would like to go back when we have more time. We’d love to dig into some of those old records. Jan’s record indicates he died at home from cancer of the perineum (if I am reading the handwriting properly).

We decided we wanted to take the time to place flowers on Jan and Aagje’s headstones, so we headed to a nearby florist. As we talked with the clerk, we learned the shop typically closed at noon. She just happened to be staying late to meet with someone who had not arrived yet to pick up an arrangement. As we were preparing to leave, she asked if we would mind staying. The person she was supposed to meet was from the “east side”. I remember thinking, isn’t the east side of Chicago a lake? A little perplexed, but assuming from her tone we knew the source of her uneasiness. Not knowing what else to do, we agreed to stay. A few minutes later our suspicions were confirmed as two men, two African American men, arrived to pick up an arrangement for their mother’s plot.

It was a non-event. They picked up their flowers. They chatted cordially, and they left.

The irony. We had driven several hours to pay our respects to and celebrate emigrants who risked jail, bodily harm, and deportation to aid fellow human beings as they sought their freedom, and the clerk was apprehensive about meeting two men from “the east side”.  Over lunch, Carmen and I tried to focus on the ceremony ahead, but our minds kept returning to the clash of images separated by 150 years…

…was she being racist?

…was she being sensible and safe?

…as a woman, was she afraid to be alone with two men?

…was she afraid to be alone with them because they were from “the East Side”?

…was she afraid to be alone with them because she assumed they would be African American?

…she had no idea what reaction we would have, why did she even say anything?

…what should WE have done or said? We, ourselves, had been warned to be careful driving around Roseland because “it’s not a good area”.

 

Our lunch over, we headed to the Re-dedication Ceremony. We pushed the interaction out of our minds so we could be fully present at the celebration of the Memorial Garden.

The Re-dedication; a family reunion; and family extended

The memorial to Jan and Aagje is on the grounds of the First Reformed Church of South Holland. The site for the memorial was chosen because Jan had served as one of the first deacons of the church. We arrived a few minutes before the re-dedication was to begin. As soon as Carmen mentioned to the greeter that we were descendants of Jan and Aagje, we were promptly escorted into the downstairs meeting hall.

We were quickly introduced to Robin Scheldberg from the South Holland Historical Society. You may recall from my earlier ramblings; Robin had reached out to me after discovering one of my posts about Jan and Aagje. It was she that first told us about the rededication. Within moments we reunited with Nadine Harris Clark, the gardener extraordinaire who maintains the memorial gardens and who is also the aunt of LeRone Branch. You may recall from my earlier posts, LeRone was the Eagle Scout who led the effort to build the memorial.

We were both very anxious to meet LeRone. Personally, I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for honoring my great grandparents. Nadine shepherded us across the room in his direction. Before we reached LeRone, she stopped to introduce us to his Uncle Mike. Mike Cowan drafted the original design of the hardscape for the memorial and volunteers his time to help keep the gardens manicured.

Mike’s design is breathtaking. A 9,000-pound piece of granite serves as the centerpiece. Railroad tracks run across the garden disappear under the granite and reappear on the other side to represent the Underground Railroad. Surrounding the stone is a garden of flowers and grasses that would have been native to the prairie south of Chicago 150 years ago. A brick walkway leads from the drive to the memorial. A pair of benches sit to either side so one can sit and soak it all in.

After thanking Mike for his efforts and his design, we stepped across the room to shake hands with the man of the hour, LeRone. LeRone is now in his mid-twenties and a tax accountant for one of the big four firms. Ten years ago, as an aspiring Eagle Scout, he chose this project as his Eagle Scout Service project to complete the requirements of the rank. Now, I have never met a real rock star before, but my heart was racing like I was getting ready to shake hands with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, or Ronnie Wood! What an amazing undertaking it must have been for a kid of, what? sixteen!

LeRone Branch

It was an honor to shake his hand, thank him for memorializing Jan and Aagje, and chat with him for a few minutes. His project serves primarily as a reminder of the brave souls who escaped enslavement and sought freedom by traveling on foot, by boat, sometimes by train. Many times, their ultimate destination was Canada. As historian Larry McClellan states, “to find freedom, they had to leave the land of the free”. Bravery is not the lack of fear, but rather the courage to act in the face of fear. As I view the memorial, yes, I think of Jan and Aagje, but more than those two ancestors, I think of the thousands of men, women, and children who traveled in, not just fear, but terror, towards freedom and a better life.

