Category Archives: Travel

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.

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.)

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

A modern man in an ancient city

Breakfast on the patio of Hotel Donatello was fairly ordinary for Rome: lattes, croissants, brioche, served with peach or strawberry preserves or honey. But, Carlo Prete, our hotel owner, adjusts to please palates not used to the strong, thick espresso of Europe.

th-2

“I think everybody, if they go to another country, likes to see how they live and eat,” Carlo told me. “We are trying to fix an average, with the quality of the Italian way, This coffee is an Italian coffee, but made for…we drink a small cup, very concentrated. If you drink this little cup, you are not satisfied (he referred to us Americans). In the morning, we only have coffee and a croissant, and we go. The maximum is a cappuccino, not a big meal.”

“I love to cook Italian food,” I beamed.

2631759-Donatello-Hotel-Rome-Hotel-Exterior-2-DEF

2631759-Donatello-Hotel-Rome-Guest-Room-3-DEF

“Ooh, very good. I should come and cook the spaghetti for you, and you will see the difference. Ha, ha, ha.”

“I would love that,” I said, sensing his doubting my skills with pasta.

“Most depends on how you cook the spaghetti. Normally you (again he means you Americans) tend to overcook the spaghetti.”

“Mine is al dente,” I defended.

“Oh, no, not the way…I don’t know. We don’t add salt to sauce. We put salt in the water and then boil the spaghetti. We don’t overcook the spaghetti,” he emphasized again.

“
Fresh tomato is good, and fresh mozzarella.”Carlo advised.

“I do that,” I said.

“Oh, molto buono!” Carlo has been in the hotel business for almost 30 years.

“My father sent me abroad to England, and to Holland, France, Germany to learn the (hotel) skills. I worked at big, multi-national hotels. Then I came back to Rome and started this little place. My wife and I started buying a little flat on the ground, then another one, and another one, and now we have the entire building.”

The courtyard’s green shutters made the red geraniums vibrant. A fountain arcing its water was refreshing background against the sun-drenched peach plaster walls. The four-story hotel feels like a home. It is a home. Carlo is remodeling, adding 18 rooms to the existing 22.  2631759-Donatello-Hotel-Rome-Hotel-Exterior-3-DEF

“This is an old building–more than 100 years old. When they built it, lifts were not a priority.” he explained. “Rooms with facilities were not a priority. We had to transform it. So we are doing a lift on the other side. New rooms with all the modern accessories, like smoke detectors, televisions, and mini-bars, all controlled by computers. When you work in buildings like this, it is always very, very difficult, because you see, the ceilings are not flat. They used bricks one against another to keep the ceiling standing. If you take one brick away, because you have to make a hole for the elevator, or to change a section…”

“It all collapses?” I gasped.

“Yes, you’ve got to be very careful. That is why we are working very closely with engineering teams. But it is coming out very well.”

Carlo’s wife Patrizia, and his sons, Mauro and Paolo, also work in the hotel.

“Will they do the business some day?”

“Hopefully. I tried toteach them that in order to become free, they should see what is happening…out of Italy. So Paolo went to England. Mauro went to France, and spent a couple of years there. Mauro is leaving now for England and is going to be there for some time. So they will learn a different style of living, and of course, the language, which is very important. They will be more skilled in the job they want to do.

“They are very cosmopolitan,” I said.

“Yes, they should be like that. If they like to continue this job, I will be very pleased. Otherwise, they will have the strength to do whatever they like.”

“You’re open to them doing something different?”

“Oh yes.”

“You won’t be sad if they don’t do this?” I probed.

“Oh, no, no, no.”

“You seem like a strong man, but you allow for strength in your wife and sons.”

“Well, the children had time to become strong. We had to do a lot of battles before they became confident of themselves.”

“But you let them do that.”

“Yes, I do. Sometimes I am suffering because I see that they have been injured.”

“The parent thing.”

“Yes. Sometimes we have…fights with them, and they accuse me of not letting them be free. I will do the father job, and they will do the job of the children.”

“We imagine that in the Italian family, the father rules.” I said.  th-1

“No, no, since the Roman Empire, the women have the power. Always,” he said. “Behind the man, there was always a strong woman.”

“You don’t hear about that.” “It is true, oh, si.”

