All posts by marjorie@lunchwithmarjorie.readmstradinger.com

Marjorie is a freelance writer who has been publishing her columns for more than 30 years. Lunch with Marjorie began in Rockford, and moved, with Marjorie to Connecticut. She now publishes her interviews on her website so they can be enjoyed round the globe.

A heart for Community and Starlight Theatre

Mike Webb was one of only four graduate students to earn an M.F.A. in directing from Michigan State–too tough for most. They had recruited him at Milwaukee Repertory and wanted a stage manager with experience. Mike wanted a graduate degree in directing.

So Frank Rutledge, Chairman of the program at Michigan State, said, “Nobody’s completed it in 14 years, but you’re welcome to try.”

Mike has never avoided a challenge, evident since 1085 when he became head of theatre at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.

Mike and I lunched at Mary’s Market Bistro on Perryville in Rockford. I was late, so Mike had eaten. Too bad. I love Mary’s. But I grabbed a juice and got right to our chat.  Starlight_1

“There’s been a lot of press about Starlight Theatre,” I began, knowing that back then this landmark in architecture and Rockford theatre was making news in the post-September 11 depression, felt heavily in Rockford.

“There’s always a little jealousy,” he said. “Starlight couldn’t have been done anywhere else int he world, because of the people who came into the project, when they came into it, and how it was going to be done. The community needed a shot in the arm, something to believe in. Basically, what happened, the building was named for Bengt Sjostrom. He had passed away back in 1983. they went to the brothers and said, “we don’t want your money; we just want your expertise. They built the original seating bowl for nothing.”

“It’s about community.” I echoed.”

“It’s a 100 percent about community. The reason everybody got involved. We were ahead of the curve on technology. I called Jeanne Gang, such a cool architect (and) said it would be really nice if we could open the roof. She had friends. She was in New York and went to Tim Macfarlane, the famous London architect.,” he explained.

Starlight_3

“I just wanted a roof over the audience. I didn’t want to have to stress over rain anymore. Time did a pencil sketch, showing how it could work, but told her, ‘You won’t be able to afford me.’ He didn’t take a fee.”

“You evoke heart from people,” I said.

“I gave up so much for this: time, energy. I didn’t get extra money for this. You think $12 million is a lot of money. It’s not a lot of money when you look what we got out of it.”

Mike searched for the right words. When they were shoring up the roof, there was a problem. They sent it to Tim.

“He said, ‘I made a mistake. Don’t worry about it. I’ll make this right. I’ll take care of the whole thing.’”

Sjostrom shored up the roof; Macfarlane paid the bill.

“It was a huge bill, out of his own pocket, and he didn’t take a fee in the first place. That’s the story! That should be celebrated, triumphed!”

One school day, there were people in the building.

“I walk out and it’s Tim, in from London. He said, ‘Are you happy?’ I said, I’m thrilled. He said, ‘It’s beautiful.’”

Tears welled up in Mike’s eyes because of this man who had given so much and on top of it gave even more.

“Is your life about Starlight?”

“Yes, and family. I’ll give casting priority to somebody whose parent wants to be in a show with a child who has a dream of performing. Putting family into a positive thing that’s not watching television. Creating something to give back to the community is really important.

“I bought a rock. It’s right as you walk in the main door. In each tier are the names of the people who poured their heart and soul into Starlight. As people came into the project, key people, their names went in. In the bottom bracket are the workers who gave so much of themselves. For example, Joe Maring (Schoenings), had been working hard on painting, getting the colors right. The weather wasn’t cooperating. I was walking with him and he said, ‘I’m going to be able to tell my grandchildren that I helped with this building.’ I said, Joe, I can do you one better. Come here.

I pointed to the rock, and all the sudden he sees his name, and tears were coming down his face. It was real important to thank these people.”

Mike continued, “In the middle of construction, Sjostrom wanted rocks from the original buildings. Now, ever single one of those guys who never went to live theatre at all are buying season tickets. Not only that, they’ve become donors. These are the coolest people on the entire planet, giving money to a theatre they believe in.

I can die a happy person, because that is exactly what I’m all about–giving people’s lives meaning.”

P.S. Mike Webb has since retired from his career, and has left a wonderful legacy, not only for Rockford, but for all who will ever visit this amazing outdoor theatre.

Perfect Pitch – A blessing and a curse – Part 2

Carl’s hopes for a music career and playing his violin were altered June 23, 1998, when his Camry was struck by a delivery truck early one morning as he delivered newspapers–his summer job between semesters at Hillsdale College.  cbk

He describes his recovery.

“Broken bones?” I asked.

Unknown-1   “Many, many, many. If you want me to go from top to bottom,” he pointed to his head: “Traumatic brain injury. My skull was never fractured, so that was a mercy of God right there. What they said, the right side of my brain twisted on the stem and rubbed up against the right side of my skull. That is what put me in a coma. Major gash on the left side of my skull. The scalp was open, so I had stitches there. Going down, my left collar bone was broken.”

I couldn’t resist, “You had your seat belt on, right?” Hey, I’m a mom.  Unknown-2

“That’s what saved my life. I wore my seat belt and the air bag deployed. Both my arms and both my legs were fine, but everything else in my torso was messed up, except for my back. All my ribs were broken, resulting in both lungs being punctured. My pelvis, that’s the big bone, got broken in five places. While I was in a coma, they weren’t able to move my legs until my pelvis healed. Calcium deposits started forming under my kneecaps, completely shifting my kneecaps out of their normal spot. When I emerged from the coma, I didn’t have knees. I had lumps and wasn’t able to walk.”

