It was mid-November. It was a day of firsts. First time to ever attend a Catholic Funeral Mass. First time to be given an Easter Egg at a funeral service of any kind. First time ever seeing someone hand out money at a funeral. First time seeing someone deliver a eulogy while wearing rabbit ears. And, first time taking a photo during a funeral service (hey, if you saw someone delivering a eulogy while wearing rabbit ears, you would have taken a photo too!).

I knew the service was going to be different before I even arrived. This was, after all the funeral for my my dear friend’s mother…just 15 months after my own mother’s passing. I wasn’t confident I would even be able to make it through. But, I had to make it through…for him.

As the service began, I was initially struck by how little I knew about my friend of twenty years. Were these things I knew and and forgotten? Were these things that went in one ear and out the other? Or were these things I never knew in the first place? I seemed to remember he had siblings. Did I remember there was one brother and one sister? I seemed to remember his father had passed many years before. Did I remember he was paraplegic?  Some friend I was.

One by one family members and friends made their way to the front of the church. As they spoke a picture was painted, a picture of a mother, a friend, a teacher, a devoted parishioner. There was the daughter who spoke of a mother who taught her what it means to be a lady; the son who read the story of his mother’s life in her own words from a letter discovered among her belongings; the lifelong friend who spoke of schoolmates who had been best friends and co-workers for a lifetime. And then…and then there was my friend.

family, friendship, Dennis Cuffel“OK, everyone we are going to play a game! Everyone has to listen, and there are going to be rules!,” he shouted as he approached the microphone…wearing pink rabbit ears. He then told the story of the infamous “Cuffel Easter Egg Hunt”. He started by asking who had even heard of the Egg Hunt. Of the 90+ people there, most everyone raised their hand. “Who has participated in the Easter Egg Hunt?” Very few hands were lowered.

He went on to explain the rules of the Hunt. There were 92 eggs hidden (90 this year and 2 left over from last year that were never found). Inside each egg was, not candy, but a number. After all the eggs had been found, his mom would call out numbers.

“Number 1, who has number 1? You get a nickle.”

“Number 2, who has number 2? You get a dollar.”

“Number 3, who has number 3? You get a ‘Happy Easter’.”

This would continue until all 92 numbers had been called. Prizes ranged from 5 cents to twenty dollars to a “Happy Easter” greeting.

“Ok,” my friend continued, “when you came in you were given an egg. Everyone stand up and open your egg. Ok, if you have numbers 1 – 3, sit down and have a Happy Easter. If you have 5 – 39, sit down and…Happy Easter.” He continued until three people remained standing. “Who has number 40 (her year of birth)? You get five dollars.” He walked out into the church and handed the woman a five dollar bill. “Who has number 74 (her age at death)?” You get ten dollars.” Finally, “who has number 4 (her treasured grandchildren)? You get $20.”

He then went on to talk of his mother. The lessons he learned from her, her love of games. He talked of her spirituality, her unconditional love,  her compassion for others, her selflessness. As I sat there, I realized I knew more about my friend’s family than I thought.

Mrs. Cuffel, I never knew you, we never met. I have known your son for over twenty years. After having attended the celebration of your life,  after hearing the stories, sharing in the laughs, the smiles and the tears, I realized, through your son, I DO know you. You raised a wonderful family. You raised a wonderful man. Spiritual, compassionate, a great friend. You should be proud.

Dennis, I love you brother. Have a Happy Easter!

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family, history, World War I, Veteran's DayHe was exhausted. Just nine short months ago he stood at the train depot in Grand Rapids, Wisconsin. A young man of 19, ready to join the war and give the Kaizer his due. Now he crouched in a trench surrounded by the smell of death just outside Soisson, France. Mortar fire exploded around him. He had already held too many friends as they died. The Germans had taken the city. The Americans were there to take it back.

That afternoon, like so many others the last few weeks, over what passed for a meal, he reached in his knapsack and pulled out a small envelope. Inside the envelope was a book. A handwritten book. A book written by his sweet Mary, the girl back home. In the book were pictures of friends, family and familiar places. His hands shook as he turned the pages remembering secrets shared with his beloved. What’s that? Orders from Command? Advance on the city? Quickly, he kissed the book, slide it carefully back in its envelope and tucked it in his knapsack.

