Tag Archives: family

Campfire Stories

March 16, 2018 by

Stories for Kids

Here are two campfire tales guaranteed to captivate those peering into the night sky or glancing over shoulders into the shadows…

The Fisher Stars

Constellations have fascinating histories, and different cultures have their own takes on the figures that can be seen in the stars. One of the more famous constellations is commonly known as the Big Dipper, but the Big Dipper wasn’t always known as such. In the early 1900s, a family might have called it the plough (a cultural remnant from England and Ireland). One of the more interesting explanations of the Big Dipper is this sacred story from the Ojibwa (also known as Chippewa):

Once there was a great man named Gitchi Odjig, and Gitchi Odjig was a great hunter. This was a good thing, because at one time on Earth, there was only winter. The world wasn’t completely unpleasant—if you worked hard, you could get enough; but all the days were cold, and all the days were icy. Your life was basically the freezing and thawing of your fingers. Gitchi Odjig’s skills served him well in this cold world.

Gitchi Odjig and his family had heard a story that explained that the sky they looked to every day wasn’t only a roof, it was a floor as well: a floor to a world in which winter was not present. The water in that world was free of ice. The trees wore green glossy things called leaves. You could walk during the day without a coat or hat. It was a beautiful story to hang on to, but even if people believed it, they didn’t think there was much anyone could do about the cold. Things were the way they were.

Gitchi Odjig’s son, however, didn’t think that way. He wanted to do something to make things better. He thought it would be wonderful if the warm world above somehow opened to this one. He held on to the idea.

Then, one day, Gitchi Odjig’s son was hunting, and he got a good bead on a squirrel. The squirrel stood up and spoke: “Please put away your arrows. There is something I think you’d like to know.”

Gitchi Odjig’s son was surprised, but he dropped his weapon and listened.

“You know and I know the constant cold we both live in is no picnic,” began the squirrel. “This frozen ground doesn’t yield much and is incredibly unforgiving. But there is something called summer, and it exists in the world above us. There is a weather that is warm and abundant. Instead of killing me, let’s work together to see how we can somehow bring that world here.”

The son took this information to his father, who felt that this was a sign and that it was time to hold a feast and discuss the matter. He invited all the animals he knew, and together they decided that they would travel to the highest mountain peak, and break through to the summer world.

They found the peak, and cracked through the top of the sky into the world above. They all climbed through. Gitchi Odjig couldn’t believe what he was feeling—the wind wasn’t bitterly cold; the trees rustled with beautiful drifts of leaves instead of clattering and whistling their bare branches; the ground was lush and green, and hummed with the music of insects; the water in the streams and rivers wasn’t cluttered and scabbed with ice. He was standing in the middle of summer.

But the people of that world did not appreciate these intruders, and they did not appreciate that the edges of the hole these intruders had climbed through had cracked and crumbled, and now summer (and spring, and fall) gushed down onto the earth in a giant torrent of colors, and life, and change.

They fixed the hole and started to chase Gitchi Odjig. In order to go faster, he turned himself into a fisher (which is a like a badger, or wolverine) and he was almost caught when he recognized that the people of this world were some of his distant relatives. He called on this connection, and convinced them to let him go.

Although he had gotten free, he could not break again through to the Earth. This saddened him, but beneath his sadness was a deep peace and satisfaction. He had brought the seasons to the Earth. He laid himself down at the scar where he had entered the sky, and was happy.

You can still see him laying there in the night sky, with the four points of the Dipper as the four points of his body, and the handle of the dipper his lithe tail.

The Cornfield Spider

You might have heard of the Jersey Devil, a beast that haunts the woods of New Jersey. That story involves a woman who was in league with evil spirits. She gave birth to a child which appeared normal at first, but then began to grow and change at awful speed, its head transforming into a goat’s head, its body becoming long and winnowed and serpent-like, and its back sprouting great leathery wings.

This area also has a legend like that. At the heart of this story is a beast that makes the Jersey Devil seem tame. This story involves a 12-year-old boy in league with shadowy forces:

One July night, a farmer who tended 500 acres west of Omaha saw his son at the edge of a field talking to a strange figure. The farmer called to his son, and the boy and the figure turned. The figure dissipated into thin air, but the boy ran, setting off up a slope into the knee-high corn. The father gave chase.

He again called to his son. The boy reached the top of the ridge and turned to look at his father. Then he disappeared down the other side. The father ascended. When the farmer was nearly at the top of the wide hill, something rose up from the other side—but it wasn’t his son.

