Currently viewing the category: "Life Stories"
Our Naperville house, April, 2016

Our Naperville house, April, 2016

Rarely do I tear up at the theater.

Frankly, rarely do I even go to the theater.

But “Naperville,” which opened Sept. 6 at Theater Wit, and runs through Oct. 16 at 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago, hit home. And home is the centerpiece of the splendid work from Naperville born playwright Mat Smart. 

“Naperville” is framed by nuance and empathy, characteristics that are key to getting by in urban and suburban living. 

“Naperville” premiered off-Broadway in  2o14 at New York’s Slant Theatre Project and New York Theater Review called “Naperville” a “valentine to the heart and soul of the American suburbs.”

I grew up in Naperville.

Smart’s play is set in a Naperville I never knew, a since-closed Caribou Coffee shop on 95th Street on the far, far south side of town. Naperville’s population was about 25,000 when we moved there in 1967.Today, Naperville is home to more than 140,000 people.


Naperville playwright Mat Smart

“Naperville” tells the story of Howard, a young man who is conflicted about relocating from Seattle to his home town to take care of his mother, who was blinded in a home accident.

While planning a new future under cloudy skies the mother and son cross paths with Anne, Howard’s former classmate at Waubonsie Valley High School (where Smart is a ’97 grad) who is working on a podcast about city founder Capt. Joe Naper.

The script’s connector is Roy, a highly caffeinated spiritual soul who sees people without prejudice and asks, “What is the opposite of faith?”

“Naperville” is merely the setting for universal, provocative questions from Smart, but seeing this work at this time in my life was very personal. Smart even references the same church where we had our parents funerals in the spring of 2015. And yes, my parents still get mail from that church asking for financial donations.

We sold my parents Naperville ranch house last week. Closing is set for the end of September. Last Friday night I spent my final night in the house.  The empty rooms were full of thoughts. Echoes were everywhere. Like a series of magic carpets, my deepest dreams floated out of long shadows.

One small bed remains in my brother’s old bedroom. The brown bedroom door was half way open and from the bed I could see swirls of people coming and going: My brother, my nephew, ex-wives, Mom smiling and walking to her piano, neighbors with apple pies, Mom and Dad in their wheelchairs, girl friends, hospice nurses, my dear Naperville friend Steve Lord bringing flowers to my Mom, Dad fetching home movies, Ibach disposing of beer from the Thanksgiving ’75 party and gentle people like Roy. Rings of distant circles.

When I was young I was in a hurry to leave all of this and Naperville.

And now I didn’t want to go.

The world changed around that small mid-century house on Page Court. 


In the Chicago area it has become  popular to take cultural shots at Naperville, often from people who haven’t spent much time in Naperville. It is a well-to-do suburb, not unlike Barrington or Northbrook or dozens of others, but maybe Naperville is a better target because it has a funny sounding name. Like Smallville. Or Raunerville. But for better and worse, it has been my Naperville and I have my own set of stories. “Naperville” helped me reconnect with those memories.

I know sincere Naperville doctors, teachers and neighbors and in recent years the ER staff at Edward Hospital. I was stopped by the cops in high school for being a long haired pedestrian and a few years later, lectured by Mayor Chester Rybicki for civil disobedience in having a group of teenagers paint a hippie mural on an old Naperville house to accent the youth center we started. My parents liked to point out that these days there are murals all over downtown Naperville.

Coffee shop scene from "Naperville" (L to R) Candice (Laura T. FIsher), Roy (Charlie Strater), Howard (Mike Tepeli) and Anne (Abby Pierce). Photo by Charles Osgood

Benovelent coffee shop scene from “Naperville” (L to R) Mother Candice (Laura T. Fisher), Roy (Charlie Strater), Howard (Mike Tepeli) and Anne (Abby Pierce). Photo by Charles Osgood

Naperville’s transient population of professionals and tech workers that frequent places like Caribou Coffee also make it unique. I used to get a kick out of  “Officer Friendly” George Pradel getting elected as Naperville mayor for 20 years. Although Naperville is run on City Manager government, it was the old timers who always put the since-retired Pradel in office because the transient population rarely voted. The beloved folksy figurehead did an excellent job of deflecting the problems of any American city of 140,000 people.

In late July the Tribune (a popular Naperville newspaper name dropped in Smart’s script) ran several stories about the viral Facebook post from Brian Crooks, who grew up as one of the minority African Americans in Naperville. His feelings of isolation and injustice are sincere. Yet, none of the stories, including his post, balanced to mention the groundbreaking accomplishments of African American Olympian Candace Parker, a WNBA all-star who graduated from my alma mater, Naperville Central High School. I’m proud to say she’s from Naperville.

My friend David Holt's portrait of Candace Parker, Class of 2004 Naperville Central (From the author's collection)

My friend David Holt’s portrait of Candace Parker, Class of 2004 Naperville Central High School.

This is where Smart’s “Naperville” excels.

Forward motion must be nurtured. Negativity can become a brush fire.

In “Naperville,” Anne’s marriage has broken up because her Detroit-bred husband scoffs at all things Naperville. He diminishes her hometown dreams and her passion for volunteering at Naper Settlement  (where I got married and a couple blocks away from where my parents are buried.)

Anne’s (Abby Pierce) meltdown in the coffee shop bathroom is sterling: anyone can tear down, but what is it like to build something?

That’s what my parents did. Like Napervillians of all colors and religions, they attempted to create a better life for their families. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard people tell me “I hate Naperville.” You know what you should hate? Violence. Sexism. Racism. Traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway.

As I prepare to leave behind a carousel of memories in our modest cul-de-sac home, Mat Smart’s  “Naperville” helped me recognize the kindness and individuality that is forgotten when you look at suburbia through a narrow lens.

Look for a discussion with Mat Smart on an upcoming edition of my Nocturnal Journal on WGN AM-720 in Chicago.

RAF Chicago Executive Director Joanie Bayhack delivering smiles. (Courtesy of RAF)

RAF Chicago Executive Director Joanie Bayhack delivering smiles. (Courtesy of RAF)

Life isn’t so daunting if you break it down into a series of small gestures.