…to be continued

 

Becoming an American

I learned how to spell and pronounce Sonephet Vongprasearth’s name while opening a bank account where she was helping me bridge the gap for my daughter’s banking while she was away at school. Sonephet is from Laos, but she grew up in the Midwest, and has lived here for almost 25 years.

My first question for her: Is there a Laotian restaurant in Rockford, Ill.? She affirmed. And, always important: “Do you eat there?”

“Yeah, uh-huh, they’re family owned,” she replied. But she chose Thai for our lunch, because it was close to the bank.

“Do you eat Asian cuisine at home?” I asked.

“Not every day, but whenever I can.”

She likes fried noodles, and let me know that Laotian food is mostly stir fry and soups.

“Are you into organic food?” I asked.

“I know what it is, but don’t know what is organic.”

I proceeded to educate this petite, young woman, who can probably eat fried foods with no repercussions. Life isn’t fair. She gets the beautiful skin, hair and propensity to thinness. But she ordered a roasted chicken sandwich with American cheese.

“Do you relate to women who are always thinking about weight?”

“I don’t really have that problem. In Laos, they’re really active. They have to be. They walk all the time, because they’re poor and don’t have cars. You’re lucky if you have a bicycle.”

“You’re naturally thin. How tall are you?” She giggles, “I’m five feet.”

She goes on to describe one of her favorite foods–Laotian barbecue, oyster sauce, fish, sauce, MSG, and Hoisin.”  Unknown-1

 

 

“Do you remember coming to America?”

“We started on a boat. Then flew here on an airplane.”

“Were you refugees?”

data=VLHX1wd2Cgu8wR6jwyh-km8JBWAkEzU4,tZ35EJgn1fV9P4axPdwg_hYHHdy0qSI2olKmOj36xS5hpkEW18Ny_EgOID70G8ZUBp6kV78hNWQUqBirg3l1kkyhGeL3Nsa4XLvM2f-6yO8F3T75zZQTnm3BF9Ta0VIpP4NbxOrZz7YmtT2p3g6AUiM3l43xN4E-7IKjm-TgvFcFvsO9jK0M0pTyzvHsi-ePm1vxFg

“The whole thing started because we had to escape from the Communists. My dad was a mayor in Laos. He didn’t like what they were telling him to do, so he left, and didn’t tell anybody.

My mom didn’t know. The Communists came to our house and asked, ‘Where is your husband?’ I was about five years old then. My father escaped and finally my mo got into contact with him. Somehow we met in Thailand, across the water. My father had a friend, maybe his best friend. We had to kind of escape too, so the Communists wouldn’t know where we were going. We crossed in the middle of the night, probably about an hour–it wasn’t too far. We got on a boat, and my mom’s friends made us kind of jump, almost half way, because they didn’t want to get caught also.  images-1

My mom begged them, ‘Please, I’ll swim and the two boys will swim, but the three girls, you have to get them to shore.  Others were there too. They had to jump.”

Her brown eyes widened as she continued: “My mom, this is a really good story, had to actually save a pregnant woman because she was jumping and drowning. My mom got her and brought her back.”

“Scary stuff,” I said.

“Oh yeah. You had no choice. Either you do it, or you die.”

We drew a map of Southeast Asia on our napkins. “My father was working with an American when he was a mayor. Your weren’t allowed to associate with any if you’re a Communist. I don’t know what happened, but he felt endangered.”

The family landed in California and then went to Brookfield, Wis.

“Our sponsors were a group of nuns who took us in. They had a huge mansion, a convent.” We paused when our food arrived. But, I wanted more about these sponsors, nuns.

“Were you Catholic?”

“I was going to be. I went to a private Catholic school until high school. But at baptizing time, I asked the nun and she said ‘No, you need to find your way, find what you are going to do in life.’’’

“And, now?” “I believe that there is one God, a universal God. The difference is the language barrier. It’s how everyone explains it.  Unknown-3

I go to a Buddhist temple, but only to special events. People have to follow those rules. I don’t think it’s necessary.” She paused. “Americans take a lot of things (for granted).

I went back to Laos in 1996. There’s so much going on. I’m very fortunate from my parents…for them bringing me here, letting me learn the American culture, and my own. I feel very lucky. We have both lives. We go back to Laos and see this whole different culture. Then coming back to America, it’s just like, Wow!”

