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As faithful readers know, my father recently passed away. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in one final breath, I became the patriarch of the Ton family (going back at least four generations). It is now my responsibility to pass on the stories, to pass on the traditions, to respect the past and those who have come before. 

One of the joys of the last few years has been taking my grandsons, Braxton and Jordan, to visit my dad, Popper (or great-Popper) – to see his face light up when those little guys would bound into his room, show him their new games, or demonstrate their latest artwork. Dozens of images come to mind…Braxton pushing my dad in his wheelchair on the last Thanksgiving he would visit our house, or crawling onto his bed to play games with him when Dad could no longer get up. Jordan telling a story so funny both of them were laughing and giggling, or Dad wearing Jordan’s Easter hat to the delight of the little red-head. 

Two months almost to the day of dad’s passing, we welcomed Jasper Bryant Ton into the world. The second son of my second son. What an amazing joy to hold that little life in my arms, to look into his eyes. I could not help but think of my dad. He did not have a chance to meet Jasper, but I know he would adore him. My heart was overflowing with love. 

Braxton’s and Jordan’s memories of their time with my dad will fade, Jasper has no memories to fade.  Yes, there are pictures, hundreds of pictures, but it will be the stories that provide the connection. I want them to know of his laugh, his smile, his compassion, his goofy sense of humor. Most of all, I want them to know of his love, love for my mom, love for his family, and love for his fellow man and woman. 

I treasure the moments I have with my kids and my grandkids. Even on days when I am preoccupied with work, or too tired and crabby to be patient, or when there thousands of tasks that don’t get done. I celebrate my role as patriarch – to tell stories of Mary Ellen and Gene, Lawrence and Sara, Hallie and Mary and the generations who came before. 

Welcome to the world, Jasper Bryant Ton. You have been born into a family that loves you dearly. You have been born into a family with an amazing story. I can’t wait to share it all with you. 

 

The story it could tell

“Once upon a time then [sic] was Braxton then he save [sic] his mom from the tower and they were happy ever after the end.”

The typewriter in my office was manufactured in 1927. It belonged to my mother’s mother and was purchased in the middle of the Great Depression when she was a teacher of teachers at a Normal School in Milwaukee. 

Oh, if that Underwood could talk, the story it would tell! It sat for years in her home on Ellen Street. Not only was it used for coursework, but it was also used to write letters long since gone…letters to friends, letters to family, letters that told stories. Stories of her young and growing family – their births, their graduations, their marriages. Stories of pain at the death of a child days after her birth. 

Through the generations

Her family grew. Her seven children began to have children of their own. As they moved away, her letters would keep them connected to home. 

There would have been a story of sons-in-law who went off to fight in World War II and grandkids went to Korea and Vietnam. She would have written:

  • of events back home to keep them all connected
  • of homecomings and celebrations
  • with pride. 

One of her daughters would become a preacher’s wife…and author. Was her writing inspired by typing on the old Underwood? The question remains unanswered…asked too late. The stories continued. 

As the years took their toll, my mother’s mother could no longer type. The old keys took too much effort from the old woman she had become. The Underwood was given to one of the sisters. Over time, it found its way to the garage where it sat silent – silent for years. 

The story of a new home

The typewriter found its way to my home, a gift from my cousin to celebrate my writings and the publication of my first book. For Christmas, my wife had it refurbished. Good as new! Its clacking keys and ringing bell have become a thing of fascination for my grandsons when they “visit” my office next to their playroom. With my gentle coaxings of “be gentle” and “one key at a time,” they learned to type their names…and then…

Braxton who is my firstborn’s firstborn, my mother’s first grandchild’s child, came to play. He, now seven, has been diagnosed with autism at two, non-verbal until almost five. Braxton, the sweetest little boy you will ever want to meet.

As he is wont to do, he headed upstairs to the playroom, barely giving his daddy a goodbye. I followed, but instead of the playroom, he turned into my office and began to type. “Braxton”. He then looked up at me, his expression one of someone following an idea in their head…then he smiled…and typed, pausing occasionally for help with the next letter. 

“Once upon a time then [sic] was Braxton then he save [sic] his mom from the tower and they were happy ever after the end”

The stories continue…

This eulogy was delivered at First Baptist Church on January 11, 2020, and at Hoosier Village Chapel on January 13, 2020, in honor of my daddy, coach, dad, popper, pop, Gene Ton. If you are interested in watching a video of the entire service, you can find it here: L. Eugene Ton. (Note: the first 30 seconds are a black screen with the brass quintet playing. The video then fades in.)

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My heart hurts. Our hearts hurt. 

Despite the pain, we want to celebrate. Celebrate an amazing life and a truly incredible man. 