Eenigenburg – Ton Reunion

After chatting with LeRone, we made our way over to one of the display tables. It was covered with Ton family history pieces, most of which we had not seen before. We soon learned the pieces were from the collection of the keynote speaker, Merritt Bethig. Merritt is a descendant of my great-great-grandfather, Jan Ton of Holland (The Netherlands). Jan’s daughter Jannetje was my great-grandfather Jan’s sister. She married Gerrit Eenigenburg and emigrated to the U.S. on the same ship as Jan and Aagje. We soon learned there were many Eenigenburgs in attendance. We had a great time having a mini–Ton Family reunion. We met Merritt, of course, and his sister Jean Bristow. We also met Marie Eenigenburg Min and her cousin Bob Eenigenburg.

Moments before the program was to begin Nadine approached me. Somewhat nervously she asked if I would be willing to say a few words during the program. With a quick glance at Carmen, I smiled and said, “absolutely, I would be honored”. As Nadine walked away, I turned to Carmen and said with a chuckle, “now…to think about what I am going to say…”.

The Program – the distant past; the not-so-distant past;  and the future

Nadine quieted the crowd and thanked everyone for attending the rededication ceremony. She asked LeRone to come and sit in one of the chairs sitting in the front of the room. Somewhat shyly, and perhaps a little embarrassed with all the attention, he took his place.

Pastor Jim Oord of the First Reformed Church welcomed us to the church. He told a short story of Jan bringing firewood to the first pastors of the church to help keep them (and the church warm). The image of Jan, with his wagon full of wood, riding across the prairie to the church served as another piece of the puzzle forming the picture of Jan and Aagje.

Special recognition was given to Anthony Volek of Volek Brothers Construction, Anthony was one of LeRone’s Scout Masters. Not only did he provide leadership, but he had access to the heavy equipment needed to build the hardscape, including moving the 9,000-pound boulder from the quarry to the site. Amazing what a team of Scouts can do in a day…with some great leaders and the right equipment!

The next speaker was Bill Paarlberg Past President of the South Holland Historical Society, it was his suggestion to honor Jan and Aagje in this way that led to the entire project. The Historical Society has a great collection of materials that tell the story of the area from the early 1800s through today. You can bet Carmen and I will be diving deep into these materials!

Merritt Bethig

For his keynote presentation, Merritt Bethig focused on the trip from The Netherlands, to France, to New York, and ultimately, to High and Low Prairie south of Chicago (today’s Roseland and South Holland). The Hollanders, as they came to be called, consisted of 65 men, women, and children who left their homeland and headed to America in 1849. Not long into the journey, the ship was besieged with cholera. 17 of the Hollanders died. One can only imagine the filth, the smells, the vermin, and the death that made the journey intolerable.

From New York, they traveled the Hudson River to the Erie Canal. After traversing the Canal, they boarded another ship to navigate the Great Lakes, arriving at the port of Chicago 60 some-odd days since leaving their homeland. Upon arriving in Chicago, they met up with some Hollanders who had preceded them and settled about 20 miles south in the prairie lands near the Little Calumet River. Given the low-lying marshy lands in the area, it must have felt a bit like home.

Much of Merritt’s talk was based on the book by another Ton relative, Jill Eenigenburg. Her book, From Tulipland to Roseland and Back, tells the story of the Eenigenburg family and the creation of a museum in the village of Eenigenburg, The Netherlands. The Tons and the Eenigenburgs have been intertwined for over 170 years!

After the keynote, Nadine turned to me and asked me to speak. My first instinct was to walk across the front of the room to LeRone, shake his hand, and thank him for honoring my ancestors. I then spoke for a few minutes about our “discovery” of the story of Jan and Aagje and our trip to the area the previous summer.

Tom Sheppard took up the story and shared about the Tons’ involvement in the Underground Railroad. Tom is one of the founders of the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project. He provided an update on the project including a canoe trail on the Little Calumet and signage to be placed in several spots in the area, including at the site of Jan and Aagje’s farm.

It was now time to hear from the man of the hour, LeRone Branch himself. When Bill Paarlberg suggested the idea of a memorial to the Underground Railroad and Jan and Aagje Ton, LeRone pictured a plaque on a pole. Pretty simple, right? A plaque on a pole…until Uncle Mike got ahold of the idea! LeRone’s vision of a plaque on a pole turned into quite a project! LeRone graciously thanked all those involved in the original project, as well as those responsible for the rededication ceremony itself.

The final speaker of the day was Nadine herself. She talked about the plant selection for the gardens and the group of volunteers that maintain them. The group researched the types of plants that would have been native to the Great Lakes Region at the time. They continue to research and as they learn more, they update the garden.