The non-profit Random Act of Flowers recycles flowers from weddings, parties, funerals and grocery stores. Volunteers then deliver floral bouquets to Chicago area hospitals and long term health care facilities.

Knoxville, Tn.-based Random Acts of Flowers (RAF) has only been in the Chicago area for a little more than a year. From January to December of 2015, RAF delivered bouquets to 16,142 people in the Chicago area.


Located in a 3,000-square foot space in the Nature’s Perspective Landscaping building at 2000 Greenleaf St. in Evanston, the Chicago  branch is the fastest growing operation of the four Random Acts of  Flowers  (Knoxville, Pinellas County, Fla. and Silicon Valley).

After White Sox legend Minnie Minoso died on March 1, 2015, the organization recycled flowers from his funeral. The flowers were made into bouquets with black and white ribbons (the White Sox colors) and delivered to 62 people at Senior Suites of Bridgeport.


My parents passed away in the spring of 2015 and the passage of time showed me to pay it forward. They loved flowers. Dad raised roses in the backyard when we lived in Columbus, Ohio and I always saw my Mom’s face light up even through the darkness of dementia when I brought flowers to visit them in Naperville.

She loved her tulip magnolia in the front yard of her home.The buds turn into blooms, blossoms float off the tree and it happens so very fast.

“We create new bouquets and bring them to people in health care facilities who might be struggling in a very vulnerable point of their life,” said Andrea Lutz, Director of Mission Fulfilment at Chicago’s RAF. “We use flowers as a way to bring joy, life, beauty and nature to them. But they are hand delivered by a community member that cares about them. It’s that simple.”

Volunteers rescue flowers from grocery stores–9 Whole Foods, 2 Mariano’s and the Grand Food Center in Winnetka–wholesale businesses and wedding, funeral and special events. RAF also partners with FTD (Florists’ Transworld Delivery).

Flowers are brought to the Evanston location to be stored and deconstructed. Other volunteers meet at recipient facilities that range from Hines VA Hospital in Maywood to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Facility carts are pre-loaded with flowers. Hines, for example, serves 120 people in four carts. Volunteers visit recipients of all ages with staff members. Recipients are identified before the visit. Lutz said, “We don’t need to know or are not legally allowed to know who we will be serving.”

Periods of volunteer engagement can be longer in nursing homes. RAF serves nearly 100 assisted living facilities within a 45 minute radius of Evanston. Lutz explained, “In hospitals, many people have  been up all night, ‘Who are you, what?’ But in one nursing home a  gentleman told me in his older age he has learned to love flowers but he can’t afford them. Once a year he treats himself. And I walked in with calla lilies, part of this amazing bouquet. We deliver to new moms. Some hospitals are like, ‘These are new moms, they’re celebrating.’ We’ve gone into rooms and there’s nothing in there. The rooms are dark, they’re tired. We all have stories where people break down and start crying.”


More than  550 people from the Chicago area have volunteered for RAF in the past year. Joanie Bayhack,, Executive Director RAF Chicago  said, “The nice thing about our volunteer experience is that there is something for everyone. We have volunteers who like deconstructing, composting and others who like arranging. Then others like delivering and are comfortable in hospitals and hospice centers.”

That would be me.

Bayhack continued, “We have three volunteer cleaning queens who come in every Thursday. There’s no long  orientations and workshops. There’s music cranking, coffee brewing and snacks everywhere.”

“You hear laughter.”

Roses and chrysanthemums are the most common flowers that come through the Chicago RAF.  “But we never know what to expect,” Lutz  said with a smile. “We put together a volunteer guide that describes each flower we’ve ever received with helpful tips. There are 86 flowers in the guide, which we regularly update.”

Random Acts of Flowers was founded in 2008 by Adrian and Larsen Jay in Knoxville. Larsen Jay was an independent film and television producer who fell off his roof during a 2007 home repair. “Ironically in 2007, I climbed to the foot of Mount Everest and went helicopter skiing on another project,” Jay said in a mid-February interview. “I came back completely fine.  But on a DIY project, I stepped on the top of the ladder for the 15th or 16th time, the bottom kicked out and I fell face down on the concrete about a story and a half up.”

Jay, 41, broke his left arm, both wrists, right elbow, his nose and suffered 10 skull fractures. “My head hit the ladder, which is the only reason I’m talking to you,” he said. “It was a second lease on life. To be put back together orthopedically, physically and emotionally is pretty astounding.” Jay spent two days in ICU, ten days in a trauma floor recovery room and ten more days in a rehab facility. He has had more than 12 surgeries and is still being rearranged.

Larsen Jay on the way

Larsen Jay on the way

“One thing that changed my perspective was the generosity and support of the people around me,” Jay said.

“And that often came in the way of flowers. I had never been given a bouquet of flowers. Each day multiple deliveries started showing up. Our room was filled with 30 plus bouquets. It turned into this jungle of joy and happiness. It helped me focus on recovery, it changed the atmosphere of the room.

“When I got stir crazy and convinced my family and nurses to get me out in the hall I noticed how many rooms were barren. No flowers, no plants, no visitors. It was a jarring visual. We went back to my room, took the cards off my flowers and loaded them in my wheel chair. We didn’t ask for permission. We didn’t follow protocol. We just started giving them out down the hall and that was the genesis.”

A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Jay later sold his documentary production company and now runs RAF full time. His wife Adrian is a former Knoxville ABC television reporter and Northwestern University grad who interviewed Jay on a story. They were engaged six months after they met. Larsen’s father-in-law is Barry MacLean of the MacLean-Fogg manufacturing company. He serves on RAF’s National Board of Directors. Jay’s vision is to make RAF a national operation.

Empowered by flowers.


We’re blown away at what has happened,” he said. “We can barely keep up. We’re almost up t0 115,000 deliveries to people nationwide. All of last year we did almost 50,000. Our success is half by design and half by dumb luck in figuring it out. You can explain Random Acts of Flowers in a few seconds: everybody has been to a wedding, funeral, a special event and they’ve looked at all the flowers  and thought ‘What a waste’. Thirty years ago food banks didn’t exist, but if I told you Panera threw away all their bread tonight you would be appalled.