Before I get to that, I want to let you in on a little secret. Dad wasn’t perfect. I can remember as clear as day. He and I were repairing the gutters on our home in Evansville (you see, someone’s basketball kept crashing into them, must have Joel’s, mine always swished through the hoop). Anyway, there we were, dad up on the ladder and me holding it steady. When it happened. With a mighty swing of the hammer, expecting to hear the metal on metal clang of the hammer, I heard instead, metal on thumb. Yes, that might blow smashed his thumb. Time seemed to slow down. I could see it building up. His face growing red. I thought, here it is, I am finally going to hear my dad say “damn”…or worse. His face now covered in a grimace. Here it came…”fffffffiddlesticks!” Yep, Fiddlesticks. That was our dad. 

I am sure all the family could regale you with other stories of dad, probably some that actually show some imperfections. He truly was special. We are so happy to celebrate him with you. We shared him with all of you for most of his life. I’d like to do something a bit unusual. I always loved it when dad would do something unusual in his sermons. One of the things he did that always caught my attention, was when he would come out from behind the pulpit and step down to be with the congregation. Sometimes he would become a character in his sermon: Peter; James; Paul. Other times he would just talk with us. I’ll tell you, for a junior and senior high kid, it really made me sit up and pay attention. Heck, it made the whole congregation sit up and pay attention to what he was saying. 

No, I’m not going to be one of the disciples today, THAT would be a bit of a stretch. But, I am going to involve all of you for a moment. 

In honor of dad, I’d like you to stand if dad officiated your wedding (some of us had the honor of him doing that for us more than once). Now, stay standing. 

If dad officiated one of your children’s weddings, please stand. 

How about baptism? If he baptized you, please stand. 

Please stand if he officiated a funeral for a loved one or family member. 

How many here were the benefit of his wise counsel over the years, you don’t have to tell us why, your secret is safe. Please stand. 

How many here felt the warmth of his smile, the comfort of his greeting, the guidance of his leadership? 

If you are not standing by now, please stand. Please join me in thanking him, by repeating after me. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat} 

Thank you, you can be seated. 

We all experienced dad in different ways. Even those who he and mom raised experienced him differently. 

For me, first, there was daddy, playing in the yards of the parsonages in Lafayette and Lebanon. Pushing me in the swing. Teaching me to ride a bike without training wheels in the alley. Building Pinewood Derby cars for the annual Cub Scout tradition. His annual tradition for Memorial Day: take his small transistor radio out to the garage, tune in the Indy 500 and wash and wax his car. It was an exciting day when I finally got to help! We learned quickly that daddy was different than most. Daddy was Reverend Ton, unlike most kids not only did we live next door to his “office”, but we went there multiple times a week. People treated him differently, people treated us differently. What I remember most about daddy was his smile. 

Next came Coach…Little League Baseball…Flag football, teaching me to shoot a layup on the goal behind the garage. He was there with patience and gentle coaching (sometimes not so gentle coaching). This is where dementia may have been a bit of a blessing. To hear him tell it today, I was an all-star catcher in Little League. Uh, dad, You coached the all-star team because our team won first place. I said the Little League pledge for the Allstar game because I wasn’t didn’t make the team. How he became my Little League coach is a microcosm of the type of man he was, the type of father he was. After watching a couple of my team’s practices and observing the way the coach treated us; yelling, screaming, cursing. Dad tried to coach the coach on a better approach. Professionally, not in front of the kids, in private. The guy quit. Rather than going to the league to find another coach, dad stepped up and became a coach. What I remember most about the coach was his patience. 

By the time we were in Evansville he was just “dad”. Evansville was much bigger than Lebanon. Dad was learning how to lead an urban church, and I was learning about high school. Dad was still “Reverend Ton”…I can remember my mom and dad giving a tour of the parsonage to a group of “old ladies” from the church (they were probably 60!). As they passed my brother’s room, she remarked, “Oh and this must be Reverend Ton’s room.” Uh, no! He slept down the hall with my mother. There were four of us for Pete’s sake, as far as I know, there has only been one immaculate conception. Despite the fact that he was Reverend Ton to most, to me he was dad. He was the guy I could go to for anything. He was the guy that would do anything for us. During this time, he taught me the game of golf. Dad loved golf. Of all the sports, golf was king. At first, I got to tag along with the foursome, take a few swings here and there. Later, just the two of us would go. Inevitably, they would pair us up with another twosome. I noticed dad always introduced himself as “Gene”. Not Reverend Ton. When I asked him about it, his answer was simple, “if I introduce myself as Reverend, they will act differently because I am a pastor. They may not enjoy themselves as much, so here I am “just Gene”. When I was a freshman in college, and homesick…it was him I called. It was him who provided the reassurance I needed to hear, not only in his words but in the sound of his voice through the phone. What I remember most about dad was his quiet leadership. 

Along about 1978, he became grandpa…Popper as my kids and my sister’s kids called him. Dad would have been in his late 50’s and into his 60’s. The great Reverend Doctor, the leader of leaders, the pastor of pastors became putty in the hands of those little creatures. He would laugh, and joke and smile ear to ear. Popper loved Christmas, he and Mimi both did. But if Mimi was the queen of Christmas, dad was the king of Easter. He would spend hours hiding eggs in the yard. So many eggs, he had to have a map in case the five grandkids couldn’t find them all. And, then. And then, there was the Easter play. A silly little play about Captain Dan the Fried Egg Man. We all had a role. Even the littlest ones could do sound effects. But it was popper, it was dad, who took it up a notch. Creating costumes for his characters, using different funny voices as he played different roles. He may not have been a hit on Broadway, but he was a hit with the little ones! What I remember most about Popper was his humor. 