After the program, there was time to view the exhibits, chat with new friends, and snap a picture or two (or three or four). A group of us then walked out to the memorial. It had changed. It had taken on new meanings. The words from the program echoed in our heads and hearts. Here we were surrounded by family…cousins who had never met. Here we were surrounded by new friends…Nadine, her sisters, LeRone, Uncle Mike…new friends that now felt like family.

How I wish the clerk at the florist could have joined us that day. How I wish she could have felt what we felt that day. How I wish…

 

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

I know this was a long post. Thank you for sticking with me through the story! Before I wrap things up, I want to name some names, as a way of thanking THEM for the work they have done.

Development of the Memorial Garden

Garden Construction: July 9, 2011

Initial Planting: August 10, 2011

Dedication: October 15, 2011

  • South Holland Historical Society and Bill Paarlberg (initiated project)
  • Boy Scout Troop 409 and Scoutmasters Mark Cipich and Anthony Volek
  • South Holland Garden Club
  • Larry McClellan and Paul Petraitis, Historians
  • Paul Ton, Original Working Committee
  • Rochelle Harris Branch (LeRone’s Mother), Original Working Committee
  • Yolanda Harris, Original Working Committee
  • Pastor Mel DeVries, First Reformed Church and Original Working Committee (Deceased)
  • Richard Zimmerman, First Reformed Church, and Original Working Committee.
  • Robin Scheldberg, President, South Holland Historical Society, and President, South Holland Garden Club
  • Lynn Larsen, South Holland Historical Society, South Holland Garden Club, and Original Working Committee
  • Nadine Harris Clark Garden Coach
  • Mike Cowan, drafted the original design of the hardscape and currently helps maintain the garden

Rededication Ceremony

  • Nadine Harris Clark
  • Robin Scheldberg
  • Richard Zimmerman
  • Pastor Jim Oord, First Reformed Church of South Holland
  • The Congregation of the First Reformed Church of South Holland
  • Weed and Feed Club (Charlie and Rich)
  • South Holland Garden Club
  • South Holland Historical Society

A special, heartfelt thanks to LeRone Branch and Nadine Harris Clark, truly a part of our family.

Continue with me as our Journey Through the Land of Serendip comes to an end. You may recall from the first two installments, this past summer two separate storylines from this blog collided in a wonderful adventure. We wrap up that adventure with one last stop on our journey through the Land of Serendip in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. 

Our journey began with a visit to Roseland and South Holland on the south side of Chicago. We then spent two days reminiscing and reuniting dad’s ashes with mom’s at Green Lake, Wisconsin. On that Monday, it was time to head home, but not by our familiar route. We had been invited to stop at the home of Duane and June DeYoung. Duane is my 3rd cousin, descended from Jan and Aagje Ton through their daughter, Pieternella, sister of my great grandfather, their son George. You may recall from the first leg of our journey, Duane had reached out to me after reading one of my posts here on Rivers of Thought. 

Always game for an adventure, Carmen, Brad, and I decided to take the backroads from Green Lake to Lake Geneva and stay off the interstates. Wisconsin is a beautiful state and we enjoyed the rolling hills, the small towns, and the fields and pastures as we traveled the web of state roads, county roads, and well, even a gravel road or two. Our trip to Lake Geneva was without incident, well…except for that car I didn’t see coming on one of the little country roads, almost pulling out in front of it. No harm, no foul…just an increased heart rate for the three of us! 

Duane had inherited a wonderful collection of photographs and keepsakes from his parents. His collection included many items of Ton family history. His prized possession was a painting he had commissioned based on a photograph of Jan and Aagje’s house in Roseland. Jan and Aagje spent most of their years on a farm on the banks of the Little Calumet River. When Jan retired from farming, he had a home built for their family “closer to town” in 1893. Their home stood at 416 W. 103rd Street until 1960 when it was torn down to make room for a parking lot.  

His collection included photographs of Jan and Aagje, as well as, Lijntje (Steenbergen) Van Der Sijde, Aagje’s mother. There was also a Christmas Card sent by the Pullman Bank & Trust that featured Jan and Aagje’s house. It was this image that Duane used for the painting. 

We spent hours pouring over his collection. Especially the album that contained the history of the Ton Family Reunions. There was a copy of almost every program dating back to the first reunion in 1896, the year Jan died. After his death, his son Cornelius organized a reunion to honor his father. The family (and the reunion) continued to grow. By 1911 the family decided to incorporate and elect officers. In 1945, the 50th-anniversary reunion, the family boasted 1,500 members. Life Magazine sent reporters and photographers and dedicated several pages in the September issue to the reunion. The Reunions would last another 10 years. In 1954, the members voted to make the 1955 reunion their last.  

The programs included a wealth of information, including, births, deaths, marriages, and military service. There were even lyrics to the Ton Family song printed in most years. The reunions included speeches, games and activities, and a lot of storytelling! 