It was a terrible thing with a long thin torso, great long arms, and wild long fingers that ended in thorny claws. It bent over long thin legs. According to the farmer, it was covered in wiry brown hair, and had an almost spiderlike body, with a small long head, like a human’s head that had been pulled in a taffy puller, then given sharp long teeth and wide lidless eyes. The farmer turned and ran. He could hear the thing loping after him. He made it back to the farmhouse, slammed and locked the door, and heard the wild scratching. Then, nothing.

He never saw his son again. However, a handful of people have seen a similar creature on summer nights, sometimes standing still and watching, sometimes giving desperate chase.

This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.     

Seeking Counsel of the Wilderness in Summer

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Spencer Hawkins has encountered bears 24 times in his life.

One encounter happened when he woke up early to fish. Pausing to change his lure, he says, “something felt wrong. I turned over my shoulder, and from where I had just walked, a grizzly bear was walking into the water right at me.” With nowhere to go in deepening river, Hawkins called out for fellow camper Ben Bissell, who immediately came to the rescue, bedecked in nothing but boots, boxer shorts, and a shotgun. Then, the bear picked up a dead salmon from the riverbank and simply walked away.

The vast expanse of nature can be intimidating for some, but for Hawkins, it is his summer home. In the remaining nine months of the year, Hawkins is a counselor at Andersen Middle School. He enjoys telling his students about his travels, enriching their lives with his stories while imbuing them with a respect for nature and its beasts. 

Hawkins’ thirst for adventure started in college, when he and three friends began traveling to national parks in Utah and Montana to rock climb. One friend wanted to fish in the location of the film, A River Runs Through It, which gave birth to their new pastime. This gave way to a rock climbing trip to Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming.

The friends’ first big trip to Alaska was prompted by a friend about to enter medical school. They spent 35 days in the wilderness, relying on nothing but each other and their intuition for survival. Hawkins says, “We were really remote, so we had no help. You couldn’t call on your cellphone, we didn’t have anything that worked, so we just relied on each other, caught and ate a lot of fish, moved camp, got rained on, made a fire, and [moved to a] new camp.” Floating down the river for three weeks, the explorers ate only the plants available and fish they caught, which lead to noticeable weight loss.

Fishing has probably made them more attractive to bears. Once, while Hawkins and his travel companions were sleeping, they heard a rustling outside of their tent, and the sound of something rummaging around the surrounding brush. Hawkins, springing from his tent suddenly, saw a 500-pound black bear that had been rifling through the camper’s equipment take off through the forest, snapping trees in half like they were twigs. Luckily, Hawkins recalls, the bear hadn’t found their inflatable raft full of supplies down at the riverbank, which could have easily been destroyed by the massive beast, stranding them in the Alaskan wilderness with no way to call for help. 

Bears aren’t the only animal Hawkins has seen. While cooking freshly caught fish in the dark one night, Hawkins heard noise coming from the other side of the campsite. He shone a flashlight into the woods, where about 10 pairs of glowing eyes stared back at him from behind the foliage. A pack of wolves had come to investigate the culinary aroma. Following a one-minute stare-down that seemed like ten minutes, the winner of the fish supper was the humans.

Hawkins’ days of asking friends to run after a bear in their underwear may be behind him. These days, his trips tend to be more family-friendly, although he continues to frequent national parks.

“When you are rock climbing you have to focus only on what you are doing and the rocks and trees around you. The worries of the world, your everyday life, you don’t have time to worry about.”

This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

2017 September/October Family & More

September 1, 2017 by
Photography by contributed

Canoe the Great Marsh, Through Sept. 30 at Fontenelle Forest, 1111 Bellevue Blvd. North. Canoe the wetlands and explore the great marsh and its amazing array of wildlife. Canoers can find beavers, owls, and much more. Recommended for ages 10 and up. Advanced registration required. 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays; 5:40-7:40 a.m. Saturdays. $5 for members, $15 for nonmembers. 402-731-3140.
fontenelleforest.org

Garden Yoga, Sundays in September at Joslyn Art Museum’s sculpture garden, 2200 Dodge St. Instructors from Omaha Yoga and Bodywork Center will guide people through basic poses to lengthen and strengthen the body and center the mind. In case of rain, this event will be held in  the fountain court. 10:30 a.m. $5 suggested donation. 402-342-3300.
joslyn.org

SeptemberFest, Sept. 1-4 at Century Link Center, 455 N. 10th St. The 40th annual SeptemberFest includes live music in the beer garden, a carnival, arts and crafts, food, a mobile game theater, a steak cook-off, and more. 5 p.m-midnight Friday; noon-midnight Saturday-Monday. Admission: $5 adults and children ages 6 and up, free for children 5 and under.
septemberfestomaha.org