The last few years, he became “Pop”. I’m not sure if that was a shortened version of “Popper”, the name the grandkids call him, or sign of the change in our relationship. The parent became the child, and the child became the parent. It has been an honor to be on this journey with him, whether we were going toe-to-toe: “Quit treating me like a child!” “You quit acting like one!” Gee, where have I heard THAT before; or taking in an Indians game, telling the same stories, laughing at the same jokes game after game, year after year; or sitting quietly in his room at Hoosier Village just “being”. A few years ago, when I was contemplating a career move, the decision to leave Goodwill, a job I loved, a mission I loved and people I loved…I went to Pop. You see, he was still in there. I went to him for guidance. He asked questions, he told stories, he answered my questions about his own career and the choices he had made to leave one church for another or to leave the pulpit and take an executive minister role for the denomination.  True to form…he never gave me the answer. What I remember most about pop was his wisdom. 

We have all experienced dad in different ways…but always the same: funny, caring, compassionate, empathetic, and loving…pastoral…ministering us all…even at the end. 

Join me once again. “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord”. {repeat}

Well done good and faithful father. Enter into the joy of your Lord.

A few years ago I was inspired to write a fairy tale of sorts – a fairy tale about my dad’s progressing disease and the need to move him to the next stage of care. Today, I write the concluding chapter of the Trilogy of Serendipity. 

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a King, his three Princes and his one Princess, and their wonderful spouses and families. Much has changed since our fairy tale began. Much has changed since our last visit to the land of Serendip almost two years ago. You see, the King had moved once again. He had to leave the Village of Hickory to reside in the Centre of Soapberry. It is there in the Centre of Soapberry where our story begins anew. 

A call went out to the Prince and Princess of Whitetail. The King, whose health had been slowly declining, was in distress. They rushed to the King’s Chambers and found him barely able to speak but resting comfortably. Barely returning to the Forest of Whitetail, they were once again summoned to his chambers. It was time. The nursing saint declared the King’s body was too frail. It was time to think only of his comfort. 

The Prince sent messengers to the Prince of Raymond, the Prince of the Western Lands and the Princess of the Green Lakes. Should they be able to travel and should they desire, they should set forth for the Centre of Soapberry. Alas, the Princess’ health would not allow her to make such a journey. The Princes joined the Prince and Princess of Whitetail. Sir Larry of Sayre arrived to join them by the King’s bedside. 

Several days passed. They were days filled with retelling of stories, sharing laughter and sharing tears and providing comfort to the King. The nursing saint was joined by a number of nursing saints, all of them the most beautiful, caring souls the Lord hath created. The time was drawing nigh. 

The Chaplain of the Castle arrived, recited the Prayer of the Lord, and the King breathed his last. The King is dead…long live the King. Remember him in your hearts.

On December 16, 2019, The Reverend Doctor L. Eugene Ton passed away. He will be missed by his family, his friends and the congregations of the churches he served. 

For those readers who do not know this, Dad suffered from a rare form of dementia: Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia or bvFTD. It is considered rare in that it occurs far less often than Alzheimer’s. It is also rare in males, and even rarer for someone as old as Pop was when we first started seeing signs. I’ve written several posts over the years about the journey we have all been on with Dad since Mom passed in 2013.  I will be writing more in the future – of this I have no doubt. 

First, the other two stories in the Serendip trilogy:

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

The Land of Serendip Revisited

And then all the others. Some relate to lessons learned from my dad, while others are specific to this journey with dementia. 

Dad Paddles the Roosevelt River

Shadows of Days Gone By

Are Those Smiles Identical or What?

Love is…

The end of a very long week

The Sprinkler Head

Serendipity – A Fairy Tale

Love is Thicker than Blood

The Window – A Divine Coincidence

The Land of Serendip Revisited

Sounds of Silence

Just Gene

What is YOUR Vision for the Future?

After posing that question, the executive I was having lunch with went on to explain he had always tried to create a family-like environment at his company. “You know, having fun, hanging out, being one of the gang.”

Now he was faced with some of his staff not performing. When he tried to address it they pushed back saying “You’ve changed”, or “You’re overreacting”, or worse. 

It’s a tough question and one that many managers and leaders struggle to answer.

It doesn’t matter if you are new to a management role or, like my friend, someone who has been leading people for several decades.

Can you be friends with the people that work for you? 

The old adage is you can be friendly but not friends.

As a new manager back in a decade that started with a “9”, I took that advice. Many of my friends were now my employees. I all but stopped socializing with them. There were no more parties, no more weekend trips on the houseboat, and no grabbing a drink after work.

Oh sure, we still did team happy hours occasionally (hey, it was the 90’s) but for the most part, I became “management”. 