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip has been all about collisions of storylines…the discovery of Jan and Aagje’s service on the underground railroad, colliding with the series of fairy tales I had written surrounding my father’s death, and lastly, the collision with the publication of the second edition of mom’s book. Lastly…or so I thought. There was another collision of storylines about to happen.

But first…we had a great visit with Duane and June. After sifting through his collection and dining on a lovely lunch prepared by June, we were on our way back to Indiana and home. Growing tired, we opted for interstate travel in lieu of the backroads! 

This fall, in a desire to learn more about the Ton family history, I was doing some research between appointments. I stumbled across a letter. A letter that would be yet another collision of storylines. 

In 2014, I wrote a series of blogs titled the Roosevelt River. They were reflections and insights uncovered in 2013 during sessions with my executive coach, Dr. Dan Miller. Dan’s coaching is based on history. He uses the metaphor of a river to talk about life’s journeys. 2013 was my first year working with Dan. That year we explored the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has been an integral part of my leadership development ever since. (If you haven’t read Roosevelt River, I encourage you to do so. There are some incredible leadership lessons there, including from my dad, my brother, Marty McFly, and Frank Reagan.)

That is why I almost fell out of my chair when I Googled Cornelius J. Ton and found this entry: 

 

Hardly able to contain myself, I clicked the link and found this: 

A letter from Theodore Roosevelt to my second great uncle! Oh, how I wish I could see the actual letter. Oh, how I wish I could see the letter Cornelius wrote to Roosevelt! The letter does not state the private event Cornelius was asking Roosevelt to attend. Given the reference to the Ton Family, I can only conjecture that he was inviting him to speak at the reunion in 1911 or 1912. 

There you go. Another serendipitous collision. This series has been about collisions of storylines, written and unwritten. It began when the series “A Journey” collided with the fairy tale series, “The Land of Serendip”. That story then collided with the story of bringing my mom’s book back to life. Those stories then collided here with a series I wrote in 2014. Collisions, connections, coincidences, no matter what we call them, life is a web of stories…our stories. I don’t know where this journey will take us next, I don’t know where this journey will end. What I do know is that I look forward to the insights and lessons that lay around the next bend in the river! 

Related Posts:

Part II: A Journey Through the Land of Serendip 

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip [Part I]

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

The Land of Serendip Revisited

The Land of Serendip – The Final Chapter

A Journey 

A Journey Continues

 

Continue with me on our journey, A Journey Through the Land of Serendip. You may recall from the first installment (and if you don’t you can read it here), this past summer two separate storylines from this blog collided in a wonderful adventure. That adventure continues here…and collides with a third storyline…a storyline I have yet to write!

After spending a magical afternoon on Chicago’s south side in the communities of Roseland and South Holland, we continued our journey north toward the Green Lake area. Green Lake, more specifically, the Green Lake Conference Center has always held a special place in our hearts. In the post, Shadows of Days Gone By, you can read about our family’s ties to this slice of heaven-on-earth (and no, that is not the collision of the third storyline). In 2014, we added to the legacy when the family had gathered lakeside to scatter my mother’s ashes near one of the pergolas on Memory Lane. This was our first return since that day. 

A Journey Through the Land of SerendipOne of the things both my parents loved to do in their later years at Green Lake was to explore the Amish communities south of the lake. Carmen and I had explored these areas many times during our visits with them. Brad, now 37, had never had the experience. I was excited when he decided to join us on the trek. We would honor my parents by visiting the Amish Pleasant View Bakery and indulging in fresh, warm cinnamon rolls as big as your head; shopping at Mishler’s Country Store; and, stocking up on enough cheese for a year at the Kingston Creamery. Gene and Mary Ellen would have been proud! 

Later in the morning, we arrived at the Conference Center. Even after being away for seven years, I got the same ol’ feelings driving through the gates and down the main road. Memories of dozens of visits. Warm, pleasant memories. Family. Friends. Adventures galore. Brad had plans to honor his grandfather the best he knew how…by playing a round of golf at Lawsonia, the world-class course located right on the grounds of the conference center. It was his “Popper”, my dad, that first introduced him to golf. 

Throughout the years whenever my kids and I or my sister and her kids visited, Popper would take them golf ball hunting. You see, Lawsonia is a tough course. I always felt like I had a good round if I only lost a handful of golf balls during a round. The grandsons loved their time hunting with Popper. Later as they got older, he would take them for a round. Brad loves golf. I think he always felt closest to my dad when they were playing! “Good one, Brad!”, “You really walloped that one, Brad”, “Keep an eye on where it goes into the woods, Brad” (hey, not every shot can be a good one!). 