After more than five months of rehab, Carl was able to go home.

“I came home the day before Thanksgiving. I was so thankful to God that I was alive, so thankful to be coming home, though my emotions were a little dampened. I just didn’t seem…my emotions were pretty numbed.  Unknown-3

“I did start trying to play the violin. I wanted to play for carol sing, like I had done in the past. I tried. I really did. It was frustrating. My left hand doesn’t work. I did play, but I wasn’t at the level I wanted.”

Carl put his violin down after that.

Unknown-5 “It’s neurological damage. Something is messed up between my brain and my hand.”

“What do you think about that,” I asked.

“All right, God. What do you want me to do now?”

He had wanted to be a music teacher.

“And, now I can’t do anything musical, really. I think God was saying, ‘Trust Me, I will lead you.’ It ended up being an experience, gradually learning to trust God. There is still hope that I could play the violin, That has never left.”

Carl took community college classes that fall, then returned to Hillsdale. “I was thrilled to be back, but things weren’t as I remembered.

I wasn’t quite so…I’m a lot sadder, more sedate than I was used to being.”  Unknown-4

He struggled to explain the (neurological) loss of emotion. He did graduate from Hillsdale, a degree in music pedagogy.”

“Music pedagogy was kind of a major they made for me. I have head knowledge, but I can’t do the physical expression.”

Our lunch at Appleby’s had had several distractions. Just then Carl saw a young woman he knew. They bantered about winter break and school being superior to employment.

“Reality,” I said.

“Reality sucks,” he responded.

“Stay in school as long as you can.”

He was sheepish, realizing this was a more candid, present, than the narrative we had been focusing on.

By 2004 Carl was weighing his options.

“Is music still a hope?” I asked.   Unknown

“A very distant hope,” he said. “If I were able to play again, I think I would get back the emotion.”

“The music itself could bring it back?”  Unknown-7

“I think so.”

He’s currently (2005) studying counseling at a seminary in St. Louis.

“What’s happening inside Carl,” I asked.

“I’m really not sure. To a certain extent, I feel a little loss of direction.”

“Do you see purpose in all of this?”

“I know there is. I don’t know. I know there is one. I’ve never had a normal life, even pre-DAO (Divinely Appointed Occurrence). That’s what I call my wreck. God does not cause sin, but he has a purpose through it, and that is a mystery which, this side of heaven, we will never be able to fathom.”

“Are you OK with that?”

“I am more than OK with that.” He paused.

Unknown-8    “I should be honest. There are other things that come into play.” He described social struggles.

He’s 25. It’s a difficult young adulthood.

“What you want back is your passion for life?”

“Yes.” “I think we’re still talking about perfect pitch,” I said.

“Emotional perfect pitch., knowing what you’re missing. It hurts.”

He reflected. I had hit a chord. His friends were IM-ing him again.  images

“Do you mind if I check my phone?” he asked.

Perfect pitch–A blessing and a curse

Carl started playing violin when he was five.

“Isn’t that unusual?” I asked.

Unknown   “Not if you’re a Suzuki student,” Carl explained. “My best friend Michael was playing the violin at 3.”

His teacher Mike Beert was a cellist for the Rockford Symphony Orchestra.

“When did your playing evolve into a career ambition?” I continued.

“I almost gave it up, by the time I was in the seventh grade. I thought nothing was happening. All I could do was play with my mom.”

“But you knew you were musical.”

“I inherited my dad’s ear for music. I have pretty good pitch. I don’t have perfect pitch, thankfully.”   absolute_pitch_image001

“Thankfully?”

He explained, “Perfet pitch is both a blessing and a curse. You hear when someone is out of tune, or whatever. I have  relative pitch. And, I’ve been musical since I was born. My parents pushed me to keep going. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to enjoy playing the violin. I was part of the orchestra at my high school. I was able to audition for District Orchestra, was able to play in those for my sophomore, junior and senior years.”

“How did knowing that you were good affect your ambitions?”

“That kind of solidified my desire to continue music. I was planning on going to college, planning on becoming a high school music teacher.”

Our Applebee’s server arrived. Carl wanted crispy orange chicken. Very good. I ordered the spinach and artichoke appetizer.

He continued. “I was branching out in my musical interests. Exploring Celtic music. I love the style. It’s very emotive. I’m an emotive person. I show my emotions quite readily–wear my heart on my sleeve.”

“Music is a way to express yourself.”

“Mostly as an extension of my feelings. I decided on Hillsdale College in Michigan. I went into it wholeheartedly.”   Unknown

“What sold you on Hillsdale?”

“Mostly the community of students and the professor. That really was what it was all about. Closely knit, wonderful people. I didn’t want to be a number. I wanted to be a person. I guess I’ve always beeen a big fish in a small pond–although my high school was huge. I just had a great time being myself in both high school and college.”

Carl finished his freshman year in the spring of ’98. Everything was perfect. Then the summer of 1998.

“That fateful summer. I was picking up odd jobs doing whatever kind of work I could to earn a little extra money.”

Carl had barely touched his orange chicken. Our server asked if he wanted a box. Carl was focused on telling me his story.

“On a June morning at 5:30 a.m., I was in my car.”

“At that time of the morning, there aren’t many cars on the road, are there?”    images

“But, there are delivery trucks,” he said. “And that is what hit my car.”

His 1995 Camry was southbound.