It took me a long time to realize that old adage was, well… BS.

I think the reason our managers and mentors espoused that adage was because it makes the tough times easier.

It is far easier to have those tough conversations about performance or layoffs if you don’t know what is going on in their personal life.

They may be going through a divorce, or have elderly parents who are in failing health, or have kids that are struggling in school…you know, all the real stuff that doesn’t make it to Facebook. 

Do you know them?

I now believe you have to know those in your office on a personal level.

How else are you going to lead them?

  • Knowing them helps you to celebrate with them when their kid enters kindergartner or gets accepted into college.
  • Knowing them helps you connect, we all (even leaders) crave connection, we are human after all!
  • Knowing them helps you to lead with empathy and compassion.

Yes, those tough conversations are tougher…on us, they were always tough on the other person. If those types of conversations are ever easy…you are in the wrong job! 

But, it is a two-way street.

Do they know you?

To form those relationships you have to let your employees see you for who you are.

Tell them about the joy of a new grandchild, or the pain of the death of a parent. To form those relationships you have to be vulnerable. 

For the leader who asked the question… be vulnerable.

  • Tell them about the sleepless nights worrying about making payroll.
  • Tell them how you feel the weight of 200 individuals and their 200 families.
  • Tell them about the gnawing in the pit of your stomach every day as you care for your business almost like your child.

If they don’t respond with empathy and compassion towards you, if they don’t see you as a friend, but also a leader who has to have tough conversations, if they don’t rally to the mission at hand, perhaps you don’t have the relationship you thought you had. 

I would love to hear your thoughts! Please comment (or email) on this topic. Have a leadership question you would like to ask? Send me a note. I am happy to share my thoughts and have others chime in as well! 

The Land of Serendip

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a King, his three Princes and his one Princess, and their wonderful spouses and families. When we last visited the Land of Serendip, the Princes received a visit from an Angel, we now return, 18 short months later…

The King of Serendip was about to embark upon another journey. The Prince of Whitetail issued a proclamation on the King’s behalf. “Hear ye, in the name of the King! Let it be known across the land, the time has come for the King to leave the Forest of Hawthorne and reside instead in the Village of Hickory. The Princess of Whitetail and I will see to it he has the necessary comforts for the journey and for the winter ahead.”

As the word spread throughout the kingdom, messages were delivered from the Prince of the Western Lands, the Prince of Raymond, and the Princess the Green Lakes. Each messenger brought words of support and the offer to travel to the Forest of Hawthorne if need be. The Prince of Whitetail sent them on their way with assurances there was no need for them to undertake such journeys.

The day of the King’s journey was soon upon them. The Prince took the King by the hand and led him from the Forest, while the Princess and her porters packed some of the King’s belongings to be sent on ahead to the Village of Hickory. The King was distressed, he did not want to leave the Forest. The Prince and the King halted at the shop of Maidens of Medicine for the King’s treatments and to ensure his room at the Village of Hickory was ready for his arrival.

The wait merely added to the Prince’s feeling of dread for the journey ahead. He tried valiantly to relieve the King’s distress, while the dread mounted within his soul. His mind was racing with thoughts of threads to pull. What was that sound? The sound of someone approaching. The Prince looked momentarily without recognition, but then…the veil fell from his eyes to reveal Sir Larry of Sayre! Why was he here outside the Forest of Hawthorne?  

Familiar with the journey ahead and being a long time friend of the King, and much older (and therefore somewhat wiser) than the Prince, he’d come from afar to provide the magic of listening ear to the King. As the sands in the hour glass slowly moved from top to bottom, he was there to share the burden of the Prince and Princess. Through his laugh, through his stories, through his heart of empathy and compassion, he was able to lessen the King’s distress and cause the Prince’s dread to nearly vanish.

As mid-day faded and the shadows lengthened, it was time. The much older (and somewhat wiser), Sir Larry of Sayre, with a tear in his eye, bid adieu to the King and Prince as they took the road toward the Village of Hickory to meet the Princess.

The King and Prince arrived at the Village of Hickory, where the Princess was just finishing up with the King’s room. She had done a wonderful job preparing the way and ensuring even the smallest detail was tended to for the King.

Thank you, Larry. Thank you for not asking, because the answer, as you knew, would have been “Nothing”. Thank you for knowing what was needed even when I did not. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being present. You gave us more than you will ever know…then again, maybe you do.

Love is Thicker than Blood, Blood is Thicker than WaterThere is an old proverb that states, “Blood is thicker than water.” In modern day, it has come to mean that family bonds (blood) are stronger than friendships (water).  “Love is thicker than blood” was my attempt to state love relationships are even stronger than blood relationships. As is my practice when quoting something, I wanted to ensure I understood its meaning. What I learned in this case (and in many cases, actually) is the quote has been used incorrectly. And, at least in this case, the original meaning is closer to what I want to say in the first place.

Tracing this proverb back to its origins reveals, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Originally meant to convey the blood of battle forms a bond among soldiers that is stronger than family bonds, I like the direction Richard Back took it. In his book, “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”, Bach wrote, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.”

