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A Guest Post by Jill Renee (Ton) Stollenwerk

It was the Saturday before Christmas. Carmen and I had just collapsed on the couch in front of a roaring fire. We had just celebrated Christmas with our two-year old Grandson Braxton, our son JT, and our parents. We had “just settled down for a long winter’s nap”, when just to my left there arose such a clatter…ok, it was my cell phone vibrating to  alert me to a text message. It was from my sister, Jill.

Text Exchange

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text Exchange 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Within moments, my phone rang (or rather vibrated).

The Story of Jill and The Little Black Lamb

As I entered the Christmas season this year, I became keenly aware of my mother’s absence. She passed away in July, 2013, but this year I have missed her anew so much.  Mom was the tapestry of Christmas as I grew up and even as I was an adult with children.  Mary Ellen, Mom, Mimi brought Christmas to life for her family and friends. She could do Santa magic, holding on to the Sear’s Christmas catalogue until after Thanksgiving for her children to dream Santa dreams that she knew they couldn’t afford. Yet, observing her, you knew how strongly she embraced the Christmas story of Jesus coming into the world.

I was a PK, preacher’s kid, and was used to our family life reflecting the liturgy of the time of year.  I didn’t appreciate as a child the impact our family rituals would have on me.  This year, I have been looking for Mom.  I wanted to experience her in the ornaments she and Dad had given us kid through the years.  Dating back to 1973, they had given me an ornament each year, in keeping with the tradition given by Mom’s parents.

My precious ornaments had been packed away for several years.  Many circumstances in my life kept them from view until this year when my boxes had been moved to my new home.  I unpacked the boxes of ornaments, hungry for a glimpse of my mother.  I reminisced childhood Christmas memories with my new husband.  One strong memory was how my mother pulled four active children together many evenings during advent each year.  Somehow she managed to slow us down enough to light the advent candles, read a scripture, read a story and perhaps even sing a song together.  My initial memories of those times were how we kids fought over the honor of lighting a candle or reading a passage.  My memory now is of a very patient mother who was determined to bring the light of Jesus’ birth to her children.  And she did.

I continued my search for my mother this Christmas.  I wanted so badly to touch her, feel her, and embrace her.  I thought about all the stories she read to us each year.  “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Other Wiseman”, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “The Little Black Lamb”.  My favorite for some reason was “The Little Black Lamb”.  I remembered vividly sitting by my mother as she read the story and I looked at the drawings in the book. It was a very simple story. I poked around my saved books and found all of the stories, given to me by my parents in the early 70’s.  All except “The Little Black Lamb”.  As if on a mission, I went to Google to find that story.  And I found it finally.  Somebody had typed it up and posted it to their blog.  No credits were given to the author, which I thought was sad. (for the record, the author is Emily S. McCracken).Scan10094

But I had my story and that brought me closer to Mom.  Later that day I went out to our garage to put on my boots for a trek to check on the horses and peacocks with my husband.  On a table next to my chair was a stack of books.  Oh yes, these were the children’s books I had told my husband could go to Goodwill, because we had no little ones around.  He had wisely saved them in hopes I would send them to my grandson, Ben, in Florida.  I picked up one of the books and opened it.  It opened to the story of “The Little Black Lamb”!  This was my mother’s book that she read to me and my brothers.  The pictures were exactly as I remembered.  How could I have had that book in my possession and forgotten how important it was?  I heard my mother as clear as a bell saying, “Why are you looking for me?  I have been here all along.  You just had to see me.”

I was choking back the tears as I climbed the stairs to the office to call my dad and share with him.  There was no answer on his cell phone, so I called the house phone.  The answering machine picked up my call and I heard my mother’s voice over the phone. Her sweet voice recorded long before the stroke that destroyed her voice and took her life.  I called my brother, Jeff, because I knew he would understand. I wanted to connect with my mom this Christmas and, oh my, I did.  My mother was a gift at that time I needed it most. Isn’t that kind of the way it is with God?  “I am here.  Why are you looking for me?  I have been here all along.”

Jill’s gift was “finding” our mother…my gift was sharing the moment with my sister.

 (The Donut Hole referenced by Jill’s text was a post in this blog).

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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 +.

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 +.