“All I remember is I was at a stoplight. The truck was heading west to Cub Foods. A refrigerated meat truck. I don’t remember this. I am going by what I’ve been told. According to my grandfather, who saw what was left of my car in the junkyard, it’s a miracle I’m alive. The driver T-boned the Camry. It was totaled. The coroner was called to the scene of the wreck. They didn’t think I was alive, and if I were alive, I would probably die en route to the hospital. And, if I were able to make it, I would die on the emergency room table.”

I had to take a breath. I think I wasn’t breathing as I listened.

“When they finally did get me out of what was left of my car, they did get some faint vital signs.”

“You weren’t having ‘white light’ experiences?”

“I have no idea; I have no recollection whatsoever. The next thing I remember was somewhere two months after that, groggily coming to, as it were, in the nursing home.”

“That first two months, you were in a coma?”

“Correct. All I know is, the Lord preserved me. I have snippets in my mind.”

“Snippets.”

Unknown-1    “Looking out the nursing home window. I remember physical therapy. occupational therapy, speech therapy. Thank God insurance paid for the lion’s share. The lady, the caseworker for the insurance claims said, whatever he needs, he’ll get. That was just a miracle. I am so grateful to God for giving me that.”   Unknown

He recalls his mother’s presence.

“My mother told me, ‘You were in a car accident, Carl. The Lord spared your life.”

PART 2 continues next month.

 

 

This miss won’t miss life

I met Tabitha because she was a fellow thespian with my daughter at their high school. They became fast friends and soon Tab was spending a lot of time at our house.

So I know things about her: she loves steak but not vegetables. She is quiet, responsible, respectful and determined for her life to make a difference. We were in Loves Park, IL.

We wanted a sandwich place, but the one we chose was closed, so we went across the street to the Basil Cafe, a favorite of mine for Mediterranean food. I wasn’t sure how Tab would like it.

Soft jazz greeted us with white tablecloths even for lunch, and a friendly greeting by our hostess. Perfect, I thought. I ordered spanakopita, goat cheese and spinach stuffed filo pastry.

“You’re not a goat cheese person, Tab, huh!”

“Nooooo,” she giggled.

I sighed, knowing this meat and potatoes girl would always be the slender beauty she is now.

“You’re studying to be a social worker?” I asked, launching our chat as we waited for our food.

“I decided on community college for two years. It would save a lot of money, and I don’t have a lot saved up. I knew Tab works many hours at a local restaurant as a server, just to afford the community college tuition.

“Are people good tippers?”

“No, not really. Some are. As a server you expect 20 percent if you give good service and you refill drinks, and the food comes out with nothing wrong in the order. If you give them everything they need. I don’t think people should tip less than 15 percent. ‘Cause if someone gives me less than 10 percent, it’s like an insult, like I did something to offend them, or didn’t give them good service.”

“Do you like the school?”

“They have really, really good teachers, and good programs, and get you ready for a four-year, so, yes, I like it.”

“Sounds like this is a lot about finances.”

“Yes.”

“Does social work pay well?”

“Not so good. But I wouldn’t give up this career for anything.”

Challenges are nothing new for Tab. Besides working full time while going to school, she had to take a year off for medical reasons.

“I had really bad headaches. There was a whole time when we were trying to figure out what it was. They misdiagnosed me a couple of times…then found I had torn something in my spinal column–a tiny, tiny tear that caused me to have headaches. They stopped the leaking. Spinal headaches are just horrible.”

“Hopefully that is behind you,” I said admiring her courage.

“I’m probably always going to have migraines.”

“Are you feeling like you are behind?”

“So many people are switching majors, still in their sophomore year at my age. More people just aren’t sure what they want to do.”

Tab is not ambivalent.

“I really want to work with kids up to the time they are teenagers. Kids that have dealt with domestic violence, and also with battered women. I want to support and understand them, not judging. I want to teach them how to be strong, how to make it, that’s it’s okay, and that what happened to them it doesn’t make them less of a person.”

“Is your pizza good?” I interrupted.

“The crust is a little tough,” she said. “But it’s homemade sauce–very, very good.”

“Has studying for social work made you see things you didn’t see before? At your restaurant? Abusers?” I was curious.

“When you see a guy and girl sit down at the table, you’re like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and she just looks down at her plate. I’ll say, ‘Can I bring you something to drink?’ and try to make eye contact. She won’t look at me, and he’ll order everything for her. You can tell she’s hesitant to say anything, scared. I just want to pull her aside. You can’t do that, because if you say anything, he’s going to get irate and she’s the one who’s going to have to deal with it when she gets home, and not you.”

“What motivates you to help?”

“‘Cause I’ve been through bad situations, and I’ve come out and survived them. And, it made me a better, stronger person. You just have to get through it day by day. Forget regret, your life is yours to miss.”

“That’s from the musical Rent?”

She nods and smiles that I knew her favorite show.

“If I think I’m going to regret something, I’m going to do something about it. I don’t like to live in regrets, because then you dwell on them so long that you’re missing out on a lot of things.”

“Are you thinking dessert?” I knew she was.

Turtle cheesecake won. Tab had a big slice. I tasted a corner of hers. “Yum, lots of caramel,” she enjoyed.

Revisiting the Golden Island

Tony Ernandez’s award-winning pizza at Lisa’s Pizza in Janesville, Wis., has spanned three decades, but Tony is about more than pizza.

“At 16, were you thinking about owning a restaurant?” I asked.

“It was the easy thing to make it a going concern. It’s a dream,” he said. “It’s like, watta gotta lose? Am I right?” he added with his stereotypical Italian hand gestures.