So, by now you are asking, “Jeff, what in the heck are you trying to say? You’ve written 200 words and I still don’t know what you are trying to say.” In Rivers of Thought I have written a lot about love, I have written a lot about family. Today, I want to celebrate someone whom I mention frequently, but too many times take for granted. Today, I want to celebrate my wife, Carmen.

This is a second marriage for both of us. An only child, without children of her own, she was thrust into the family of Tons. Admittedly, we are not the Rockefellers nor the Kennedys, but we can be a pretty intimidating bunch. But, she opened her home and she opened her heart to all of us (I don’t think she understood she was marrying all of us when she said “I do”!).

When I say she opened her home, I mean it literally. In early 2001 Carmen and decided to move in together . . . in her house. Not only did I move in, but so did my 16 year old son Brad, who lived with me 50% of the time. Even before moving day, she made sure Brad would feel welcome by transforming her guest room into a teenage boy-man room. Admittedly, those first few years were tough. Teenage years are filled with angst enough, throw in a divorce and you get a lot of pent of anger, a good dose aimed at me. Carmen played consoler and referee. Always wary of the the “stepmother” line, she danced the tightrope incredibly well.

Early in our marriage, we struggled, and I do mean we struggled, to build a relationship with my parents. Divorce is hard on everyone. My divorce seemed to be particularly hard on my mom and dad. While they labored to come to grips with the new reality (as Brad would say, “This ain’t Leave it to Beaver any more!”), the first to really open her heart to Carmen was my grandmother Granny Ton. Sara. She and Carmen developed a very strong bond in a short time. Granny loved it when Carmen came to visit and chat. Honestly, through Carmen I was able to get to know my Granny as, well, as Sara. A woman who had lived a life of love and family. I don’t think I would have ever learned of that woman without Carmen. I will treasure the stories she shared with us during her final years and those final days.

As the years passed, our house became the place for holiday gatherings, birthday parties, and celebrations of all kinds. All put on with organization and planning that make them look easy. All with a touch of elegance and grace. (Yes, even with name cards at our plates so everyone knows where to sit!). All were invited and all were welcome. The invitation extended beyond family to friends who were without a place to go. Friends became family, family became friends.

She and my mom became friends…buddies as mom would say. The two of them would chat and carry-on like young school girls. They would go shopping and have “girl time”. As aging began to take its toll on mom’s body, Carmen was there to take her to doctor after doctor. She became her advocate when she couldn’t advocate for herself. She became her voice when she could no longer speak. She truly became mom’s Daughter-in-Love.

In the summer of 2010, we became grandparents, of sorts. Our son, Brad, had moved in with this his girl friend (our soon to be daughter-in-love), Holly. At the time, Holly was a single mom to two awesome kids, Donny age 10, Charity age 8. Before school let out for the year, it became apparent Holly’s plans for the kids was not going to work out. Who stepped forward? Carmen, of course. Of course, the she would wrangle the kids all summer. Oh, did I mention, our house was undergoing a major renovation? Construction going on everywhere. No kitchen. . . for about a year! Yet, those kids (and Carmen) had a wonderful summer . . . making tree branch tepees in yard. . . hunting for “treasure” in the woods and creek. . . climbing trees. . . and, of course, signing their names in the concrete of the new foundation. Today, Charity, now 14 and a freshman in high school, still loves to get off the bus at “Grandma’s house” after school.

A couple short years later, Jeremy’s son Braxton was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. For many months, our sweet Braxton could not travel to Indianapolis for visits. So, Grandma Carmen and I would travel to see him. They immediately formed their bond. Just a couple weeks ago, Braxton (oh, and Jeremy, too) were visiting. Carmen, Braxton and Jordan (more on him in a minute) duckpin bowled together. . . incredible smiles. . . incredible laughter. . . incredible love. Later, Braxton would help Carmen make garlic toast for dinner. Sunday found Carmen and Braxton busy at the kitchen table. Carmen was helping him practice writing in a new “learn to write” book she had bought for him. It was a beautiful scene! And one that melted all of our hearts!

I mentioned Jordan. March 2014 we were again all gathered in a hospital waiting room. Several hours later we were introduced to Jordan, Brad and Holly’s son. Twelve weeks later, when Holly had to return to work, Jordan would come to hang out at Grandma Carmen’s, like his big brother and sister had done. Today, Jordan loves to visit “Meemaw’s House”, and play dinosaurs, or kitchen, or cars. He loves to watch “Meemaw’s deer” in the yard, and ride “Meemaw’s tractor”. Last night, he and I were playing in the small play house at our property next door and he couldn’t wait to open the door of the second floor deck (ok, it’s a pretty big “small” play house), stand on the deck and yell for “meeeeeeeeeeemaw”, “meeeeeeeeeeemaw”!

