It all started on Thanksgiving day,  a long, long time ago, in a beat up station wagon, somewhere on Interstate 65 and Statethanksgiving, family, tradition Road 46 between Indianapolis and Nashville (Nashville, Indiana that is). My first wife, our two kids and I were heading to her mom’s place for Thanksgiving. The drive was going, well, it was going like you would expect it to go with two boys under the age of 10 strapped in a car in the days before iPods, Gameboys, iPads, and cars with DVD players. Even though it wasn’t a long drive, they were still bouncing off the ceiling. My wife was reading, and me? I was jamming out to Q95 (well, as jamming out as you can be with a wife and two kids in the car).

It was about noon. OK, to be specific it was straight up noon, when this song came on the radio, this song about Alice…and a restaurant, a song called Alice’s Restaurant (sorry Arlo, I had to do it). Here was this guy, playing guitar, telling a story, and singing (granted there was more storytelling than singing),  but it was captivating, not only for me but for the two banshees in the backseat, they quieted down and listened…for 18 minutes and 34 seconds they listened! It was AMAZING! By the time Arlo finished the last chorus, with the boys and I signing along, we were pulling into Nana’s drive.

A year later,  we were on the road again, in the same beat up station wagon, with the same two rambunctious kids in the Arlo Guthrie, traditionback, listening to the same Q95, low and behold they played the same song, at the exact same time! Amazing! What is the coincidence of that? (Ok, it wasn’t for another year or two that I realized it was a Q95 Thanksgiving day tradition to play Alice’s Restaurant at Noon, I was a REAL slow learner back then!)

Fast forward several more years. My wife and I were divorced (hey, as my youngest son, Brad, once said, “This isn’t Leave it Beaver around here, ya know?”), I was spending Thanksgiving with my girl friend and both of my sons were spending Thanksgiving with their mom. Although we had been divorced for some time, I still was not used to not seeing them on a holiday like that. I was kind of moping around, helping Carmen get dinner ready when the phone rang. It was my oldest son JT.

“Dad, are you listening?” he asked.

“Huh? Listening to what”, I responded (I guess I was still somewhat of a slow learner).

“Alice’s, are you listening to Alice’s?”

“expletive deleted!”

I immediately ran to the stereo, turned on Q95 and listened in. I think I even began to sing along. I am sure Carmen thought I was going a tad nuts. After the song was over, I started to explain the story to her…how it had become a Thanksgiving Tradition to listen, how the boys and I would sing along…all of it. She just looked at me, smiled and walked over to her CD Cabinet, reached in, and pulled out the CD “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. If I wasn’t already smitten with her, I was now head over heals!

Fast forward about a decade or two. The tradition continues. Every year at Thanksgiving, no matter who is joining us, JT Arlo Guthrie, traditionand Brad, their families, our folks, and the occasional friend, we play “Alice’s Restaurant” and sing along. We even printed off all the lyrics so our folks could be sure and follow along. Dave and his wonderful baritone providing cover for all the rest of us who can’t really sing.

OK, so Arlo may not have ACTUALLY saved my life, but he without a doubt saved my Thanksgiving and helped us build a sense of family and tradition during a time of turmoil and transition. You can bet that at noon on Thanksgiving, we will be gathered in the family room, with Arlo pumping through our Sonos stereo, singing at the top of our lungs.

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

Linda Ellis, in her beautiful poem “The Dash“, tells the story of a man recounting the life of a friend; emphasizing  the most important part of life is “the dash”, that time between the date of one’s birth and the date of one’s death. Mary Ellen Ton, my mom, was a woman with two dashes.  Let me explain…

Mom was nearly killed in a devastating fire on January 4, 1980. In fact, the doctors at Wishard’s Burn Unit told us in the hours followingMETwBraxton the fire that should would not survive her injuries. Burned over almost 75% of her body, the majority being 3rd degree, lungs that suffered smoke and heat damage, and a broken back from her jump from a second floor window, we honestly didn’t know whether to ask God to save her, or to take her.  Countless surgeries later, It would be after Easter before she returned home to begin the incredibly painful physical therapy.

We have often said, the mom who raised us died in the fire on January 4, 1980. The woman that rose from those ashes was not the same woman that raised us. We love them both dearly, and we learned so much from both of them.

Mary Ellen Ton B.F. (before fire) was a beautiful woman. She was a vivacious, energetic 18 year old when she married my dad and embarked on her first two major roles, that of a minister’s wife and a mother. She would be by dad’s side from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Parr, Lafayette, Evansville, and finally Indianapolis.  She was a stay-at-home mom, raising four rambunctious kids, while at the same time being the quintessential minister’s wife, teaching Sunday School, hosting dinners, and making sure the four of us were on our best behavior.

As we grew older, mom went back to work as a book keeper, but kept up with mothering and teaching.  She taught my Sunday School class for years (which made it extremely difficult to cut class!). One lesson she based on the song “I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth. As a teenager, I probably thought it was lame…but I still remember it 40+ years later.