“Still no collision of the third storyline”, you say? I know, I know, I’ll get there, I promise! 

We dropped Brad off at the course and Carmen and I headed into town to check-in to our hotel and visit the annual art festival that happens every summer (another favorite of Mary Ellen…not sure about Gene). After a couple of hours of shopping, we picked up Brad and headed out to dinner at another Gene-and-Mary-Ellen-later-in-life-favorite, Norton’s Restaurant. At dinner, we shared stories. Stories of our times at Green Lake…of our times with mom and dad…times with dad, Popper, Gene, the Reverend Doctor Ton. 

Sunday morning, we picked up Brad from the BNB where he was staying and headed, once again, to the grounds of the Conference Center. A worshipful silence fell on us as we got out of the car and walked to Memory Lane. We wandered along the walkway through the plaques and memorials to Baptist leaders of the last half-century or more. Pergolas offer shade and benches for reflection. They too are covered with plaques. Without speaking we each in turn separated ourselves from the others to be alone with our thoughts. We discovered and re-discovered a plaque to mom, a plaque to both mom and dad, a plaque to dad, finally stopping at the last pergola. 

This was the place. On the pergola was a plaque honoring my grandmother and grandfather, my mother’s parents. This was where we had gathered seven years ago. My dad, siblings, my aunt, and some friends. This was where we each said our goodbyes to mom as we scattered her to the wind and the water. Of all the life moments I have documented in this blog, I don’t think I have ever written about that day. As I think of that day now, that will be a story I need to write. What is important for our story today is what dad used that day. 

As we approached the pergola in 2014, dad had a large brown bowl filled to the brim with, well, with mom. I immediately recognized the bowl as one we had used often growing up…mostly to serve mashed potatoes. Beside the bowl was a yellow measuring cup. This was the measuring cup mom had used to fill her iron with water. THAT is what dad had selected to use for this somber, bittersweet time. (uh, one of the early signs of the dementia that would later take him over). Rather fitting for a family that relied on humor and sarcasm to share its feelings! 

During one of the downsizings dad would endure in the ensuing years, Carmen saved those two precious items. It was into that brown bowl I now poured dad’s ashes. We would use the same yellow measuring cup to scoop him up and scatter him to the wind and water. To these, we added a chalice to share in communion. For years, our family would pass the cup to mark significant moments in our lives…a marriage…a birth. Forty years ago, we passed the cup surrounding mom’s hospital bed as she lay near death from a devastating fire. 

Brad, Carmen, and I stood in the pergola. I read the eulogy I had shared at dad’s funeral (honestly, it was easier to read at the funeral than it was in those moments…” Niagra Falls, Frankie”). In turn, we each remembered dad/Popper in our own words, sipped from the cup, took a scoop, and scattered him into the breeze with the sun sparkling off the surface of the lake. We then took a scoop in honor of each of the family members who could not be with us that day and scattered them. Dad was now with mom. 

As I gazed down the bank, I noticed some of his ashes had filtered through the shrubbery on the bank and landed in the water. As the waves were rolling into the bank, the ashes were dispersing on the surface. It looked like wisps of smoke as the tendrils of ash spread. I snapped a picture with my phone. 

Once we completed our goodbyes, we quietly walked back to the car. (I cannot confirm nor deny that we saved a scoop to scatter at the 8th hole tee box on the Links course at Lawsonia). The three of us then spent time exploring the grounds, sharing stories, climbing Judson Tower, sharing stories, walking the lakeshore, and, yes, sharing stories. We left the grounds not knowing when or if any of us would return. 

“Uh, but what about the collision?”

The next morning as we were preparing to leave and head home, I was sitting on the balcony sipping my coffee while Carmen got ready. I took those moments to check my email. On the drive up, I had received an email from my graphics designer extraordinaire. 

For the past several months I had been working on a new book project. A labor of love. I am releasing the 2nd edition of a book my mom wrote forty years ago. In 1980, mom was almost killed in a fire. She survived. Not only did she survive, but she also wrote a book. The Flames Shall Not Consume You is a book about her journey through the fire, its aftermath, and her wrestling match with God. My own journey to publishing this book has been an incredible journey of love, friendships old and new, and serendipitous moments (remember we are traveling through the Land of Serendip). 

My designer’s email contained some sample cover designs. I opened the first one. The collision took my breath away. Her cover design was that of a flower on fire. As the flower burned, wisps of smoke extended from the flames. Wisps of smoke spreading into the air…smoke… smoke spreading across the water. I pulled out the photo I had snapped yesterday of dad’s ashes on the surface of Green Lake. The tendrils of smoke were a perfect overlay for the cover image. Chills ran down my spine. Tears ran down my cheeks. 