“We’re trying to build a whole new industry to think about flowers the same way. Everybody understands what we do really fast. What’s cool is the number of volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of people they’ll never meet is fascinating to me. They understand it makes a difference and its part of the American spirit.”

Hospitals have found that a patient’s mood improves after receiving flowers, which in turn, helps with dialogue and rapport. Lutz said, “We have a volunteer nurse who talked about how it has made a huge difference in the way they can engage their patients who are scared or real sick. We’re escorted by nurse floor managers who are walking around with charts and not (hospital) volunteers.”

The RAF work week is designed around recipient partners. Visits are at 1 p.m. Tuesdays. “On Monday everyone is getting back from the weekend and figuring out scheduling,” Lutz explained. “Wednesday is when they do their procedures. And they’re wrapping things up on Thursday and Friday. Tuesday afternoon was the perfect day for when people are most relaxed. We arrange the flowers Tuesday morning and have them prepped the previous afternoon.”

Mission of Compassion (L to R) Andrea Lutz, driver David Oquendo, Sydney Wert (Courtesy of RAF)

Mission of Compassion (L to R) Andrea Lutz, driver David Oquendo, Sydney Werd (Courtesy of RAF)

The initiative is growing so fast in Chicago, RAF is hitting the road in March to teach the 70 person claim staff from Zurich Insurance how to make arrangements and Lutz and program assistant Sydney Werd will lead a bouquet demonstration at the Macy’s Spring Flower Show.

Lutz previously worked at the Northern Illinois Food Bank and the Food Bank for New York City. She sees similarities between the two venues. Lutz explained, “Taking something that ordinarily gets thrown out, repurposing it and bring it to people who need it. Logisitcal puzzles and maximizing limited resources. But I love the ownership here, starting from scratch and seeing that ‘a-ha’ moment with flowers and plants. And, we’re all big flower nerds.” 

Werd knows of the days of wine and roses. She was a bartender before joining RAF. “I graduated from college, bartended (at Union Pizzeria in Evanston) and was a florist (at Bloom 3 in Evanston),” she said. “I fell into the florist job 100 per cent. Random Acts of Flowers would come to the shop to get extra flowers, they would go away and we knew they were going somewhere cool.”

Bayhack’s previous skill sets include a stint as publicity manager at Playboy magazine in Chicago and VP & Senior Vice-President of Communications and Corporate Sponsorship for WTTW-Channel 11 and WFMT-FM. “The fun starts with how good everybody feels from the beginning,” said Bayhack, who also was an extra in the fun film “Animal House.” “Donating flowers that would have gone into the dumpster, so that feels good. The group comes in and they have fun sorting through it. The next shift comes and they love doing the arranging. I sit and watch. I hear the joy. And the end result is the presentation of flowers to some unsuspecting, physically confused person and they light up. They might say, ‘Was it my birthday?’ Or, ‘I’ve never had flowers before.’

Flowers are a bonding mechanism for sure.

Jay said, “Giving flowers is a gesture that cuts across races, religions, disabilities, income levels. The result is the same response across the board. There’s few things where that happens. In  essence, we’re focused on basic kindness. We’re not trying to cure cancer, build a building or change homelessness. That’s sometimes hard in non-profits to quanitfy. We sell air, we sell smiles. But at the end of the day, I know our world is a better place because of Random Acts of Flowers and our volunteers.

 “Kindness and compassion have to have value in our society.”

That bears repeating during these times of rage and rants.

Kindness and compassion have to have value in our society.

To volunteer,  visit, or call (847) 430-4751.



Something was lost here.

Keep this coupon

Two herons on a pier

Redemption at every sunset


The winter circus comes through town

Keep this coupon

Questions splatter on the windshield

The old mystic answers in her home on Hwy. 1


Wednesday Karaoke at the Caribbean Club

A prune-faced lady leans over to sing “Cabaret”

Songs are tickets to another time, old chum

Keep this coupon


“We had it all, like Bogie & Bacall”Bertie Higgins


Bare feet dance on blades of grass

Touching perforated atonement in the dew

Turn it over, pick it up, keep this coupon.

It will mean something down the road.





Lock myself out, the first time in 20 years

Am I becoming my parents, losing my memory

Bit by bit like the drip from an unforgettable icicle

Outside of the house I grew up in.

I wait for the locksmith on the back steps.

A cardinal stops on along the driveway

I see my Mom who grew up near St. Louis

Until the man arrives with his box of magical tools


The man says it will not take long and begins to chip away

The cardinal, she flies way into a winter without snow

I complain about the wood that falls onto the floor

The man says those are the consequences

Suddenly I am in my house and nothing has changed

Christmas cards as futile as the newspapers I have yet to read

I find extra keys hanging from a Florida flamingo souvenir

Maybe they open the door to a new light.


In the early afternoons of late autumn days, the shadow of a fading  sun creates a path from the cemetery driveway to the plot where my parents are buried. A little less than six weeks separated the deaths of my parents this spring.

My Dad died first and in the time my Mom  had left I would take her to the cemetery.

Every chance she got.

I pushed her wheelchair through tall grass to the gravesite where  seeds were waiting to sprout. Mom never got to see the headstone she was so curious about, but she did fire off a zinger to the headstone salesperson as we picked out the marble bookmark.

Although she was battling dementia, Mom said, “The next time you see me I won’t be here.”

My Mom never said much when she got to the place of her gravesite. 

She never wanted to stay too long. Was she thinking of the 65 years of marriage she spent with my father. Die she wonder where she was going? Was she in a hurry?

Sense of place is an important component of books I have written; soul  food restaurants on the civil rights trail, supper clubs and even minor league baseball in small town America. But place has grabbed my attention in the five months since my mother’s death.

Place seems to be all over the place.

This week we are getting an appraisal for the house I grew up in. My parents are buried within walking distance of my high school and the chapel where I was once married. On Sunday I sat on the back porch and saw red-breasted robins I do not see in the city.