Over the next few days the fighting was intense. The Germans were falling back. This city was ours! With hardly a moment’s rest they took control, pushing the front lines. All this fighting, all this death for a few hundred meters of gain. Finally, a moment of respite. He reached inside his knapsack longing to stare at her face. But wait…where is it? Desperately, he dumped his knapsack on the ground. The meager supplies scattered in the mud. No envelope. No book.
-Summer, 1918
 
A year later, the war was over, the soldiers mustered out and returned home. The postman walks his route. He delivers a lone letter, addressed to young Mary, the school teacher, postmarked New York. Mary was curious. Since her Hal returned six weeks ago from defeating Germany, she rarely received a post. She tore open the envelope to find a letter…and a book…a handwritten book…a book lost somewhere along the front, near Soisson, France.  Tears streamed down her cheeks, she could hardly call Hal’s name. Thinking something was horribly wrong, Hal raced to her side. Seeing the book, her took her in his arms and held her tight.
-Summer, 1919

Eighty five years later, I sat just off the main square of Soisson, waiting. Waiting until my mother would be awake back in the history, leadership, family, world war Istates. Finally, it would be 7AM back home. My dad answered. Hi dad, can I talk to mom? Hello? Hi, mom, can you guess where I am? No….where are you? Mom, I am sitting at a restaurant in Soisson. Like her mother 85 years prior, she started to cry. She could hardly call my dad’s name. Gene, Jeff is in Soisson. Soisson? What’s he doing in Soisson? The book, Gene, the book. Dad’s book from the war.

Dad got on the other phone as I told them about my excursion. I had been traveling back and forth to France for the last several years for my job. This trip required that I stay over a weekend. So, rather than being a tourist around Paris, I rented a car and headed north. I had heard the story of the book for years. My grandfather was a Doughboy in World War I, The Great War. My grandmother had sent him the handmade scrapbook to help get him (and her) through the time apart. Somewhere in battle he lost the book. A Sargeant Doss from New York found the book and carried it all the way home with him. Within days after arriving back in the states he sent it to my grandmother stating “I can write about only hoping to get an answer some time in the future pertaining to young man as I don’t know where he got through this awful worlds (sic) war.” I wanted to follow in his steps.

Soisson Memorial 4 - EditedSo, after getting lost trying to leave Charles DeGaulle Airport, getting stuck while a peloton from a local bike race had the road closed, dropping my cell phone (and my safety net) in the middle of a highway while crossing to a military cemetery and having it hit by a motorcyclist, I was finally in Soisson. I wandered throughout the city. It was a beautiful summer day, a group of men were playing Pétanque in the park, women bustled in and out of the shops. No one gave notice to American snapping photos of the monuments. That afternoon I stood at the Oise-Aisne American Memorial, among its 6,000 crosses, so many crosses. So many names. So many stories.Soisson Memorial 6 - Edited

Later, after getting lost again. Later, back at my hotel. Later, after learning “Ne pas retirer le disque du lecteur” on the dashboard of my rental car meant there was a Nav system (NOW they tell me!). I thought about that young couple, about their love, about their sacrifice. I thought about the thousands of men, the thousands of women who sacrifice. It is not only the dead who sacrifice. Anyone who serves gives of them self. Anyone who loves those that serve give of themselves. We can never repay our debt to those who sacrifice for us. Today is Veteran’s Day…Armistice Day. On the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month there shall be peace. Take some time today to remember those who sacrificed. Take some time to say thank you to those you know who have sacrificed.

Greg Friend, thank you!
Jason Matthews, thank you!
Tommy Brinkman, thank you!
Nick Justice, thank you!

To all who have served or are serving, thank you for your sacrifice!

Author’s Note: The Donut Man was a Doughboy – Many who know me and those that read Rivers of Thought know of my annual “day of remembrance” of my grandfather, who I knew as “The Donut Man”. Through this handwritten book, I have come to know him as a Doughboy, as well.

leadership, family, history, World War I, Veterans Day

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business, leadershipThinking back, I am not sure what I expected. I had been asked to represent the executive staff by speaking at the graduation ceremonies for one of our high schools (didn’t know Goodwill Indy had high schools, did you?). I was flattered to have been asked, but really had no idea what to say. This was not an ordinary high school, this was a school for adults who had dropped out for one reason or another, but who now wanted to come back and complete their high school diploma, not just earn a G.E.D. I would be speaking at The Excel Center – Anderson. What could I possibly say that would be meaningful to them? Would their families come to watch? My own graduation was over 35 years ago, what connection would I have to them? I didn’t realize I was about to be blown away!

I arrived early (wouldn’t want to be late) so I sat in my car and worked a bit (OK, I read email, but hey that IS my work!). I was stunned, as car after car pulled into the lot. I walked inside to find the place packed with friends and family. The students were busy putting on the caps and gowns. I was immediately struck by their genuine excitement (some nervous excitement maybe), their closeness to each other, and their closeness to the faculty. The mood was one of celebration and it was contagious!

I donned my robe and took my place next to the school’s director (principal) as we processed in. As the graduates walked down the aisles (making a pass down each aisle so friends and family could see their graduate) the excitement built as cameras (ok cell phones) flashed.  Sitting in the front on the stage, I could see the faces of husbands, wives, parents and children of the graduates, already I was choking back tears.