(This story was first published in The Rock River Times, in April and May in 2005)

The Illinois Dalton Gang were mostly movers – Part 1

pic9   Il Divo blared at Silvia’s in Enfield, Conn., where John Dalton and I enjoyed a brunch as lavish as the sonorous music. Silvia is Romanian. To die for is her Transylvanian baked sausage, bacon, and egg casserole with onions, topped with adagio and feta.

John Dalton was our mover back in 2010 (this story was published in Rockford in Rock River Times back then), when I asked him, “Are you related to those criminals?”

He laughed and affirmed, as I watched his helper-mover guys’ faces register some alarm.

images-5   “Outlaws sound so much better, more romantic than criminals, don’t you think?” I asked at brunch.

He chuckled–a very good sense of humor.

“Tell me the Jesse James story,” I asked.

“My dad has a letter written to his great-grandfather…from Missouri…from my grandfather’s first cousin: ‘I’m babysitting our cousins again, and that little Jesse (that would be Jesse James) is the meanest dickens.’ I’ve read the letter. They were U.S. Marshalls at one time, but definitely outlaws and rogues and whatever else you want to call them.” John related.

“They killed peope in the Old West, right?” I asked.

“I don’t think they killed that many people,” he explained. “They got shot to pieces in Coffeeville, Kan., trying to rob two banks at once. That’s what the Dalton Gang is really famous for–getting their tails shot off in Coffeeville, trying to rob two banks on Saturday when everybody was in town shopping. As word of the bank robbers went off, the hardware store handed out rifles and bullets; everybody was shooting at them.”    images-4

“Wow.”

“It’s well known Jesse James pre-dated the Dalton about a generation, maybe a generation and a half,” John continued. “They were second cousins to the Jameses.”

“Cousins of your great grandfather.”

“Right. Our family was in Kentucky and split when they came from overseas, Ireland. Some went to Missouri and mirgrated to Kansas; others went into Illinois with the promise of cheap farmland.”

John’s family ended up in Salem, Ill. about 115 miles from Cairo (prnounced by the locals, according to John, Kay-Ro).

illinois_s “Southern Illinois has the worst English on the face of the Earth. That really nice English they talk in Chicago, it doesn’t go that far south.”

John is an authentic humorist, in the style of Mark Twain and other homespun storytellers. He is quite a treasure and wants to write–which I encourage him to do. But, in 2010, he was running his moving company, in the tradition of three generations of movers, not farmers.

“My grandfather was a mover, my dad was a mover, a couple of uncles, all in Salem, about 17 miles east of St. Louis. My family started a moving company back in 1928: Dalton Transfer Company. We changed to van lines, then moving and storage. We moved the Midwest to the East Coast. The commerce commission took over, and my grandfather could have gotten cross-country rides…really valuable. But he vowed never to leave the areas. ‘I just need these states here,’ he said. Nowadays they give it away,” John said, “At one time, it was a valuable commodity.”

“What do you think of Starving College Student movers–those kinds?”

“We live in the greatest country on the face of the earth; anybody can set out to do anything.” John said. “Becoming president is a little bit hard (he said this in 2010), but if your sights are on having a beauty shop, you can do it. If you want to start a moving and storage company…,” his voice gentle, sincere.   unknown

John started riding with his dad at 5; loves his memories.

“I’m attempting to write a book about that, “he said. “A littel slow. Hope (readers) come to love this (moving business) as much as I do.”

“What part is fun?”

“Meeting new people. learning what they do, learning about their lives.” “There’s a story in everybody–that you’d actually be interested in reading.”

“That’s my concept here,” I agreed.

“I can remember getting spanked when I was 5 for breaking a piece of furniture,” he said. “Dad was teaching us how to pad furniture. Yu know, those nesting tables where one table goes under the other.We snapped one leg of of each table by getting the rubber band too tight. We asked him about that when we were in our 30s. He laughed, said he’d never have spanked us, but he was loading another driver’s truck. that’s what upset him. I broke somebody else’s stuff.”  unknown-3

“That could have given you a bad feeling abut the business–but instead it made you respect what you were doing, and your dad,” I observed.

“Going out with Dad, I saw the United States three or four times before some kids had even made it to St. Louis,” he said.

John loves discovering new things. He considered architecture.

“I’m very mathematical, good at drawing,” he explained. “I found out architects don’t make anything, unless they’re a senior (status). You come out of school and get paid peanuts.”

In the 70s, he joined the military.     unknown-4

“I didn’t go to Vietnam. I went to Germany and drank beer. A tough job but I handled it.”