“I found something that really got me moving, and the more I do it, the more I wish I would be younger, because you get more experienced. I wouldn’t do anything that much different, but I would do more things, because I would be more energetic.”

We were lunching at South Beloit’s Ramada Cattails Restaurant.

“I’m gonna have the salad,” he said. “Something simple.” He ordered their seafood Louie with creamy dill dressing. I decided on bronzed salmon served on a bed of spinach.

Tony’s mother was born in Beloit, Wis., moving to Sicily when she was about ten.   Unknown

“Grandpa decided to go back because of his health. He worked for Fairbanks. He had a problem with his lungs. The doctor said the only way to get out of it was to go where there’s a lot of fresh air.”

So Tony was born in Petrosino, Trapani, a Sicilian province. His after-school days in the Mediterranean were spent helping his father in the vineyards and orchards.

“When you hit twelve, you have a job,” he explained. I got my own motorcycle by twelve, MV, 50 cc’s. It’s a beautiful vehicle for everybody,” he smiled. “That’s the way they can go real cheap, city to city, if they have a job, because they don’t make an arm and a leg as money.”

Recollecting Sicily brought light to Tony’s dark eyes.

Unknown
an annual event in Sicily

“Your family made tomato sauce?” I prodded.

“Yes, we did that.Every year. One does one thing, the other one helps Mom. That’s the way it’s done. The mother organizes. Usually we are all together. Father, he is the one who provided the whole thing. We helped him pick the tomatoes and bring them home. Then you boil it, and then you have the machine by hand, and then you make the sauce, olive oil, and salt. You cook them, then;put it in 2-liter jars, and then you seal them. you make enough to last you all winter–60, 80, a 100, depending on how many you want. In the summer, you live by salad, almost every day. What we are missing here is a lot of fresh produce. It’s not the old days. Now we eat with chemical fertilizers,” he sighed.

“Sicily’s produce is very popular, known as the best around–oranges, lemons, because there is so much sun. Every day you have fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. The clime is fantastic; it’s not real big, but it’s so loaded with sun. It’s called the Gold Island.”    Unknown-1

It’s unfair, but my greens at the Ramada paled as I imagined sun-drenched Sicily’s deep greens, compared to his iceberg lettuce and limp field greens.

Tony struggled too with the comparison. “This shrimp, this is in a can, and it tastes funny,” he said. He’s a restauranteur.

Tony’s mother moved her family back to Beloit, a few years after his father died. Tony was 21.

“It seems you’d want to stay there with the beautiful climate, fresh air, the fresh produce. Why here?” I asked.

“It’s everybody’s dream to work if I could make more money. That’s the key. It’s like any other country. There’s better opportunity in America than there is over there.”

“You could go in the winter,” I suggested.

“Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” he explained. “Restaurants are like babies.”

“That’s why you don’t leave?”

“You’re right, a 100 percent right,” he said. “Most of the failures, the restaurants are not taken care of right.”

Tony loves America and his work. This isn’t his second choice.

“That’s my priority. It’s the food. That’s life,” he said.

Our server brought over a dessert tray.

“Do  you want dessert, “ I asked, looking at the cake on the tray.

“No,” he said. “You know why? I had a piece of zucchini bread we made three days ago. It’s fantastic–got nuts in it. So I’m thinkin’ when I go home, I’m gonna have a piece with an espress coffee,” his musical accent emerging again.

“Oh that sounds good,” our server said, unmistakably thinking more zucchini bread than cake.

Tony reached for the check.

“No,” I said.

“You sure they’re buying,” he said, referring to my newspaper (where this story appeared originally). “You don’t lie to me?”

I laughed. This beefy body builder was ready to fight for the check.

“This is Lunch with Marjorie,” I affirmed. “Tony, it’s my job.”

He acquiesced, reluctantly. It was hard for him to let a woman pay for lunch.

 

No rock will out-praise this miracle child – Part 2

I tried to coax Lennox to try my creme brulee dessert at Garrett’s in Rockford. Unknown

He tightened his lips: “No, no, no.” His huge smile returned as he continued his story.

“I was baptized that week,” he told me.

“My mom was at the gate waiting with that look on her face…excited about good news. She knew God was in it from the beginning. There’s a great feeling that comes over one when you have answered the call, stepped out in faith, and watched God fulfill the reason behind it all.”

But, urgency was in his mother’s heart.

“Every year, she was always sick…in the hospital…diabetes, hypertension,” Lennox said.  Unknown-8

A call to the school beckoned Lennox home. His mother was in a coma.

“It was a 10 minute walk from the hospital,” he said.  1376414_10153267426750293_995177309_n

“On my way home, I had this sick feeling. I just broke down. Something about this time. I remember going to the bathroom, kneeling on that (outhouse) floor, and praying…for hours.”

His grandmother prayed with him, and he fell asleep.

“I woke up about 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said.

“All the lights were on. I knew…it was not going to be good. My grandma told me that my mom passed away.”

He felt thrown off course.

“I thought God could not do that. That is not the God I know.”

His grandmother stepped in again.  125877-124720

“God will never teach you to swim so that you will drown,” he remembered, she told him.

“If God throws you in deep waters, He is going to be your lifeline.”

4_Mama-and-Bringle“You were close to her.”

“Oh yes, because my mom was always in the hospital.” His world changed. His retired grandmother’s pension was meager. Not enough to feed one person.

“It’s a third world country; you’ve got your own responsibilities,” he explained.

“I was at the mercy of the government.

“Back at school, I was considered an orphan.”

His grandmother encouraged him. God would bring a breakthrough.