My Mom loved birds, for their place is everywhere.

Mom died peacefully in my old bedroom. Not long ago I was stuck behind an ambulance on Western Avenue in Chicago. Suddenly my  thoughts jumped to the April morning when we put my father into an ambulance to take him to hospice care in Barrington. He died three days after the ride up Route 59. He never returned to the place he  called home.

 I didn’t think I would be a cemetery guy, but every time I travel to the western suburbs I check in at the gravesite. When they were alive I didn’t know where my parents had picked out their plot. I did know Mom was happy that it was by the shade of oak and maple trees,  so beautiful in the autumn.

This 173-year-old cemetery is a new place for me.

I meditate there. I thank my parents. With the diversion of baseball  over, I look at th charcoal clouds and brace myself for my first holiday season without them. I think how fortunate I am that they lived so long. My Dad’s 95th birthday would have been Nov. 17; my Mom’s 94th birthday would have been Dec. 10. Damn, they did everything together. Why am I alone in this place?

Backyard of our childhood home, Oct. 25, 2015

Backyard of our childhood home, Oct. 25, 2015

Suddenly, I see my parents in all kinds of places; the cemetery, back at the house, in Section 242 of Wrigley Field and the LaQuinta  between the Cracker Barrel and Waffle House in Nashville, Tn., the  motel where they stayed to visit my brother and nephew. George Jones loved that Waffle House on Harding Place. My Dad loved Shirley Jones.

My brother and I told our folks how lucky they were. Some markers for their cemetery neighbors read:

A candle that glows twice as bright burns half as long.” Dead at 30 years old in 1992.

I will always be a dreamer,” 1949-1999

“Chatter & Tank” (Chatter 1946-2005; Tank 1944-2007)

“Our beautiful baby girl” (April 15, 2003-May 4, 2003)

Do not stand at my grave and weep/I am not here, I do not sleep/ God’s angels have carried me to heaven above/and now I watch over the ones I love.

I am not here, I do not sleep.

A tree by the side of the driveway was planted in honor of one of my high school classmates. His small marker says he left this earth at  age 37. A silver water pump sits not far from the tree. Last week an  older man parked his car near the pump.  He got out of his car, filled up a plastic jug with water and walked over to a gravesite. He emptied the jug in front of the headstone and stood there for less than two minutes. He then walked back to his car, got in and drove away. Leaves fell  in unison and they made a crackling, rhythmic sound that soon  will be stilled, only to return next year.

People count on defined places: church, the neighborhood diner, Wrigley Field, a  corner bar and a grandmother’s home.

But every place has a path that once was new.


NEW ORLEANS—This is a Big Easy encounter that does not involve alcohol.

Well, I did have one Swizzle with my tofu banh mi  at Latitude 29, a new tiki bar and restaurant tucked away near the Mississippi River. (The superb venue is named as a nod to New Orleans latitude on the map and has the same designer as Taboo Cove in Las Vegas and Le Tiki Lounge in Paris.)

After dinner I walked back to the Olivier House, my French Quarter stomping ground. A woman stood in the middle of Bourbon Street trying to hustle customers into an establishment. She wore a baseball cap that said “I Love Haters!” She had  it tilted on her head like Cubs relievers Fernando Rodney and Pedro Strop.

This made me smile.

I had to get this cap.

I found it on Amazon, but I had to have it immediately, I was afraid the idea of owning an “I Love Haters!” cap wouldn’t be so funny when I got back to Chicago.

After our Saturday afternoon “People’s Place” book signing at the wonderful Southern Food & Beverage Museum, book photographer Paul Natkin dropped me off on Canal Street. There’s dozens of mid-range clothing stores and cheeseball souvenir shops where I was told I would locate  the cap.

I found a silver and black “I Love Haters!” cap in the second store I entered. The Oakland Raiders color scheme made sense for such a fierce statement.

By the time I made it to the counter I was so fixated on the cap–which I still found funny—and the affordable price ($7.99)–I didn’t realize I was standing in line with a bunch of African American women buying blouses and lingerie.

The small woman behind me asked, “Do you have haters?”

Before I could answer, she continued, “We all have haters.”

I had to agree with that. Someone probably hates this post. I once had an editor who hated me for writing about “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.”

While holding her red undergarments, the customer lectured  me about how the “I Love Haters!” cap was a woman’s cap. I hated to disagree with her, seeing how the store was filled with women.

And men can’t love haters!?

Then she asked, “Are you a transsexual?”

This was when I thought I better not buy the cap after all. I may “Love Haters!” but I wasn’t sure of my stand on “Sassy Ladies!”

The next day I couldn’t get the “I Love Haters!” cap out of my head. On late night television I saw the flamboyant Joe Zee on a “Fab Life” television show talking about “trend adventurous.” I heard the clarion to man up. And why did I succumb to such playful pressure?  Perhaps the woman with the red underwear just hated the idea of me buying the haters cap.

I look like such a nice guy.

I marched back to the store the next morning and bought the cap. The same clerk was behind the counter. She smiled at me.

Loving all haters is a good way to start the day.




My parents back porch

Overlooking my parents back porch, June 2015

You set out on the road to get centered.

The loss of both parents within six weeks is hard to take, even when they were 93 and 94 years old. In their last weeks they asked for “one more day,” which is the gift given to all of you reading this.

On the day after my June 2 birthday I drove to see my brother in Nashville, Tn., I double shot over to listen to Beach Music in Myrtle Beach, S.C., watch the Pelicans lose a double-header and then headed back to Chicago through Asheville, N.C.

The birds chirped louder.

At night I walked alone in the Atlantic Ocean along North Myrtle Beach. The stars seemed closer. I drove and I swam. I tried to keep going.

But I stopped to pick wild flowers. My parents loved flowers. I’ve been looking at Kodachrome slides and discovered portraits of my father in fields of roses, tulips and marigolds. He was always smiling.

I teared up at seeing a Bob Evans restaurant sign and that came out of  nowhere. My folks were Bob Evans regulars before we had to take away the car keys. This road trip presented the conflict of memory and being in the moment.