 

Burning bushes, burning faith – Part 2

Unknown-2In 1995, Jane Logsdon and her husband Bean felt called to become missionaries in Israel. Jane’s initial resistance, and statement that it would take a burning bush to get her there, evolved into quite an experience.   Jerusalem-old-streets-Desktop-Wallpaper

I asked her to recap.

“You didn’t hear God say anything, right?”

“It wasn’t that God spoke to both of us thing. I did, for two seconds, think of leaving him. I mean just two seconds. It started on one side of my brain, and that’s how long it took to go from one side to the other,” she laughed, blue eyes sparkling.

“Then I thought, I’m not raising three kids by myself.”

“That’s how much you didn’t want to go to Israel.”

home-featuredcontent
Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Ill.

“Marjorie, my mom and dad had just moved to Dixon. Grandma and Grandpa in the same town with us! Our friends were there. I had no inclination to go to a foreign mission field. People prepare for that for years.”

Friends suggested they go to Israel to seek answers.

“We bought airfare, told the kids we were going on a summer vacation. Prime Minister Levine was assassinated November of that year. There were bombings.”

The Logsdons arrived August 5.

“You were looking for your burning bush.”   0511-1010-0813-1341_Moses_in_the_Desert_with_the_Burning_Bush_clipart_image-1.jpg

“I was looking under every rock. The Lord wasn’t speaking. I was thinking, maybe it is an Abraham and Isaac thing. Once I give up my will Or maybe when the kids are grown up. Maybe this is a preview.

Unknown    Israel is the sixth most expensive country in the world. Milk is $6 a gallon. Gas is more than $5 a gallon.”

They toured for two weeks.

oldcity3

“We stayed inside the Old City walls. We hired, oh, rented a car. Day trips, mostly around the Dead Sea. Sunday, we went to Church of All Nations, outside of the Garden of Gethsemane, the rock where Jesus knelt and prayed. Where He said, ‘Take this cup from me, and not my will but yours, Lord.’ Finally I knelt at that rock, sobbing. I gave my will over to the Lord. It was so hard. I was 40 years old. I knew I was holding out from the Lord.   Unknown-1

That night, I remember this as if it were yesterday, we had a plan to get some falafels and bring them to the secret garden grassy area in the guesthouse. The church was on the compound. I said, ‘Why don’t we go to church?’

Bean said, ‘Okay.’.

“We looked at the bookstore, and Bean walked up to somebody–the principal of the school connected to the church. Bean had read about the Anglican school and had seen a picture of the principal. He had inquired about David Jeffrey when we had arrived on August 5. David was on vacation.

“He walks up to this guy, with throngs of people, and gives him the story of our calling. David must have thought we were two of thousands of Jerusalem-syndrome nuts. There are a lot of crazy people who go over and say they are John the Baptist, or whatever. It’s (actually got a name) called Jerusalem Syndrome.   jerusalem-syndrome-tours

”David listened to Bean politely, as the British do, and then asked Bean, ‘What do you teach?’

“Then David looked incredulous and walked over to me. After introductions, I said, ‘I am the director and head teacher of a pre-school. They’re waiting for me to get back home.”

David and the Logsdons headed for the church service.

‘Let’s talk after church,’ he said.

The pastor asked David to make an announcement. “David looked right at me and asked for prayer for a family on vacation in England. They had had a bad car accident on August 5.

David said, ‘You know these are two of our teachers. We’re kind of in a crisis. Nigel was our science teacher. Alison was our 3-year old pre-school teacher.’”   Unknown

Jane’s story was spellbinding.

“It’s like when you get a shock. Your insides do a melt,”she recalled.

“We had to go through the whole rest of the church service. That was my burning bush. Bean said I turned to him and had tears running down my cheeks. I don’t remember.”

Within ten minutes, they had housing, schooling for three kids, and jobs.

“The way the Lord prepared for us–it was amazing. We were going to a country we knew nothing about. It’s walking on faith. We were so much in the center of God’s will that we could have walked through fire.”   Unknown-2

Unknown-1They returned home and flew back to Israel eight days later. (I was talking to Jane on one of their furloughs back in Illinois.)

“We know the Lord told us we should come back (once in a while), but not to stay.

“Do you miss (Israel)?” I asked.

“I’m grieving it. Every year has a chapter.”

“Does it take the same call to come back?”