When Lennox was 16, Dave and Julie led a group of students on a Salvation Army mission trip from Rockford, Ill. to the school in Kingston.  atlanta-032

They met Lennox and fell in love with him.

“They said, ‘We love you so much, we just want to wrap you up in our suitcase and take you back with us.’” he recalled.

“They were joking.”

But Dave and Julie woke up every night, feeling God was calling them to do something. Lennox kept coming up in their prayers. They started the process of taking him back to Rockford.

“Why did they fall in love with you?” I teased.

“I would call you ebullient, like champagne.”

“Well I do have joy,” he said.

Paperwork that usually took months came through in weeks.

“What made you want to come here?” I asked him.  2554961592_7650f46acd_m

“Everybody in Jamaica wants to go to the United States…streets of gold…you can get whatever you want..eat whatever you want…peanut butter…ice cream…chocolate…more than one pair of shoes without holes…more than one Sunday best,” he reveled.

“How about when you got here?” I asked.

“I don’t think it was different than what I expected,” he said.

“It was better. I landed at O’Hare. Tall buildings, beautiful cars, big streets, highways, landscaping, no rusted, galvanized zinc fences, no shacks. Clean no trash, but no beach. Shocking and amazing.”  10615626_976858975662756_435037484621016269_n

 

“We do have rusted fences and shacks,” I informed.

“I know that now, but not between O’Hare and Rockford,” he smiled.

Lennox felt like he had a family; he belonged.

“After my mom died, I felt like I didn’t belong. My brothers were older. There were living in my mom’s house. It was scattered for me. I was in a dormitory…wide open with beds.”

His mom had been the thread holding everything together. In his new environs, he attended Rockford Christian, and felt God’s plans were developing for him.

“I had to adjust…learn about myself, my gifts, my talents,” he said.

“I started getting involved in music, learning about praise and worship. I got involved in starting praise bands.”

Various parents of school friends helped him, which segued into participating in praise and worship in a newly forming church.

concert    When Lennox was ready to graduate, his new family decided it was time for him to make a change.   10413425_10152639380458115_633320461112999707_n

He began studies at Rock Valley College, and became part of the household of one of his friends. “It cost $16,000 a semester to be an exchange student,” he told me.

“I lived through each year not knowing if I was going to go back to Jamaica. There were times when my ticket was bought, or almost bought. I have a farewell video,” he chuckled.

A friend’s father found an immigration lawyer who said there wasn’t much to do except go to school…which meant raising $16,000 every few months. Then, she found a solution: Lennox could work as a religious occupant, a church missionary.

“One day my phone rang.” he said.    Unknown-3

“The lawyer asked if I was sitting down.”

He had finally been approved for legal residency.

“Just like your grandmother taught you…” I began.

“God never teaches us to swim to let us drown,” he finished the sentence.

He’s been back to see his grandmother several times, and recently went on a Salvation Army-led mission trip to their Kingston, Jamaica school for the Blind.

“Full circle,” I mused.

“Um-hmm.”

He works as a program director and worship leader for junior high school students at his church in Rockford.

“You were in junior high when all of this started for you,” I remembered.

“I plan on finishing my degree in music ministry,” he said.

“I would love to be a music pastor…getting my master’s in divinity.”

Lennox says he’s a homebody. He has an apartment, but still is a part of his best friend’s family.

People ask him where he gets so much energy.

“I worship with my mind, my soul, my heart, my strength, my whole body,” he explained.   Unknown-2

“I know God for myself. Like David, who went through the worst, God was always there to pick him up.

I watch Americans go to basketball games, football games, and they go crazy.
Why would I cease to move when I am in the presence of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, God of the universe…in relationship with me? Why would I just stand? Why am I silent?” his buttery voice increased in volume.

“Jesus said if you don’ praise Him, the rocks will cry out,” he added.  Unknown-1

“The day I heard that, knowing about the goodness of God, His presence, His hand on me…I ain’t gonna let no rock out-praise me. There’s ain’t no way I’m gonna do that.”

(This story originally appeared in June, 2007, in The Rock River Times)

No rock will out-praise this miracle child – Part 1

Lennox has the buttery voice for which Jamaicans are known. His singing voice is even smoother. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he arrived in Rockford, Ill. at the age of 16. But that is his story:

“Was food an adjustment?” I asked. We were at Garrett’s in Rockford, where my amazing puff pastry of apricots and brie  4cb55219-3805-46b2-bc0c-c3325de15c89was served with diced tomatoes and watercress. Lennox enjoyed his small chicken Caesar salad.

“I remember my first weeks here,” he said. “I was not able to eat. I just never had an appetite. I was afraid I was not going to keep it down. It was so bad the doctors put me on Ensure.”

Unknown-2    His diet in Jamaica was mostly rice and flour dumplings.

“Lots of fruits and vegetables?” I asked, imagining Caribbean bounty.

Unknown-3   “You just pick it off the tree–mangoes, plantains, whatever you want, pick it fresh.” he said.

Lennox and his family also ate fried plantains and dumplings for breakfast and salted codfish with ackee.

“They take dried, salted codfish,” explained, “and boil out as much salt as they can, then cut it and fry it with ackee. It looks like scrambled eggs. There is nothing like that here. It is Jamaica’s national fruit.”  images-1

Lennox grew up with his mother, two siblings and a stepfather. They lived in a one-room house of boards, with an outhouse bathroom and a shack at the back for a kitchen.

“What is your earliest memory of music?” I asked, know music is his passion.