That all James Taylor station on Sirius XM is not a good idea in this condition.

Cemeteries aren’t as foreboding as they used to be. The first thing I did when I returned to the Chicago area was visit the Naperville Cemetery. The grass has grown over my father’s side. The other night a friend at the Cubs game told me you aren’t fully grown up until a parent dies. I get that now.

I waited for two hours to hear Marsha Morgan singer her Beach Music hit This Girl Needs a Tune-Up” on a Sunday night at Duck’s Too in North Myrtle Beach.


I learned that my favorite newspaper writer Joseph Mitchell called depression “The Black Dog.” Joe was from North Carolina.

I brought along Van Morrison and remembered that “Enlightenment” is the end of suffering. I also thought of my Sun-Times editor and mentor Lon Grahnke and how Van’s “Full Force Gale” was played at the end of his memorial service.

I drove 1,900 miles but still have a long way to go.

In reality, the present is all you have.

North Myrtle Beach, S.C., June 2015

Under the Boardwalk, North Myrtle Beach, S.C., June 2015

Mom at an 80-something birthday at Hugo's Frog Bar in Naperville

Mom at her 80-something birthday at Hugo’s Frog Bar in Naperville

Like petals in a basket, I carry so many shades of life from my mother’s gallant journey. One of the most emotional snapshots of Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra came on April 9, the day after my father died. Although my mother battled dementia she managed to find her gold wedding ring. She slipped it on her finger without any of us knowing about it.

And the gold ring remained on my mother’s finger until the moment she passed over from heart failure Friday night in her Naperville home.

Mom was 93 years old.

All moms are amazing and so was ours. She was placed into home hospice twice and discharged once. Last August the hospitalists at Edward Hospital in Naperville told me she had “two to three weeks” to live because of her congestive heart failure.

Later, a hospice nurse told me she would never walk again. Up until a few days ago her head was down with determination as she walked slowly on her walker with the assistance of our caregiver.

Irene Helen Brush Hoekstra was was tough that way, a plainspoken coal miner’s daughter from Carlinvllle, Ill.

Only six weeks separated the deaths of our parents.

They stayed strong for each other.

In recent years as the sun set, my dad would hold my mom’s thin hand, colored purple by Coumadin. She would look ahead, blinking her eyes into the approaching darkness. And he would kiss her good night. Every night.

They lived a deep love I may never know.

Mom and dad got hitched late in life, at least for their generation.

They were married 65 years. Their wedding dinner  and honeymoon night was at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the far north side of Chicago. The sunset pink colored hotel was pegged as the “Site of America’s Most Successful Meetings.” When my mom opened the door to her hotel room she found a surprise from my father–a bouquet of a dozen roses.

Our mom loved flowers and over the past six weeks we were bringing flowers to my dad’s gravesite. She sat in her wheelchair, gently twirled the ring around her finger and looked at the family plot. She always asked me when the headstone would be ready. It is not up yet, but it will be identified by a gold ring linking their names. Mom battled macular degeneration but that did not stop her from having me park the car in the driveway after our trip to the cemetery. She would blink repeatedly at the white magnolia in our front yard. It is an early and fast bloomer and you have to pay attention.

Mom often got a charge out of the short Zumba dancing sessions I’d throw down with our Ghanian caregiver. (I’d say we had about 30 caregivers over the past eight years.) Mom was lost in mid-stage dementia but when we started shaking our stuff she would smile, clap her hands and say, “Do it again. Do it again.” Who doesn’t want another dance? The power of music can cut through dementia.

Zumba shakedown (Photo by Jude Hoekstra)

Zumba shakedown (Photo by Jude Hoekstra)

Our mom secretly typed out her 26 page autobiography in 1989. I found it in the bedroom safe of their Naperville home. 

Of her wedding day she wrote in part, “The bride wore a rose-pink satin tea length gown and carried a dainty bouquet of white roses. The groom wore a brown suit and a rose and brown striped tie with a white carnation boutonniere….The bride commented it was the happiest day of her life. The day was perfect–sunny, bright and happy.”  The way my mom wrote in third person narrative illustrated her humility.

I also discovered a sidebar essay she wrote in 2000 after we celebrated our parents 50th wedding anniversary at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mom began, “Once upon a time there were these two introverts who met, fell in love and got married…Well these two are still around today and you guessed, it, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Feb. 11, 2000….After considerable time packing, as old folks are apt to do, they were off to the Drake Hotel. It was there that they planned to meet their two boys, one boy’s (my brother Doug) wife and the other’s (me) friend. You see, their sons had planned the celebration, and it was with their compliments. And of course, the parents were looking forward to “living it up” for the weekend.”

The weekend was full of surprises, including dinner at the old Jilly’s on Rush Street. “This is a well known night spot where Frank Sinatra and people of his ilk made famous,” my mom wrote. “It was fun to be in a place where the clientele was somewhat out of the ordinary.”

My mom was of very ordinary means.

Her Lithuanian parents came to America to work in the Union Stock Yards in Chicago and the Peabody Coal Mines in downstate Illinois. Mom was born on Dec. 10, 1921 in Carlinville, Ill. When the mines around Carlinville closed in 1925 the family moved 45 miles north to Taylorville, where my mom grew up.

She was a first chair clarinet player in the Taylorville High School Band and in her senior year was awarded first prize for an essay she wrote about her high school. This led to her interest in journalism, which she later studied in night school at Northwestern University in Chicago. During the day she worked as a stenographer at Gulbransen Pianos and as secretary at Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, which produced magazines like “Popular Photography” and “Modern Bride.”

In 1946 my mom met my dad at a dance at Northwestern. He was also attending night school at Northwestern. She wrote, “After all these years I can still recall that he was wearing a navy blue suit and that he made an impression on me because he was so witty and personable.”

Our Mom & Dad

Mom & Dad with flowers

Mom and Dad didn’t travel much when we were growing up. Dad was a purchasing agent for Swift & Company in Chicago and mom stayed at home. I’ve been listening to the oral history CDs Doug made in 1993, spending several hours interviewing my parents. I am forever grateful to him for doing that. My folks said they didn’t travel because they were saving money for a house. The first house they owned was a small ranch house which they purchased in 1952 in Westchester, Ill., just outside of Chicago.