“Missionary work. Your whole mentality changes. It’s how you live your life–relationship building. I’d like to go back. Those are precious relationships.”

Burning bushes, burning faith – Part 1

thWriting about Jane Logsdon is emotional. It’s difficult to find focus because there is so much to tell.

We were dining at Roma’s Pizza in Roscoe, Ill., turning this take out place into a dine-in one. I ordered baked tortellini; Jane tried the stuffed shells with cheese and spinach.

Our friendship over five years had been mostly emailing, so I hadn’t really learned about her background.

th-3   “I’m from a southwest suburb of Chicago,” she began. Her family moved to Dixon, Ill. when Jane was an adult.

“Did you go to college to be a teacher?” I asked, knowing she is a pre-school teacher.

“No, no. Didn’t want anything to do with kids. Now I love it,” she smiles, her blue eyes intense, her smile captivating.

What she studied was French and art.    th-2

“I wanted to be a designer, but didn’t get a job doing that right out of college.” It is easy to imagine this vivacious, trim blonde being in the art world. But she went in another direction.tour-buses-parked-rustic-location-e1366139506980

“I became a tour escort for Senior Citizen Bus Tours, and traveled. You have your fall foliage up the East Coast, Florida in February, New Orleans in February and March,th-1 Door County fish boils in season. You narrate, take care of the seniors, make sure their needs are met, and tell jokes. You probably can’t picture yourself standing up for an hour and telling jokes,” she said.

“Actually I can,” I defended. “I’ve been to Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise.”

Roma’s owner served us our baked pastas.

“Parmesan? he asked, maitre’d style in this humble take-out place. He was creating ambiance for us. And the food was great, even using plastic utensils.

Jane continued, “You cover a lot of miles on a bus. Picture me, and the bus driver, the only ones under 30, uh, under 60. They were good people. They appreciated it. To sit and cover miles with them talking about their life stories…senior citizens have a lot of wisdom and experience. They’re just wonderful, they really are.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“I didn’t know when I should quit. What did it was a New Orleans trip. Feburary, coming up by Champaign, Ill. on Route 55, our bus hit three semis. I remember talking to the lady that did die, she lying in the aisle. The bus hit ice, swerved and swung.”

I listened, rapt

“The thing that saved me, the bars in the front seat.”

“Did you see it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember, the impact was so…I mean you slide then, bam, bam, bam, you’re just hanging on. It happened in a second.”

“I’m always surprised buses don’t have seat belts,” I mused. (They do now.)

th-2“The bus was totaled. What I remember is I always took my shoes off traveling on the bus. It was a long travel day.

“So…I said, I gotta get my shoes out. All of the sudden, these big arms just picked me up and carried me. It was a truck driver. I was in shock. I had walked through the bus, and talked to the lady who was in the aisle, dripping in blood…then I got off because I knew I couldn’t help anybody in the ice storm without my proper shoes. But, this guy just sat me in the cab of his own truck.”   th-3

Jane did one more trip, and then married Bean, in June, 1978.

“Bean (his nickname for Larry) and I went right into campus life, Youth for Christ.”

They did that for 18 years until 1995, when their lives dramatically changed.

“The underlying factor is that God is good,” she said, “under all of the journeys He takes us on, which can be a lot of stress and emotional trauma.I was comfortable doing professional ministry. I had my Bible studies, helped with fund-raisers. Bean had been restless for about two years. He knew God was leading him to something else, but God hadn’t made it clear yet.

“Then Bean heard God’s still small voice, booming: Take your family and move to Israel.”Jerusalem-old-streets-Desktop-Wallpaper

Bean waited two weeks to tell Jane, to see if this thought would re-occur in his mind.

“Marjorie, I directed my own pre-school. I had been a stay-at-home mom for eight years. The pre-school was my baby. I didn’t want to go to Israel, I thought. I didn’t think it would help me to see a rock that Jesus walked on. I even asked Bean, ‘Do they have highways and grocery stores?’ My image of Israel, I’m so non-political. I didn’t watch international news. It was Sunday school picture.”

After two weeks, Bean did tell Jane.

“I was looking up at the bottom of the barrel. My whole world was crashed. I told Bean it would take a burning bush to get me there. That’s where the real testimony comes into power,” she said.

Note: This story originally appeared in Lunch with Marjorie, in The Rock River Times, in the late 1990s.