“My grandma always sang.” His house was next to hers. “If I lay on my grandma’s roof, I could stretch across to my mom’s roof,” he pictured.

“I’m five feet, five inches tall. I remember my grandma, a dynamic woman of God, would get up on Sunday mornings and warm her voice to lead the singing for church.”

Unknown-5   Jamaican Christians believe God’s gift of music is for praise, and they don’t sing secular songs.

“My mom sang a little bit; so did my aunt,” he said.   Unknown-6

“They would get together and sing beautiful three-part harmonies. I was blind, so I would listen. Listening was my way of seeing the world. I always wanted to copy what I heard. There is no hymn in the book that I don’t know.”

Unknown-7   Lennox’s mother contracted measles during a hospital stay when she was seven months pregnant with him. In 1978, Jamaican law required abortion if the pregnancy was endangered in a manner where the baby could be deformed or brain-damaged. But, the doctors didn’t find out about her case. His grandmother instructed her daughter not to tell or complain. “‘I’ll go home and talk to God,’” he related what his grandmother said.

“My grandma prayed…with the neighbors.”

Born December 24, 1978, it was soon clear that Lennox was blind and had glaucoma. When he was six, the doctors at Kingston’s university hospital wanted to explore to see if there was anything they could learn. His mother was apprehensive.

“My grandma said, ‘What worse could they do? He’s already blind. You let them go. We’ll talk to God about it. God’s not through with him yet.’ A few months later, I started to see. To this day, with all the modern technology and medicine, there is no cure for glaucoma. I know it was the prayers.”

His sight returned gradually.

“It was interesting. I was behind with my eyes connecting images to my brain. I had to re-learn to look at something instead of feeling for it…going to a door, knowing I should turn the handle, I would still feel for the handle…trying to teach my mind how to see, recognize and respond.”

Doctors recommended enrollment at the Salvation Army School for the Blind. They expected his blindness to return in a few years. At the boarding school, he was away from family and friends. But during chapel, he heard the piano each day.  Unknown-8

“The auditorium for chapel is very sacred,” Lennox said.

“Ladies don’t go in there without their heads covered. When there was no chapel, it was off limits for children. But, in the evening, I would go to the chapel, break in, find my way to the stage and punch out notes that I had heard. The piano was covered by a big tarp. I had really bad asthma, but I would go under the tarp, play a few notes, come out and breathe, get under, play a few notes, come out, until I started to put a song together, playing what I had heard.”

The principal heard him, pulled him out, gave him a spanking, but told Lennox he was to play in the Sunday service the next week. Lennox was 13.

“He sort of encouraged you,” I laughed.

“Reprimanded, then encouraged,” he corrected.

“I learned Braille, how to use a cane, to be an independent blind individual. My mom and I were best friends. She felt bad that I was blind, so she overprotected me. Being at the school was difficult for her and for me. But she knew it was best. If I was blind at 12, there would be no future if I wasn’t learning the skills I needed.”

But at 12, 13, 14, 15, Lennox was seeing better than before, beating the odds.

“My grandmother would say I was a miracle and that to whom much is given, much is expected.

“There was a church in my yard. They were always inviting me to do this and that. I wanted to do my own thing.”

images-2   One summer, his mother insisted he go to Bible camp. Lennox refused. He explained, “I had a hard time…I loved Jamaican reggae music, forbidden music.”

His mother washed and ironed, and packed his things the night before camp. She said, “I know God is in control. You’re going to go,” he recalled.

“It was probably 400 Jamaican dollars for the week. She only had 200.” That morning a knock on the door brought her answer.

“A lady with an envelope said, ‘Please give this to your mother.’” Sister Brown felt God leading her to give them $500.

“I was kicking and screaming, and got on the bus,” he said.

“It was horrible. But when I got there, I realized for the first time in my life that to whom much given, much is expected. god has given me a lot. I heard about the greatness and goodness of God, how He is intimately acquainted with our ways, and has a plan for us…that we go through circumstances to experience the best life possible. We have to yield…follow whatever it costs us.”

01b094854f8342f362b22012dda26c90   Music spoke to Lennox, one lyric in particular: I’m born again to win, the work has been completed, the Devil is defeated, no more will I be cheated, ‘cause I’m born again to win.

“Because I am a miracle child,” he said.

“You felt victory in that song,” I echoed.

“Oh, yes!”

(This story originally appeared in my May, 2007, in my Lunch with Marjorie column in The Rock River Times.)

Kids and Music: It all started with Hail to the Chief

Nola teaches middle school music. She’s come full circle. She teaches where she went to middle school.

“I’m about fourth generation Roscoe person,” she told me. The cappuccino machine at Meg’s Daily Grind was loud this Saturday, but the aroma was heavenly.  Unknown-5

I’ve known Nola for more than a decade. She was our church organist. And even though we had become fast friends, I had never really quizzed her about her love for music.

Unknown-4“When I was a preschooler, there was a piano in my folks’ garage–an old upright.  I would go out there and make up songs. There was a funeral for…JFK…then the inauguration for Johnson. They were playing Hail to the Chief over and over.“   Unknown-6

So I went out and played Hail to the Chief. That was my first tune. I was playing by ear.”

Her parents listened to the church organist, Florence Sugars, who told them, “‘Get the kid piano lessons, and get the piano tune so you don’t ruin her ear. You want her listening to things that are in tune.’”

Unknown-7“Thank you Mom,” Nola smiled. “I don’t think I would have gone as far as I did without the encouragement of my mom, and without the encouragement of our church.”

“Did they upgrade your piano as you progressed?” I asked.