In the early 1960s Swift transferred dad to Columbus, Ohio. I used to ponder the “Leave it to Beaver” dynamic of our household. We had two boys, no pets, a nattily dressed father heading off to work and a stay at home mother –who owned pearls but rarely wore them. Several  years ago I talked to the creators of “Leave it to Beaver” and they said the show was indeed based on their experiences in “Central Ohio.” After my brother and I finished high school my mom found secretarial work at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and it was a job she loved.

This modest pedigree leads me to one of my favorite stories about mom. In 1993 the Chicago Sun-Times assigned me to shadow Frank Sinatra during his appearance  at the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill. I asked my mom to be my date. She was 72 years old. Frank was 77. We went to the concert where Frank told his fans he would do “nothing new because no one writes anything anymore.”

We followed Frank to a post-concert dinner across the street to the Cafe Harlow restaurant in the Hollywood Casino. Frank enjoyed sliced veal, onion rings and French Fries. He washed it down with Jack (Daniel’s) and ice water on the side. As he left the dinner table around midnight the casino security staff cleared a path by our table.

Although I was told not to bother Frank, I started to say hello. Frank ignored me.

Then he smiled and winked at my mom.

Now he did it.


Mom was not ready to go home. We all went to the casino’s Directors Lounge to hear the late great singer Frank D’Rone. The other Frank had another Jack. My mom was having a blast and my dad was getting worried.

I finally dropped mom off in her Naperville home in the wee, wee hours of 2 a.m. Every time I repeated this story over the years my mom  scolded me for “not letting me talk to Frank.” My mom radiated measured class and even Frank Sinatra saw that. We played Frank Sinatra CD’s by her hospice bed.

The best way to conclude this essay is to use the end of my mom’s autobiography: “My parents came to the United States for better opportunities and a better way of life. They strived and worked hard for everything. I, too, have worked hard and tried my best to do things right and to make a good life for my family. “Perhaps one might call these memoirs ordinary and not too exciting–but just think. If these two people had not come the many miles from Europe, if their paths had not crossed, then I would not have the privilege to be here and write the tale of my life for you to read.” Her privilege will continue.

My brother and I have spent our lives making a living with words and now my mother’s nurturing spirit will inform all the words that follow. She is here.

She is the gold ring around my heart.


The view from our mom’s favorite chair, 5/23/15

Deep thanks to all of you who have visited this website over recent years to help me navigate my parents journey. For more on music and dementia, listen to my WGN-AM Nocturnal Journal  show on the subject. Share it with someone who is traveling a similar path.

Services for Irene Hoekstra are at 10 a.m. May 27 at Grace United Methodist Church, 300 E. Gartner Rd.  in Naperville. Visitation is 9 a.m. at the church, services are followed by a luncheon at the church. Burial immediately after the luncheon at Naperville Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

Caregiver art by Ted Crow, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Caregiver art by Ted Crow, Cleveland Plain Dealer

We are a quiet but intrepid tribe, those of us who are in the growing number of parent caregivers.

We are the I’m Coming Soon Platoon.

I’ve refrained from posting much about my summer journey: taking care of my 92-year-old mom with dementia and heart disease and a father with Parkinson’s Disease who turned 94 on Nov. 17. Perhaps their challenges are private. But I now know the pharmaceutical department at the Meier store in Aurora like the back of my hand. Nitrile exam gloves? Aisle 4. Personal cleaning wipes: Aisle 2. I know as much about hospice care as I know about the ’69 Cubs.

What has happened to me this year came from a higher place I cannot explain.

I left my job of 29 years in March.  I finished my book “The People’s Place (Soul Food Restaurants And Reminisces From The Civil Rights Era To Today),” due in October on Chicago Review Press. I handed the book in on Friday, Aug. 8.  On Aug. 10 I was wheeling my Mom into the emergency room.


She spent eight days in the hospital with assorted ailments. Three days before her discharge I was with her to watch radiologists stick a long needle in her spine. This procedure was necessary to drain the fluid that had gathered between her heart and her lung. After I was done squirming in my chair one man held up a clear bag which was about the size of a Neiman Marcus purse. The bag was filled with fluid. They told me the fluid would come back soon. “She’s got about two or three weeks,” the young hospitalist told me on the day of her discharge.

And we were off to home hospice.

And we’re all still here.

Things I see while shopping at Meier in Aurora.

Things I see while shopping at Meier in Aurora.

Hospice includes removing the patient from medication. My Mom was taking at least 15 pills. And she got better. I’ve tried to respect her wishes and her extraordinary will.

She will signal us when she wants to travel in another direction.

To have the summer off to take care of my parents evolved into one of the greatest gifts of my life. There were tears. There was a meeting with the minister. There was a trip to the funeral home.

But there have been laughs. Flowers. And music. My Mom remembers the words to Frank Sinatra’s  “Too Marvelous For Words,” although she did not take my bait on dressing up like Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga for Halloween.

We caught escaped moments without a net.

I could not have devoted so much time to each of my parents if I had a regular job.  I’m the only family member in the area. My brother made trips up from Nashville, Tn. when he could. And, although I get the idea of living in the moment, there’s a chance we can l be together for the holidays. The 24-hour caregivers are great and I gave one of them a DVD of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” one of my all time favorite movies

I now feel recharged enough to also turn around and move forward with my own life.

I burned through my buyout and book advance. I’m broke but fulfilled.


At 10 p.m. Dec. 6 I’ll begin a live Saturday night “Nocturnal Journal” variety show on WGN-AM (rebroadcast on podcast and iTunes). The two-hour show will revolve like a Lazy Susan around roots music, weird music, supper club music, backroads travel, tiki bars, world music, old diners, rhythm and blues and Merle Haggard; all kinds of the stuff I did at the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m not a big talker but expect lots of guests and in-studio musicians.

L.C. Cooke, the deeply soulful brother of gospel-soul-pop singer Sam Cooke will be our leadoff guest. His benevolent spirit will send us on our way.