A collision of epic proportions. Three storylines come together on a balcony in Green Lake, Wisconsin. The Land of Serendip, a series of fairy tales telling the story of my dad’s battle with dementia; A Journey, a series about the discovery of my great-great-grandparents’ involvement with the Underground Railroad; and the, yet to be written series, The Flame Burns Brightly, relaying the journey of bringing mom’s books back to life.

Related Posts:

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip [Part I]

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

The Land of Serendip Revisited

The Land of Serendip – The Final Chapter

A Journey 

A Journey Continues

Welcome to the collision of two storylines. I don’t know how often this happens to other authors, but I believe this is a first for me in over a decade of blogging. A few years ago I wrote a series of posts in the form of fairy tales. The fairy tales took place in a magical kingdom called Serendip and were a way to convey the story of my father’s declining health. The final installment was written just a few days after his death in December of 2019. Last year I started another series titled “A Journey” after I made a surprising discovery about my great-great-grandparents. I learned they operated a stop on the underground railroad for a number of years. I promised to continue to provide updates as we discovered more of the story. Those two stories came together this past summer. 

Even though the title of the third installment of the fairy tale series was “The Land of Serendip – The Final Chapter”, it was not the final chapter. My father’s wish was to have his ashes scattered in Green Lake, Wisconsin where we had scattered mom’s ashes in 2014. Our plans to make that trek in the summer of 2020 were derailed by, yep, the global pandemic. We put our plans on the shelf, well, actually, we put dad on the shelf…literally. 

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip

Jan & Aagje Ton

Early in the summer, we made the discovery about my great-great-grandparents. That prompted me to write the “A Journey” series. Fast forward to the summer of 2021. We began to make plans to take dad to be with mom. Our plans included a stop in South Holland, Illinois, to visit the site of the Jan and Aagje (pronounced ahk-e-ya) Ton Memorial Gardens. Jan and Aagje are my great-great-grandparents. In June, almost a year to the day since I posted the first installment of that series, Duane DeYoung left a comment on the post. He, too, is a descendant of Jan and Aagje. 

A few weeks later, I received a letter, yes, an actual letter. The return address was the South Holland Historical Society. Curious, I tore open the envelope. Inside was a letter from Robin Schedberg, she, too, found my post. She was writing to let me know about a rededication ceremony to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the memorial garden. The ceremony was scheduled for October 16th. The same date as my…well, I’m not saying which one, suffice it to say I am old…high school reunion five hours away in the opposite direction. Over the summer we texted and emailed several times. Robin sent some wonderful photographs of some historical pieces they have in the Society library. 

We toyed with the idea of delaying our trip to scatter dad’s ashes until October but given the conflict with the reunion and the fact that October is the off-season for the Green Lake area, we decided to move ahead with our plans for an August trip. Our itinerary included a stop in South Holland to meet local historian, Larry McClellan, view the memorial, and tour the area. We would continue to Green Lake, spend a couple of days, scatter dad’s ashes and then return home. At the invitation of Duane DeYoung, we planned to stop by his home in Wisconsin on our return trip. 

Days before we were to embark on our adventure, Duane wrote saying he had been in contact with Robin and she could meet us on Monday afternoon in South Holland. It had not occurred to me to share our full itinerary with him. I picked up the phone and called him. Imagine that a letter and a phone call in the same story! I explained Larry’s availability was limited to Friday and we were planning to meet him at the memorial site. A day or so later, Duane let me know that he and his wife June would meet us at the site on Friday, and we were still more than welcome to stop by their home the following Monday. 

With that preamble, welcome to “A Journey Through the Land of Serendip”. Friday morning, August 13th, my wife, Carmen, my son, Brad and I loaded the car and headed north. Oh yeah, dad was with us too, but he didn’t help load the car. I can’t tell you how many times one of us asked, “so, do we have dad?”. No one wanted to drive all day without the guest of honor! 

Trying to coordinate a meetup on the South Side of Chicago, when one group was coming from Indianapolis (three hours away), another group was coming from Lake Geneva (a couple of hours away), and the tour guide, although local, on a tight schedule was a little tricky, especially when Chicago traffic can change in an instant. What did we do before text messaging, GPS, and traffic apps? We arrived at the memorial a few minutes before the appointed time. The memorial sits on the grounds of the First Reformed Church of South Holland, somewhat apropos considering my father was a minister. We learned that Jan had been one of the founders of the church and served as a Deacon for a number of years. That was one of the reasons for selecting the site, and one of the reasons Jan and Aagje were selected to be honored and remembered. 