“I had my first lesson during the week. We went out on the weekend and bought a piano.

“Of course I could only play my two greatest hits: Hail to the Chief and Blowin’ in the Wind, my special with two hands. I had made up accompaniment with a harmony part with my left hand for Blowin’ in the Wind because that was on the radio all the time (then).”

“Sounds like you were a close family.”

“They were very supportive…always interested in finding music for me. By the same token, I kind of monopolized the piano away from my sisters. If they had any ability, I was too selfish. I wasn’t able to share.”

“You were the oldest?”  Unknown-8

“And I was very bossy to them in high school.”

Meg’s cappuccino started roaring again. I wanted a refill.

Nola decided to become a high school band director.

“Teaching kids is a big responsibility,” I commented.

“And, I think it was really big. I’ve had adults come back to tell me, when they’re at conferences about their kids–they have all this baggage about some teacher who told them they couldn’t sing when they were little. I don’t think some teachers realize that if you’re so picky, like I was to my sisters, you can hurt people more than you know.I couldn’t think of anything else I was interested enough in pursuing.  I’ve had many, many adults, especially men, say, ‘My teacher said I couldn’t sing, and I never sang again.’”  music-match-play_ball-baseball-baseball_matches-the_star_spangled_banner-dre0035l.jpg

“But you encourage your students.”

“That’s what I hope.”

“How did you start playing the organ?”

“We had an organ at church…I really didn’t like the sound of…didn’t even have it played at my wedding. I went to Arizona…visited Organ Stop Pizza. They had a Wurlitzer organ connected to a grand piano…a train, car horns, and cymbals…everything you could think of. You could sit and eat pizza, and this person would play the organ. We were just thrilled. We bought all of their records. It was hilarious. After the Arizona trip…I found out I liked the sound of the instrument itself because it was a pipe organ. “All I had ever heard was electronic organs. Hearing a pipe organ doing the Bach Minor Toccata, da-na-na,” she mimicked the scary movie sound, “it’s not going inspire you unless you want to be creepy on Halloween.”  51avUayhsnL._SY300_

We talked about budget cuts that cut music from the curriculum.

“It’s like cutting out a part of my heart. I don’t know enough about politics to be able to fix it, so it just aches. There are so many studies…about the brain. It is just not an option. Listening to music, playing…performing music…helps your brain. Doing music, you’re actually increasing neuron-pathways.”

“Some people say music doesn’t do much for them,” I prodded. Unknown-9

“If you turned all the music off their TVs…just had words, and if you turned off their movies and just had action, and had only news on the radio and didn’t have the music, didn’t have music when you’re getting ready in the morning, when you’re cleaning the garage, when you want to exercise, I think then you would realize that something is missing.”

Protecting people, remembering why

Trooper Mark Nytco was standing in line at a coffee shop when I realized I had not interviewed a policeman and needed to do so. After obtaining permission from his captain, we agreed to meet at a favorite Mexican restaurant, Alvarez.  1375642_529961663748425_107114062_n

I ordered pork tacos, Mark was decisive: chicken fajitas.

He is just as confident about performing his duties as an Illinois State policeman. This tall, fair, handsome man has serious eyes with a steadying effect.  images

“When you stop people, are they respectful?” I began.

“Yes, very seldom do I have any problems with people.”

“Are you aggressive?”

“When I have to0 be. You have to know what you are dealing with. I do not take any disrespect from people. I am respectful to them. If they cross the line, then all bets are off.”

“What’s the most fulfilling crime-stopping you do?”

“It’s hard to tell, because it’s pretty much every day. Whether you stop a person with a gun in their car or whether you stop a drug dealer with a large amount of narcotics. Who knows? You think, well, maybe you saved something today from using the stuff.”

“Do you get involved with their families?”  Unknown

“Sometimes I probe, try to find out their background, what kind of person they are, what kind of home they come from. Sometimes it is shocking when you call a parent:

‘Can I call your mom to pick you up?’ They say, ‘OK, go ahead, she won’t care.’ The parent often says, ‘Can’t you charge him with something so you can keep him overnight in jail?’ I look at this kid and think, no wonder this kid is here on the street.”

“What’s the solution?” I ask.

“It all boils down to family life.”

Mark knows about family. He was 16 when he arrived in Chicago on a September Thursday in 1974.

“I was born in Poland about 80 kilometers east of Krakow. I was brought up under communism, but at home, I knew better than what the officials at school said. Parents and grandparents told me different.  data=VLHX1wd2Cgu8wR6jwyh-km8JBWAkEzU4,VG857Eg-k9KYTzCWUSnCnFuZmK1ZNhnDmeGeom7DBrFxYDE69zf6ZIS-Ob7IwPV5X7s4abxfuwoYgrPOUKusdI-OADc_kAcpnLC3MN0K3_w9fPpu_qjR7gibCGoKAM73Rlx_u5rRMDgjzBD9iilSYbqZIWG5T05jfJe_wxxe2nJBvFJ6WG6s8BwK-7GXsiAFZaHdp3U

Mexican guitar music filled Alvarez’s small dining area, but I was captivated by the Polish accent, the surprising story unfolding. He paused briefly for a bite of sizzling chicken or bell pepper, but he was intent on continuing. He had important things to say.

“When I was in school, I listened to the version of history that this teacher had, totally opposite with what my parents and grandparents taught me, or what they went through. For instance, my grandfather was part of the underground. Fought the Nazis,” he explained.