Over the last few years, she again, has taken on the role of caregiver. This time for my dad. As he ages and his dementia worsens, he needs more and more help. Carmen is there to help around his apartment, to take him shopping, to haircuts, to optometrist appointments and help him to learn his new reality. During the few days I have been writing this post, Dad has been sick with an intestinal bug. Who was there (twice) to help clean him after an accident? Carmen, of course. In many of our private moments, dad expresses deep appreciation and love for Carmen. I know he is thankful to have her care for him.

There is not room in this post to retell all of the stories of my life (our life) with Carmen. Our little clan has grown. Together, we have celebrated life’s most treasured moments. Together, we have held our kids, our grandkids, and yes, our parents in our arms and cried through life’s tougher moments. Carmen is the glue, Carmen is the bond that holds it all together. I know, there is no one I would rather have by my side, there is no one I would rather share laughter with through life’s celebrations, there is no one I would rather share tears with through life’s challenges than Carmen.

She may not know “nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies”, but she she does know how to love, care and nurture; she does know how to be a rock in life’s craziness; she knows how to birth a family not based on blood . . . or, the water of the womb. Thank you, Carmen Suzanne, you are loved and treasured more than you will ever know.

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Family, Friendship, Love

It started with an Angel. An Angel named Mary Ellen. The three Princes were gathered in the palace of the King. The Princess could not join them, not well enough to make the long journey. Nor, in fact, was the King present. He, being on a journey of his own. Days before, prior to his departure, the King had issued a proclamation: “Not that you will want them, but, take what you will of the things I have left behind. What you do not want give to the people as a token of goodwill.”

The three princes found themselves surrounded by untold treasures left abandoned in the castle. The King’s prophecy seemed to be true, barely a treasure had been spoken for by the Princes or the Princess. It was then an Angel appeared amongst them (hey…I’ve heard this story before!). She spoke not a word. She seemed to float, yet not. Light surrounded her. Upon her robes there was writing. An ancient text; given the date written after the words. As luck would have it, the bride of one of the Princes knew the ancient language. The fair maid, translated the words: “The Family of Sayre”.

The middle Prince, and most handsome (hey, it’s my freakin’ blog, you other two can write your own blog if you want to be the most handsome!) immediately sent word to the head of the Family of Sayre to join them at the castle. There were a handful of trinkets representing the Holy Days, surely the Family of Sayre would find use for them during the upcoming Season.

When Larry of Sayre arrived, the Princes bestowed upon him a dozen or more trinkets. Being an old and dear friend of the King and very well known to the Princes, they took to telling stories from the ancient of days and more recent news from the Family of Sayre. They were acquiring a second castle in the southern part of the kingdom. A place for their family to rest and to feast. A place for his Princess and Prince to bring their offspring and frolick in the spiritual waters.

Now, I don’t recall who thought of it first, I believe it was the handsome middle Prince (again, it’s my damn blog!), “Don’t you need some fine furnishings for this new castle? Perhaps, a bed upon which to rest after a day of chasing the fox with the hounds? Perhaps a dresser to store your robe and garments? Perhaps a lounge upon which to look out across the kingdom?” Perhaps, a rack in which to store your pages? Perhaps a roll of paper with the King’s seal?

Larry of Sayre was overcome. Yes, he would be honored to take use of the King’s things. He called upon more of the Family of Sayre to bring their wagons, they would fill them with their good fortune. Wagon load, after wagon load of treasures were taken to the the Castle by the Water. Soon, the King’s Castle had but a few items left. The Princes were pleased, they knew the King would be pleased. Not only were his things taken, they were taken by the Family of Sayre. That evening there was rejoicing throughout the land.

…and they all lived happily ever after.

An Angel Named Mary EllenOk, enough with the Fairy Tale…I could not resist! As the actual events described allegorically in the tale unfolded, the word “serendipity” was used multiple times throughout the day. The fact that we found a ceramic angel, upon which mom had written “The Sayres – 2007” was serendipitous. The fact that we called Larry and he was immediately available to come over was serendipitous. The fact that Larry and Nancy, along with their daughter Laura and her husband were, at that moment, in the middle of purchasing a lake cottage was…serendipitous. The fact that they needed furnishings for the cottage…almost the exact furnishings that dad could no longer use was…yep…serendipitous.

Serendipity was a word my mom used a lot while were were growing up. I thought it was some 60’s thing the church had created to compete with groovy, far out, and alright to try and sound cool to teens. I don’t think I had used the word in a sentence in 40 years! When Larry (of) Sayre started using it, I was transported to another place and time.

As I sat down to write this post, I went to Google to look up the definition. Little did I know I would be taken back a wee bit further than the 1960’s. I was taken back all the way to the 1750’s! 1754 to be exact, when Horace Walpole coined the term in a letter. He was describing a Persian Fairy Tale to his correspondent. The fairy tale? “The Three Princes of Serendip”.

There are SO many layers here. Three Princes…(now, do you get the three Princes reference in my little fairy tale??)…the Three Kings from biblical texts, one or all of whom could have been Persian…Persia, today’s Iran. I love when history does that to you…you go looking for one thing and you find another, far more powerful…it’s incredible, you might say…or rather, it’s serendipitous!