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip

Carmen, Jeff & Brad Ton

Hoping to have some private time at the memorial, we were a little disappointed to see a woman tending the flowers in the garden surrounding the monument. Our disappointment was short-lived as once again the magic of serendipity struck. The woman tending the flowers was Nadine Harris-Clark, the aunt of LeRone Branch, the Eagle Scout who was the force behind the memorial.  We soon learned, Larry had given her a heads up we would be there. Not only did she want to meet us, but she also brought a photo album of the building of the memorial. She was beaming with pride as she talked about the project, the care that had been taken to select plants native to the area to surround the monument, and her nephew LeRone.  

The memorial itself is a 9,000-pound piece of granite. We had seen pictures of the gardens and the stone the previous year when we discovered this amazing story. What was hard to see in the pictures were the railroad tracks that ran under the stone as a symbol of the underground railroad. The scene was breathtaking. The tracks seemed to emerge from the native flowers, disappear underground, and reemerge on the other side of the stone, only to disappear again in the flowers. We were all near tears as we took it all in. 

A Journey Through the Land of SerendipLarry soon arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Duane and June. Let the reunion commence! Larry has been researching the history of the area, the Tons, and the Underground Railroad for years. He has written numerous articles and books on the subject. We stood near the monument while he shared the history with us. He believes between four and five hundred Freedom Seekers passed through this area on their way to Canada. “They had to leave the land of the free, to become free”, he stated. 

Freedom Seekers would travel north from Missouri, western Kentucky, and parts south, along the Mississippi and the Illinois Rivers and then overland to Chicago. Arriving in Chicago, they would rest before heading south around Lake Michigan and on to Detroit where they would cross into Canada. It was on the southern trek around the lake they likely encountered my great-great-grandparents. Jan and Aagje owned a farm on the northern shore of the Little Calumet River. They would hide them, feed them, provide them a place to rest, and then help them on their way to Indiana. They had purchased the farm from George Dolton, who operated first a ferry then a toll bridge over the river. It is likely Dolton who directed many of the Freedom Seekers to the Ton Farm. 

After the history lesson, Larry, Duane, and Brad crammed into the backseat of our SUV and we drove to the location of the Ton Farm. Larry continued our history lesson as we drove, identifying this road and that road as old Indian trails and routes Jan would have taken to get to Indiana with his precious cargo. We crossed the river at the Indiana Avenue bridge. This would have been where Dolton’s toll bridge once spanned the water. 

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip

Location of the Ton Farm

Chicago’s Finest Marina now sits on the site of the Ton Farm. The owner of the marina, retired Chicago Police Officer, Ronald Gaines, was unable to meet us and the gates were locked. We took turns peering through the iron gate at what would have been the location of the Ton home. The farm was originally 40 acres, so we walked a gravel road that ran along the river. It was an incredible feeling to walk where my ancestors would have walked 170 years ago and to peer out on the river they peered upon. 

Larry shared the Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project was a group of volunteers who are researching the area and identifying historical places of interest. They are creating a water trail down on the river and will be placing markers, one of which will be at the Ton site. Being avid canoeists in our younger days, we are looking forward to paddling the trail! We piled back into the car and headed back to the Church, not before stopping on the Indiana Avenue bridge so Carmen could take a picture looking from the bridge to the farm a short distance downstream. 

 

Once back to the church, we bid adieu to Larry and Nadine (who was still there tending to the flowers). Duane and June left to meet Robin at the library. We needed to continue our Journey Through the Land of Serendip.

A Journey Through the Land of Serendip

Larry McClellan & Nadine Harris-Clark

Without having to give a spoiler alert for the continuing series, one of the things I need to share is the uncomfortable feeling I get every time we thank someone associated with the memorial project for creating this monument to Jan and Aagje. Why uncomfortable? Because when we thank them, they thank us for what Jan and Aagje (and others) did 170 years ago. We are honored they chose to remember Jan and Aagje. We are honored to be descended from Jan and Aagje. 

Related Posts:

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

The Land of Serendip Revisited

The Land of Serendip – The Final Chapter

A Journey 

A Journey Continues

Making Grandpa’s Donuts is an annual tradition at the Ton Household. 2020 brings the reminder to “do this in remembrance of me [those who preceded us]”.

This year, we took the opportunity to make a video of the story and the process of creating these delectable treats!

 

 

“Do this in remembrance of me”. Growing up in American Baptist Churches as the son of a minister (yes, Jeff IS a PK), these words were always front and center. Carved in the communion table in front of the pulpit, he would read them countless times over the years. However, it wasn’t until much later in life that these words took on a new and different meaning. With apologies to the author and translators of the New Testament, at this time when the Christian world celebrates Christmas, we would like to talk about donuts. Yes, donuts.