We will talk about “The Complete SAR Records Recordings,” my favorite reissue of 2014. Between 1960 and 1964 L.C. cut 14 tracks under the supervision of Sam Cooke. We will be giving away a few copies of the 18-track CD to listeners, courtesy of ABKCO Records.

Rick Wojcik, owner of the Dusty Groove record store will be another in studio guest for opening night. I live within walking distance of Dusty Groove, 1120 N. Ashland and spend way too much time there. Dusty Groove is a gracious sponsor of “Nocturnal Journal” and I’m sure we will be discuss holiday shopping. One of my best finds of the year at Dusty Groove has been the 6-CD import box set “Calypso Craze (1956-57 and beyond)” with a DVD and 170-page hard cover book.


Other in studio December guests month include Gene “Daddy G” Barge (Dec. 13) Robbie Fulks (Dec. 20) and ChristmasCurators John Soss and Andy Cirzan spinning holiday music on Dec. 20. Any other segment ideas? Email me at Contact@davehoekstra. 

Gratitude to Jonathon Brandmeier, Todd Manley, Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano for the encouragement. Thanks to Robert Feder for the kind words. And thanks to all the social media support. I hope we can live up to it.


Away from radio, we’re working on our home grown documentary pilot on the atmosphere and community that informs the music of the Springfield, Missouri region. (Like Les Blank with no financial backing.) This idea was hatched through numerous interviews I did with Springfield bassist and studio owner Lou Whitney over the last 10, 15 years. (A couple of them are cataloged on this website.) Besides music over the years we talked about religion, Route 66, cashew chicken in Springfield and the challenges of being a Cubs fan in Missouri.

Lou’s death from kidney cancer in October inspired me to finish this book and documentary of atmosphere and community. Lou is with us every step of the way. Already I owe thanks to Lloyd Hicks (Springfield drummer and historian), Chris Ligon, Heather McAdams (our narrator) , Victor Sanders (film editor), Lance Tawzer (former Material Issue bassist who is book designer and editor), Rene’ Greblo (photographer-sound man) Tom Vlodek (cameraman) for believing that the confluence of weird spirits on the Ozarks may only be equaled by Memphis, Tn. and New Orleans.


Springfield music book design by Lance Tawzer

Before Lou’s Nov. 9 euphony service at the Savoy Ballroom in Springfield Eric Ambel, Scott Kempner, Andy Shernoff, Mary McBride, Vance Powell, Mark Bilyeu and Vicky Self were all gracious enough to sit down for on-camera interviews to accompany the July footage we shot of Lou, Lloyd, Joe Terry and Donnie Thompson.

I hate self-promotion. I only mention the cast to whet your appetite. We’re getting there.

And often times you can get somewhere when you allow higher places settle deep into your heart.

Lou's worldly bass, Nov. 9, 2014 (Photo by Rene' Greblo)

Lou’s worldly bass, Nov. 9, 2014 (Photo by Rene’ Greblo)

holiday 2013

Thistle Farms staff hamming it up for the 2013 holiday season in their manufacturing area.  (Photo by Peggy Napier)

Fiona Prine knows a few things about turning the page.

It has been 21 years since she moved to the United States. Fiona Whelan met her future husband, Maywood, Ill.-born singer-songwriter-storyteller John Prine when she was working in a recording studio in Dublin, Ireland. They married and she moved to Nashville, Tn. where they have raised three boys.

Fiona has said she heard all the words in the old country then found her voice in this country. Her sense of discovery takes her to San Francisco this weekend to visit Chilelan novelist Isabelle Allende in support of the Nashville-based Thistle Farms charity for which she is a full-time volunteer.

Meanwhile, at 8 p.m. Nov. 1 her husband will be appearing at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. John’s good rockin’ brother Billy and his band will be opening for Heartsfield at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.

You will hear songs of hope, from here to there.

Thistle Farms manufactures and distributes natural bath and body products, available in more than 200 stores nationwide. It employs residents and graduates of Magdalene, a Nashville-based residential program for survivors of prostitution, human trafficking, addiction and streets with dead ends.

Thistle Farms is a timely topic for the Chicago area with this month’s discovery of the murders of several prostitutes in Northwest Indiana. A convicted sex offender is in custody.

“I make no secret of the fact I’m in recovery,” Fiona said earlier this week in a conversation from Nashville. “This appeals to me on many levels. These are women who are recovering from very many things. The fact that many of them came off the streets drug addicted is part of their story, but not the whole story. I have connected with them my own journey of recovery from childhood trauma, my own alcohol abuse and the rest of it. It was a no-brainer.

Fiona Prine

Fiona Prine

“And the fact it is all-woman focused was appealing to me. When I came here I had no family. Essentially it was John and the family we built together. Once John’s mother died there was nobody else here.”

Fiona became involved with the organization in 2004. She actually learned about it through her son Tommy, who became best buds with Caney Hummon, the son of Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens. They were classmates at University School of Nashville (disclaimer alert–where my nephew Jude attends school). Stevens is an Episcopal priest who is married to Nashville singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon.

“The thistle is a perceived weed that will literally grow anywhere,” she said. “Then there’s derlict, dirty streets that the women walked when they were still out there. Thistles will grow between the cracks of the pavements. Becca noticed this. So now people all over the country send thistles to us. We use thistles to make our paper.” The paper is used for greeting cards, tee-shirst and very handsome bookmarks……

……..To remember where you have been.

Thistle Farms has an annual October fund-raiser and during her early years with the organization Fiona helped recruit artists. Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jennifer Nettles and oh yes, John Prine have performed t the events. “Magadelen and Thistle Farms take no funding from any governmental source,” she said. “It is all private donations. John played the second or third year I was involved and things got amped up a little bit. Gretchen Peters did a beautiful concert for us. So has Marshall Chapman. Becca is a very compelling and visionary character. Her message is simple.

“Love is the most healing force on the planet.”