 

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dad, family, loveIt came when I least expected. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked through that garage. Dozens? Hundreds? At that moment something caught my eye. I had seen it a million times, but had never given it more than a passing thought. What was that? Today, I had to know. I walked over and picked it up…WHAM! A 2×4 right between my eyes. Holy shit! Dazed, I staggered back,as I did…UMPHFFFFF! Jeeeeeeeezussss! A sucker punch right to the gut. It would be cliche to say, “life passed before my eyes”, nay,  lifefroze before my eyes! As the moments passed, life did indeed pass before my eyes…but it wasn’t my life.

I could see them, mom supervising the planting of the spring flowers, no longer able to help, much less do any of the work. I could hear them discussing which flowers to put where, how best to plant them, and my mom’s reminder to dad to keep them watered.

Life rewound…to happier times. They would shop together at Wild Birds or Altums, picking out the perfect feeder or plant for the small manicured lawn, chattering excitedly as they drove home to place it just the right spot. Later, holding hands as they walked around the yard to examine God’s handiwork.

There they were again, moving into their new home in the retirement community. Doing it for the kids, they’d say. The pride they took in decorating the house just so. The paint colors, the fabrics, the knick-knacks. Out front was a flag pole, shrubs trimmed just so. Welcoming. The prettiest house on the block. At Christmas (a favorite time of year), lights were hung, their twinkle giving the appearance of falling snow.

Now there is a different house. They look younger. This house had something special. Grandkids! Five in all. Oh how they loved to visit Mimi and Popper. Mimi would spend hours with them exploring the scary crawl space. The boys begged for her to take them down there…even though they were a little bit afraid of the dark. Calling out occasionally in shaky voices, “Mimi are you still there?” I’m right here, just shine your flashlight this way,” would come the response.

Popper loved to play in the yard with them. They would play hide and seek for hours on end. The giggles once again giving away the best hiding spot yet!

The house and yard was as you might expect. Immaculate (except after the visit of the grandkids!). The grass mowed and trimmed. The trees bursting with leaves. In the back, were his rose bushes. He would meticulously prune them, fertilize them, and water them. He loved to take her and point to each blossom at is began to unfold.

A new image takes the place of this one. It is a house with four teenagers. Chaotic Sunday mornings getting everyone ready for church. The house was decorated with dozens of banners. Each one made with love and care. Each one with one of her favorite quotes, or scriptures. “Bloom where you are planted”, “Marantha, Our Lord Come”, “Celebrate”, “For God So Loved the World”. The newest one placed in the entry hall, the others hung throughout the “Wreck” Room (hey it WAS a house full of teenagers!).

Together they would explore their faith, their relationship, and their marriage in new light. She was beginning to be her own person. Yes, she was still the minister’s wife, and, very, very proud to be. But she was learning that she had a ministry as well. She could write! At first it was for a Sunday School lesson, then short magazine articles, finally a book. Yes, a book! I could not tell who was more proud…her, or him.

As before, the image fades and a new one takes its place. The kids are younger now, but then so are they. The house is a huge old house next to the church where he served. The house was clean and tidy, despite four young kids (don’t look in their rooms). The garage held the car. THE car! One of the first new cars they had owned. The car was hand washed and waxed…it sparkled. He loved to take her for a ride in the car, letting the wind blow through the open windows (4×4 air conditioning they would call it).

Every Sunday, she would sit in the balcony with the kids (squirming less visible there) and look on with pride as he tended his flock. He was magnificent. His faith and passion exposed with every word. His hair was dark, his eyes flashed. Without anyone being the wiser, he would look to her for affirmation that his words were heard and his message, nay, God’s message, was delivered. After church, they would all sit down for Sunday lunch around an ancient kitchen table.

The images came much faster now, like life as we age, the years moving faster and faster. They were getting younger. The four kids, were three, then two, then one. Then it was the two of them. She dressed in white. Beautiful, simply beautiful. He dressed in black, barely able to breath as he looked at her. Handsome, eyes blazing.

They were teenagers now. He making excuses to go visit his friend Chuck just so he could catch a glimpse of her. Acting totally cool and disinterested, in his rolled-cuffed jeans. She just happening to leave this doll, or that doll out so she would HAVE to go pick it up, her dress clean and bright, like she had just put in on (because, of course, she had). Days, weeks, and months before he would work up nerve to ask her out…to a church youth event (yes, a first date at a church youth event, would you expect anything else from him?).

And then it stopped. I was back in the garage. That same garage, I had been in countless times before. That same garage, where we stacked some of her things when she passed three years prior. That same garage, where I helped him fix his golf cart to make sure he could still get around, even though he could no longer drive. In my hand was a sprinkler head. The shelves before me, organized meticulously, untouched in the three years since mom had died, just as she and dad had left them, now covered with dust and cobwebs. Frozen.  It was frozen. Nothing touched, nothing moved in three years.