As the decade of the 70’s came to a close, I can remember sitting in our car at the University of Indianapolis where we attended accounting classes together talking about life, religion, family and, yes, even  politics. At the age of 21 or 22, I was just beginning to question the status quo of my faith. Little did we know, sitting in the parking lot on Hanna Avenue, life was about to change…for all of us.

41g6Mv-kW8L._SL500_SY346_The events of January 4, 1980, as well as her struggles with God through the aftermath are well documented in her book (“The Flames Shall Not Consume You“). What may not be so well documented is the profound effect those events would have on who she was, what she believed and how she lived…and on how we would ALL live.

Her views of and her relationship with God would change dramatically. I would characterize her beliefs (and frankly mine as well) pre-fire like Billy Graham’s and more like John Wesley Spong’s post-fire.

Mary Ellen Ton AF (after fire) , was also a beautiful woman, but in a different way. She would turn that crucible of the fire into a new book, a new career as a speaker, and new found confidence in who she was. Incredibly, just a few short years after being nursed back to health by the “Angels of Wishard”, as she called them, mom joined the staff at Wishard’s Burn Unit as a doctor-patient liaison. Who better to help those critically burned to understand what was happening to them than someone who had literally laid in their bed? She would go on to complete her bachelor’s degree at IUPUI while in her 60’s. She would become a mentor, a muse, and a confidant to all of us (and to many others not in her immediate family). In the 33 years since the fire, she would be a significant part of her five grandson’s lives, see several of them marry and see her family grow with great-grandchildren through marriage as well as the birth of a great-grandson.

In short, you could say, the Mary Ellen Ton most of us know, was born on January 4, 1980. Both Mary Ellen’s will be desperately missed. We will miss our mom, but I will also miss my spiritual guide.

On the Sunday morning after mom’s passing, I attended church with my dad (no, the church did not fall down, nor were there any lightning bolts from the sky), the closing song was “I Am Free”. Written by Jon Egan (Copyright 2004 Vertical Songs), it begins:

Through you the blind will see
Through you the mute will sing
Through you the dead will rise
Through you all hearts will praise
Through you the darkness flees
Through you my heart screams I am free
 
I am free to run
I am free to dance
I am free to live my life for you
I am free, I am free

I know right now, mom is doing something she has not been able to do for 33 years…she is snapping her fingers, clapping her hands, and, dancing, and singing at the top of her lungs because she is free.

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

Growing up in American Baptist Churches as the son of a minister (yes, I AM a PK), these words were always front and center. Carved in the communion table in front of the pulpit, I 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, I would like to talk about donuts. Yes, donuts.

My favorite thing about celebrating Christmas are 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 40ieth consecutive year). Each year we attend the Christmas Eve service (though Baptists cannot stay up until midnight, so ours is at 11). And 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, my favorite tradition is making donuts with my mom, it is never officially Christmas until the donuts are done. We call them “Grandpa’s Donuts”.

My fondest memories about my Grandpa Williams revolved around his two magnificent donut machines.  Every time without fail when he would come to visit, we would run out to meet him as he got out of the car. All four of us 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 Brown Bobby Doughnut Machinethe back behind all the luggage would be THE MACHINES! (The machines were actually called “Brown Bobbies”) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Bobby).

My great-grandmother has given the machines to him in the late 1920’s. During the Great Depression, my Grandpa would make donuts to sell at the Post Office where he worked. He needed the extra nickel for two donuts to make extra money to support his growing family.

On one of his trips to visit us 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, my 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 90’s, I was a new manager and wanted to do something special for my team. My mom and I rummaged through her closet and there, tucked in the back, behind the boxes we discovered THE MACHINE! I donned my Grandpa’s old apron (handmade by my Grandma, with stitching that proclaimed the wearer to be “The Doughnut Man”) and we plugged in the Brown Bobby, fingers crossed it would still heat up. As we made the donuts and listened to Christmas Carols, something magical happened. My mom and I began to share stories about Grandpa. Gone for almost 25 years, he was remembered with stories, smiles, laughs, and tears. A new tradition was born.

For over 20 Christmases now, we drag out the machine, plug it in, and hope that it heats up one more time. I don the apron and wave my hand over the machine testing the warmth just as he did. We decipher 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 about him that we have told for years.

When my wife Carmen and I were married in 2001, she joined in the tradition. She, my mom, and I would make the donuts. My dad had the difficult job of quality control (sampling the donuts as we made them!).

This year, my mom has been battling some health issues, so instead of gathering at her house, she and my dad brought the machine to our house. She sat at our kitchen island while Carmen, my dad and I made the donuts. We listened to the carols and told the stories about Brown Bobby DoughnutsGrandpa. At some point, it occurred to me, I was truly making Grandpa’s donuts for the first time. Our first grandson, Braxton, was born in September, making me an “official” Grandpa!

Over the years, we have given donuts to countless friends, relatives and co-workers. We have shared the story of “Grandpa’s Donuts”. On this Christmas Eve, take pause. Take the time during your traditions to remember. Remember your family, your friends. Remember your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Honor your traditions in “remembrance of them”.

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