“After the Polish army fell in World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland, a lot of officers got captured by communist Russians. About 10,000 were executed by Stalin. My grandfather was able to escape, but somehow the Gestapo found out about their organization. Under some kind of torture, they were able to get all the n ames of all the conspirators from this one person, and overnight they rounded up 236 of them, including my grandfather. They arrested him and eventually transported them to Auschwitz. A few months later, my grandfather was executed there, in Cell Block 13.”

He broke through to say, “I don’t know if you have ever visited Auschwitz, but you should. I think everybody should.”

“How did that change you? I asked.

“When you’re  kid, you think everything is beautiful. Then you listen to adults–not reading a  book or watching a movie. I had an eyewitness.”

His aunt survived three concentration camps.

“What they did to them every day, how they made them stand out in 10 below zero, in an outfit like P.J.’s and wooden shoes. Made them stand there for 10 hours at a time. And they didn’t care if they dropped dead. You were basically to die. They didn’t care. I realized how evil people can be to one another.

“This has affected how you do your job?”

“I understand when I come across a lot of people, and there are more and more people who are from former communist countries. I can understand why they’re so distrusting of police, because I can still remember what the police over there were like.”

“You can be more forgiving?”

“Yes. I can relate to them. I know why they are like that, because their life over there was hell. The policing there wasn’t to protect them, but to keep them in line.”

“Here you’re the good guy,” I said.

He smiled. “Yeah, I like to think so. And, this job doesn’t pay much. You have to love this  job; you have to sacrifice; but that’s where dedication comes in. You have to remember why you took this job.”

 

A modern man in an ancient city – Part 2

As we talked more about modern and ancient Rome, the birds in the hotel courtyard were chirping so loudly that conversation was a bit difficult.

“I don’t sense a lot of crime in Rome,” I said, even though I had noticed that the hotel neighborhood had a lot of graffiti on the buildings.  th

“No, thank God,” Carlo said. “The crime we have is only the pickpockets, the Gypsies.”

“We had a man aggressively trying to put flowers in our hands at the Trevi Fountain,” I told him. “He wanted to sell you flowers.”

“Do you have some thoughts on Pope John Paul II,” I asked, switching to a more serious subject.    th-1

“This pope was very loved. He was very long in power, and also he was a pope that historically lived in a very important period of time.”

“What about the new pope?” I asked, referring to Pope Benedict, the one we had seen early in his papacy at the Vatican on this 2005 trip.

th-2

“It’s too early to tell. Really we had hoped that after a Polish pope, they were going to elect an Italian one.”

“I was surprised to see they elected a German pope,” I agreed.

“Being in Rome, living in Rome, we have a lot of advantage, because the church is bringing a lot of people to the city. But the Catholic Church is influencing the Italian politics. the previous pope was a person. adorable, but he wasn’t open to the changes in the life in the world. One of the reasons why they elected this German, is because he was a person who was (continuing) the policy of the previous pope. It’s a regressive situation in my opinion. We are going back to the medieval.”

“Is that oppressive?”

“Oppressive, correct. When the church is interfering with Italian politicians, it is…”

“Medieval,” I understand.  Pope Benedict XVI Names Six New Saints In Canonisation Ceremony At St. Peter's Square

“OK you understand,” he said. “The last thing I want to tell you: Do you know how powerful the Catholic Church is? Do you think they have a lot of money? Do you think they are rich? Do you know that money is power? It happens everywhere. Money can make a war to start or finish the same year. The Catholic Church is powerful because they have money, and so they guide the choice of the governor. I have opinions about politicians in Italy that I don’t like to repeat. I feel that we do not live in a democracy in this country. How can it be a democracy with 27 parties? It cannot be a democracy with 1200 delegates. It cannot be a democracy,” he said. “I want to say, our country could be more progressive. Because progress is life, is freedom.”    th-4

“What would that mean for you?” I asked.

“That I consider myself to be a free person. As i am now, I’m not, because there are a lot of rules and regulations that keep the Italian industry and people like me down.”

“So the decisions you have to make are controlled?”

“Yes, too much control, too much control. When they have 27 parties, each one has a little bit of power. Before you get the final decision, you’ve got to have him, him, and him and that. Before they give the permit, you can die.”

“That is frustrating,” I said.

“Oh, yes, I am sure that if I were in America, I could have done a lot more.” “Did you ever consider that?”

“I’m Italian, you see. My heart is here. When I was abroad, I was dying to come back to my city.”

“You have been to America?”   Unknown

“I’ve been to New York and to Orlando.”

“What were your impressions?”

“New York is like Rome 2000 years ago. Because of the technology and art that is there.”

“Ancient Rome was very sophisticated,” I affirmed.

“If you compare the time when old Rome was in power, you can see that the majority of the people lived in houses made with wood, but in Rome (itself) people lived in houses made of marble.”

“Is Rome still very cultural?”

“Not like it was before. It is a place where people should come, because everybody should see how clever and how important the Romans were. If you want to see tracks of history, you must come here. If you want to look at the inventive architecture, you should go see the Pantheon with the round ceiling built 2000 years ago, without technology that you have today. That is why it is important for everyone to come to see our country. We have a little bit remaining (but) not too much from the Roman Empire…the ruins…the Coliseum, the Forum and other things. To me now, America is like the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. All roads should lead you there.”  th-5

“Do you like Americans to come here?”

“Oh yes, I like American people.”

 

(Published first in The Rock River Times column, Lunch with Marjorie, in August, 2005). Since then, after Pope Benedict resigned in 2013, Pope Francis, an Argentinian, was elected to the Roman office.   th-3