We were there to pack dad to move from this house to an apartment. He would be safer there. He would have better care there. We were moving him from this house. The last home they had together. The house where she laid and took her last breath. The house where he had hoped to take his last breath to join her once again. He isfamily, dad, love no longer able to care for the house, I said. He is no longer able to care for himself, I said. He cannot live alone anymore, I said. It is the right thing to do, I said.

I carefully placed the sprinkler head where it had laid, even straightening it, just so. Packing the garage would wait for another day. I took a deep breath, wiped away a tear, and went back in the house to continue packing. Later, as Carmen and I left for the day, I held my hug with dad just a little bit longer, kissed his check a little bit firmer, told him I loved him just a little bit louder. Finally knowing, what I had known in my heart for a long time…he died when she did three years ago this month.

 

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family, tradition, generations“Wow, are those smiles identical, or what?!” That simple comment on a Facebook post of a picture of my grandson Jordan and I on his first birthday  immediately reminded me of a song from the 90’s by Push Down & Turn, the king of local bar bands during that time. Their song “Faces” by Sam King, always struck a chord with me. It still brings chills when I hear it. In it, Sam recounts his memories and feelings  surrounding the recent passing of his father.

I see that face sometimes in the the mirror
And I wonder, will I ever be like him

Because his face, I will always see,
He is a part of me
The part that keeps me alive
Is where he will always be.

I will see his face again someday in my children
I hope I can save them from his fate.

I will see his face again someday in heaven
I hope I’ll be ready when my time comes

Because his face, I will always see,
He is a part of me
The part that keeps me alive
Is where he will always be.

Copyright Push Down & Turn
Copyright Spring Street Records, Inc.

While the song is bittersweet, it got me thinking. I have been blessed with two wonderful sons. In turn, they have blessed my wife and I with four (thus far) fantastic grandchildren. What things, other than a killer smile, will they take from me? What physical traits will we share? What lessons will be passed on? What memories will we share? What habits and idiosyncrasies will handed down, intentionally or not?

family, tradition, generationsLast summer, while preparing for a family cookout at Whitetail Meadow, I was setting the fire in the firepit. My grandson Braxton was busy playing in the yard, running from one adventure to the next. As I broke sticks for kindling, he stopped to watch me intently. (Braxton LOVES to play with sticks). Soon, without any prompting from me, he was picking up sticks and “helping me” stack them in the firepit. Will he learn to love the outdoors as I do from me? His father has always been a hard worker, will that trait pass down to our Braxton?

Just a few weeks ago, our grandson Jordan was spending the night with us. I took the opportunity to read him a bedtime story. The one I chose? Why, “Gus and Me” by Keith Richards, of course! What? You didn’t know rock’s premiere guitarist has written a children’s story? The book, written for his own grandchildren, is a story of his grandfather “Gus”, the bond they shared, and the gift of a guitar thatfamily, tradition, generations would forever shape Keith’s life. Will Jordan learn to love music and enjoy the “classics” (like Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and more) through a bedtime story and a connection with his grandpa? His father loves music and had a career of his own writing songs from his heart, will that trait pass down to our Jordan?

What lessons have I learned from my dad? Honestly, there is not room here to recount them all. Recently, he and I were talking about my last blog post, “Shadows of Days Gone By”. He told me how much he enjoyed my writing. “You must have gotten that from your mother,” he told me.  You see mom published two books and numerous magazine articles during her “second career”, the first one being raising four kids. “Dad, that may be…partially…I think a lot came from you too!” Dad had been a Baptist minister and throughout his career had written thousands of sermons (“Dad Paddles the #RooseveltRiver”). “I think my writing and my speaking came from BOTH you and mom”.

I don’t remember much about either of my granddads. Grandpa Williams, the original Donut Man, I know through his donuts and stories from my mom. They lived in Wisconsin so we only got to see them a couple times a year. Whether he ever knew it or not, I think my love for tradition came from him. My Grandpa Ton, passed away before I really had the chance to know him. I know he was a hard working man. He spent many years working in the gold mines in South Dakota. I think he would be proud of the hard work I have done around Whitetail Meadow in the last few years.

family, tradition, generationsAs an amateur genealogist, I have spent hours assembling our family history (to give credit, by Aunt Betty did most of the work, I was just a very lucky recipient of some of her files).  When my Granny Ton passed away, I was blessed to receive her journals and many of her old photographs. The Facebook comment also reminded me of one of the photos of her parents, Aloisia and Franz Hickey. Every time I look at that picture, I see my dad in the face and eyes of his Grandma Aloisia. To me it is striking!

The more I study my ancestors, the more like “real people” they become. At some generation, they become themselves, not their relation to me. It’s Aloisia and Franz, not Great Grandma and Grandpa…or Sydney, Carrie, Elisha, Martin, George, Jan, and Dirk. What parts of me are parts of them? I wonder.  Did they ever wonder about me and what I would be?

As I end this post, my grandson Braxton is waking up in the next room. Spring is here, the sun is warm once again. We are going out to play. What lessons will he learn today? What lessons will he teach today? I can’t wait to discover them!

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