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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J

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

My mother was a closet Jesus Freak!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 +.

December 24, 2019 – I wrote this post in 2012. At the time, we did not realize it would be the last time mom made donuts with us. She passed in July 2013. Today, we are mourning the passing and celebrating the life of my dad, L. Eugene Ton. Dad passed away this year on December 16. Despite the hurt in our hearts, Carmen and I honored the tradition and made nine dozen of the magical donuts, known as Grandpa’s Donuts. Even when it is difficult, traditions can bring the memories of Christmases Past to warm our hurting hearts. I hope you enjoy the post from December 24, 2012. 

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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 +.