Our favorite thing about celebrating Christmas is the traditions, rituals if you will. Every year we watch the same movies: Scrooged (laughing at the “toaster” line like hearing it for the first time); A Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie”); Christmas Vacation (reciting all the lines); and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life (crying at the end for the 50th consecutive year). For many years we attended the Christmas Eve service with Jeff’s mom and dad. And, of course, each season is highlighted by the gathering of family and friends, exchanging gifts and cards, and music across the generations.

However, of all these traditions, our favorite one is making donuts…it is never officially Christmas until the donuts are done. We call them “Grandpa’s Donuts”, in honor of Jeff’s Grandpa. 

Jeff’s fondest memories of his Grandpa Williams revolved around his two magnificent donut machines. Every time without fail when he would come to visit, Jeff and his siblings would run out to meet him as he got out of the car. All four of the kids would jump up and down with excitement, all asking if he brought the donut machines. And, every time without fail, he would look at us, scratch his head and say, “Oh my, I think I forgot those in Milwaukee.” He would then begin digging around in the trunk of his car and, sure enough, tucked back in the back behind all the luggage would be THE MACHINES! 

Jeff’s great-grandmother had given two Brown Bobby donut machines to his Grandpa Williams in the late 1920s. During the Great Depression, he would make donuts to sell at the Post Office where he worked. He charged a nickel for two donuts to make extra money to support his growing family.

On one of his trips to visit Jeff’s family in Evansville, he wrote the recipe in the front of mom’s cookbook. He must have known that trip would be his last. When he passed away in 1971, his mother inherited one of the Brown Bobby machines.

Over the next couple of decades, it was used to make donuts for the occasional church bake sale but eventually fell into disuse. In the mid ’90s, Jeff was a new manager and wanted to do something special for his team. He and his mom rummaged through her closet and there, tucked in the back, behind the boxes they discovered THE MACHINE! He donned his Grandpa’s old apron (handmade by my Grandma, with stitching that proclaimed the wearer to be “The Doughnut Man”) and they plugged in the Brown Bobby, fingers crossed it would still heat up. As they made the donuts and listened to Christmas Carols, something magical happened. They began to share stories about Grandpa. Gone for decades, he was remembered with stories, smiles, laughs, and tears. A new tradition was born.

In the years since, Jeff, Carmen, his mom, and his dad would gather around one of the old machines, listen to Christmas music, and tell the same stories. Stories of our parents, our grandparents, and Christmases past. We drag out the machine, plug it in, and hope that it heats up one more time. Jeff dons the apron and waves his hand over the machine testing the warmth just as Grandpa Williams did. Carmen deciphers the recipe, written in the front of a cookbook by a little old man, a very long time ago. We listen to Christmas music and tell the same old stories. Stories of our parents, our grandparents, and Christmases past. 

In 2012, Jeff’s mom was battling some health issues, so instead of gathering at her house, she and dad brought the machine to our house. She sat at our kitchen island while Carmen, dad, and Jeff made the donuts. We listened to the carols and told stories about Grandpa. At some point, it occurred to us, we were truly making Grandpa’s donuts for the first time. Our first grandson, Braxton, was born in September, making us “official” Grandparents!

As we cleaned up after making the delectable treats, mom suggested (against dad’s objections) that we “just keep the machine at our house”. She must have known this time would be her last. 

In 2019, days before Christmas, Jeff’s dad passed away, leaving another seat empty in the kitchen. Still, we made the donuts. 

This year, once again, we dragged out the machine, plugged it in, and hoped that it heated up one more time. Jeff donned the apron and waved his hand over the machine testing the warmth just as his grandfather had once done. Carmen deciphered the recipe, written in the front of a cookbook by a little old man, a very long time ago. We listened to Christmas music and told the same old stories…stories of Christmases past and of our cherished loved ones. Wondering aloud, if Jeff’s mom, much less, his grandfather could have comprehended telling Google, “Hey Google, set the timer for 2 minutes 45 seconds” instead of using an egg timer to time each batch. 

Over the years, we have given donuts to countless friends, relatives, and co-workers. We have shared the story of “Grandpa’s Donuts”. We will continue the tradition each year as long as the old Brown Bobby continues to heat. Yes, traditions tend to change with time. It is their very connection to the past that makes it so. As the future becomes the present, and the present becomes the past, the past changes. During this holiday season, take the time to pause. Remember those who came before us. Remember the ways they have touched our lives. Honor your traditions and “do this remembrance of them.”

Merry Christmas,

Jeff and Carmen (aka Grandpa and Grandma) 

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