Rivers of Thought

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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

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