Three graduates had been selected to speak. I can’t begin to do their stories justice. One was a woman who had dropped out twenty-three years prior. She wanted to come back, now years later, to get her diploma to be a role model for her kids. Another was a young man who had struggled in traditional school and had been tagged “special needs”. He was now graduating with several certifications and heading off to college. The third was a young lady whose best friend had been murdered, the depression and confusion this brought into her life destroyed her high school career. She had come back to earn her diploma to honor her friend. Amazing stories! My guess is, the other 53 graduates’ stories were just as amazing!

You can read their stories hear: Laura, Isaac, Sarah.

How could I possibly follow THAT? A few days before the event, I had come to the realization (kind of a duh moment) that no one was there to hear me speak. They were all there for them, for the graduates. Keep it short, keep it simple.

I am truly honored to be here tonight representing the Goodwill family on such a special occasion. We, your friends and family, your teachers and faculty, and Anderson community leaders are here to celebrate with you.

To the community leaders of Anderson, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the partnership and the vision that lead to the opening of the Anderson Excel Center just two short years ago. Your support of the Excel Center has enabled them, the third graduating class, to achieve what otherwise might have been un-achievable.

To the teachers and administrators, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the dedication and caring that enabled you to teach, inspire and change lives. What you do is incredibly difficult, and yet so incredibly important. I and the rest of the 3,000 employees of Goodwill are honored to be your colleagues.  Your work here has been nothing short of amazing.

To the friends and families of our graduates who are here tonight, I want to say thank you. Thank you for being here to celebrate with your graduate. Thank you for the support you have shown as they attended classes, did homework, and studied. I am sure it was not always easy, nor convenient. They are here in front of you today due in part to your support.

To the graduates, I want to say thank you. Thank you for allowing us to join in your celebration. Your lives have been forever changed. Each of you has a story, a story of roadblocks and obstacles. But tonight, you have added a chapter to that story, a chapter of perseverance, of fortitude, of overcoming those roadblocks and obstacles. Whether your next step is a career, or you plan to go on to college, you have accomplished something tremendous. You can say, proudly, “I am a graduate! Thank you for sharing your story with us, thank you for sharing your moment with us. Thank you for changing our lives as well.

 As each student received their diploma, I had the honor of shaking their hand. Each one of them looked me in the eye, business, leadershipproudly. As I congratulated each of them, tears continued to well up. This is why we do what we do, this is why I do what I do, for those 56 new high school graduates that are ready to take on the world!

To see pictures of that night at The Excel Center – Anderson, or the other Excel Center graduations check out the photo album. To learn more about The Excel Centers visit our website at: The Excel Center.

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 +.

history, leadershipI pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

How many times have you said it? Hundreds? Thousands? 31 simple words. We repeat them as a matter of rote. How many times have we really thought about these words and what they mean?

I recently had the deep honor to attend the Naturalization Oath Ceremony. My friend Muhammad Maaita was taking the Oath along with 60 other proud soon to be Americans. They came from dozens of different countries, from all over the globe, but they all shared to common desire to become US Citizens, they had met the requirements of residency (most, like Muhammad, five years), they had passed the English test exhibiting the ability to read, write and speak English, they had passed the civics exam showing an understanding of US history, our form of government and the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. They gathered today to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.

leadership, history, patriotism

Muhammad Maaita

If they were all half excited as Muhammad, this group of new Americans will be a model for groups to come. The smile on his face was contagious!

As we sat there watching the ceremony unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder, how many of us who have been born into citizenship could pass the tests? English? Ok, maybe most of us. But, Civics? I don’t know about you, but I hated Civics class in high school (funny from a guy that grew up to love Lewis and Clark and other figures from US History). Could you pass it? Take the practice test. I double dog dare you (and post your score)…I missed FOUR!!! Pretty lame!

OK…assume you passed all the requirements…now raise your right hand and repeat after me…

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Hmmm….140 words. 140 words vs. 31 words. Read them again…go ahead, I’ll wait…….Wow! What a difference THAT would make, if we ALL had to take this oath and if we ALL had to live by this oath.

Many peoples, many religions, formalize the Rite of Passage, or the Coming of Age, that time when we move from childhood to adulthood. The forms and ceremonies differ dramatically, but they all symbolize the same three stages: withdrawing or separation from the current state, transition between states, and finally re-incorporation into the community. You could say the college experience embodies these three phases: the student leaves home (separation), studies and learns (transition) and finally graduates and heads out on a career (re-incorporation).

Here, within the Native American cultures that lived the lands hundreds of years ago this rite of passage was vitally important, many times signified by the person taking a new name, an outward symbol that they were not the same person as before.

The Oath of Naturalization follows the same three phases. Once expressed, the individual is incorporated into the body of citizens of the United States. What if we ALL had to pass the tests? What if we ALL had to take the Oath? What if we ALL followed this rite of passage? I believe we would be a stronger people, a stronger country, a more bonded people.

Witnessing this event, made me proud to be an American, made me proud of Muhammad and his rite of passage, and made me proud to be Muhammad’s friend.

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 +.

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 +.