Thistle Farm holiday cards

Thistle Farm holiday cards

Sometimes the planet appears as a shattered childhood ornament. “The women come in and they are broken in every imaginable way,” Fiona explained. “Physcially, emotionaly, spiritually, psychologically. The very simple thing of a woman getting out of prison, typically at two in the morning. They are at the front door with their plastic bags. They’ve been in maybe a week, maybe three months. Unless there is someone there to pick them up, bring them somewhere safe to sleep that night, they’re going to go right back in the neighborhood.”

Becca’s idea was to secure a house as a safe place for women off the streets. No charge. No strings attached. A “Hello In There” kind of place. The place is called Magdalene and women reside there for two years.

“They are given a key to the house and it is a model that has worked,” Fiona said. “When she has been in the program for three weeks she starts earning a stipend. That money is given to her so she doesn’t have to turn a trick to buy a pack of cigarettes. We’ve never had any break-ins, we’ve never had a murder. More than eighty per cent of the women who stay for the two years are still clean and sober two years later. We have lots of resources in the community. We have relationships with doctors. Dentists. One woman just had all her tattoos removed from her face. It’s not just, ‘Come in here, get clean and sober and you’ll be great.’ They need more than that.”

So these beautiful women leave Magdalene and then what?

A below minimum-wage job? Where is your resume?

So the next step was to establish a work venue for the women, which is now centered around a 11,000 square foot manufacturing space at Thistle Farms.  “At first it was in the basement of a church making candles,” Fiona said. “It has grown from that to 2014 where we had our first million dollars in annual sales. More than 60 women are now employed at Thistle Farms (est. 2001). We have the candle making, the bath and body, sewing studios and the Thistle Stop Cafe coffee shop.”

Thistle Stop Cafe

Thistle Stop Cafe

The Thistle Stop Cafe and lunch room includes hundreds of tea cups and saucers donated by supporters from across the country. Program graduates staff the cafe.

“Terri, our barista won the opportunity last year to go to barista school,” Fiona said. “She told me, ‘I’ve never won anything in my life. I left school when I was 14.’ It’s heartlifting. It makes looking at CNN like all that is happening on another planet.”

The cafe is located next door to the Thistle Farms manufacturing facility, a former warehouse at 5122 Charlotte Pike a few miles west of downtown Nashville. Earlier this year John Prine and Pat McLaughlin played a cafe party to celebrate Fiona’s 21 years in America. When you stop by the cafe be sure to ask for some of Terri’s thistle-made brew.

Mary Baker is CEO of Monroe Harding, Inc., a residential program facility for boys and one of the oldest non-profits in Nashville. “Coming out of addiction is not easy,” she said in a Thursday phone interview. “The community that surrounds these women and that they’ve become a part of helps them grow into a whole human being and recognize that there are behaviors and choices they have made that will continue to trip them up unless they change those behaviors.

“Think of the community as a scrum if you think of Australian football. You are in the middle of a pack and it carries you along. When you first get off the street and you are clean and sober you don’t know what the heck is going on. Thistle Farms has created that community not only among the women but among the people who volunteer for the organization, the people who buy products, the people who come in to have coffee and get to know each other as well as the women who work there.” The cafe is a relatively new coffee and lunch destination in Nashville and Baker has found it as a valuable meeting place.

Just last month Thistle Farms expanded its operation to the Shared Trade Alliance (A Fair Share for Women). “We’ve partnered with 14 individual like-minded organizations,” Fiona explained. “The criteria is simple but specific. They have to be a woman-focused organization. A lot of them are run by women who have left America after their post-grad work and have gone to India, Cambodia and Africa to see if they can make a difference in the world. And they are.”

Organizations that are part of the alliance will put a Shared Trade sticker on their products to tell the consumer they are buyng something that moves women forward from poverty to independent living. Groups from Ecuador, Ghana, Kenya and Nashville already have signed up for the alliance.

Fiona and Becca are visiting Allende in San Francisco because the Chilean author has pledged $80,000 to the shared trade initiative. “I’m  helping put on a market place in San Francisco,” she said. “As a matter of fact John was helping me load boxes for the UPS today.” At the same time Magadelene’s Thistle Farms integrated model has been replicated in St. Louis, Houston and New Orleans, according to Fiona.

holiday soaps 2013

“One of the big reasons this model works is that you have to have the community behind you,” Fiona said. “There’s no way this could happen without the help of the Nashville community. Becca will say, ‘It took a community to send a woman out on the streets. It will take that same community to bring her home.

“This is timely because we have been making contacts in Chicago. We had a Shared Trade MarketPlace on Oct. 12 in Nashville which was part of our second annual Thistle Farms Conference. We sold $28,000 worth of products in two days. That workshop and marketplace is what I want to take to Chicago.

“Ours is a big story. We were brainstorming about using social media to get more help. ALS had a simple message; dunk yourself with water and send ten dollars or whatever. The story is so big at Thistle Farms sometimes it can be difficult to narrow down.”

What has Fiona learned in her decade with Thistle Farms?

“I’ve learned that, without exception, all of these women coming in off the streets were sexually abused as children,” she answered. “They were raised in addictive homes. A lot of them suffered physical and emotional abuse. That’s a very typical story. My story doesn’t cleanly dovetail into that, but my father died when I was 13 leaving my mother and six girls. I was the oldest. I understand the poverty that came out of that. My mother had no resources. And then I understand displacement. Even though it was by choice that I came here, I was propelled.”

After Fiona met Prine she was gung-ho about coming to America. “But we had no idea the isolation I would feel and the difficulty it would be to keep in touch with my family in Ireland,” she explained. “I’m a late bloomer. I have a wonderful family, I used to work in the music business in Ireland, I have a son who came with me here that John subsequently adopted. I became connected to who I was in America. I’ve uncovered myself more than recovered. John and I talked about moving to Ireland because he loves it there and we would have had the children finish their education when they were in middle school. But I couldn’t fo it. Home was here.”

Their sons are 19, 20 and 33. The oldest son  is about to be a father. “We’re going to be grandparents for the first time,” she declared. “John Prine is just besides himself. He says, ‘Great! I can go to Toys R Us again.”

Gifts are everywhere when you take time to let love into your heart.