Labor Day Weekend at Henry Doorly Zoo Sept. 2-4

Labor Day Weekend, Sept. 2-4 at Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. The zoo says goodbye to summer with bounce houses, airbrush tattoos, special animal presentations, and gate prizes. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $19.95 adults, $18.95 seniors (65+), $13.95 children (2-11), free for children 2 and under. $1 discount for military members and their families. 402-733-8400.
omahazoo.com

Chuck Berry: Hail Hail Rock and Roll, Sept. 3 at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey St. A 1987 documentary featuring a concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of Chuck Berry, who died in March 2017. The film features performances from Linda Ronstadt, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Etta James, and Julian Lennon. 7 p.m. Tickets: $9 general admission; $7 for students, teachers, active military, and those arriving by bicycle. 402-933-0259.
filmstreams.org

46th Annual Art Fair, Sept. 9-10 at Rockbrook Village, 108th and Center streets. More than 140 national, regional, and local artists will display and sell their one-of-a-kind works of art. Spend the day browsing quality art and chatting with those who create and appreciate it. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: free. 402-390-0890.
rockbrookvillageartfair.com

Midtown Car Show at Midtown Crossing Sept. 10

Midtown Car Show, Sept. 10 in Turner Park at Midtown Crossing, 3110 Farnam St. The Midtown Car Show features the area’s finest one-of-a-kind cars in a show-and-shine format. Chicago Dawg House will serve grilled hot dogs and cold beverages in the park. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Admission: free—to show a car or attend. 402-934-9275.
midtowncrossing.com

Second Annual Food Truck Rodeo, Part 2, Sept. 15 outside of Reverb Lounge, 6121 Military Ave. This event includes 15-20 food trucks, a DJ, beer gardens, outdoor seating, and multiple outdoor bars. 4-11 p.m. Admission: Free. 402-884-5707.
reverblounge.com/events

Gifford Farm FALL Festival, Sept. 16 and 17 at 700 Camp Gifford Road, Bellevue. For a weekend of old-fashioned farm fun, this festival offers the Starlab Planetarium, exotic animals, pony rides, old-time vendors, raffles, and more. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: $5 for ages 2 and older, $2.50 for military personnel with ID. Pony rides are $5 extra. 402-332-5771.
gosarpy.com

Night Market Pop-up Festival, Sept. 22 at Turner Park in Midtown Crossing, 3110 Farnam St. Highlights of this event include a mini food festival, giant outdoor games, moonlight yoga, live music from local musicians, and 20+ local vendors. 6-10 p.m. Free for the public and dog-friendly. 402-943-9275.
midtowncrossing.com

26th Annual Fort Omaha Intertribal Powwow, Sept. 30 at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus, 5300 N. 30th St. This celebration of Native American culture honors the traditional dance, music, artistry, oral history, and foods of various tribes across Nebraska and the surrounding region. 1-7:30 p.m. Admission: free. 531-622-2253.
mccneb.edu

(EVENT CANCELLED) Omaha Ramen Fest, Oct. 1 at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village 2285 S. 67th St. This noodle fest will feature Omaha’s top chefs crafting traditional and creative bowls of the delectable Asian soup. There also will be local breweries serving beer and artists crafting colorful ceramic bowls for your ramen. 2-7 p.m. Admission: $5 (does not include food or drink). 402-496-1616.

T.J. Stiles will speak at Holland Performing Arts Oct. 3

Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities, Oct. 3 at the Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner T.J. Stiles will speak at the 22nd annual governor’s lecture in the humanities. He will draw from his work on historical figures, such as General Armstrong Custer, to address Nebraska’s centrality to American history. 7:30 p.m. 402-474-2131.
humanitiesnebraska.org

Haunted Safari, Oct. 6 and 7 at Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, 16404 N. 292 St. Take a hayrack ride down to Wolf Canyon to enjoy a hot dog supper, roast marshmallows, and play ghostly games for candies in the great outdoors during Haunted Safari. 6-9 p.m. Tickets: $23 general admission, $18 for zoo members. 402-738-2058.
wildlifesafaripark.com

Omaha Bug Symposium 2017, Oct. 7 at Midtown Art, 2578 Harney St. Dave Crane and Andy Matz deliver heart-pounding, mind-blowing entomological and microscopy lectures. Event includes musical entertainment, insect art and costume contests, and delicious edible insects. Refreshments provided. Admission: $5, age 21+ only.
facebook.com/omahabugsymposium

Japanese Ambience Festival, Oct. 7-8 at Laurtizen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. The Omaha Sister Cities Association helps host this event with a variety of activities to celebrate Japanese culture. Activities include calligraphy, origami, koinobori, traditional Japanese games, food tastings, and more. Performances will include martial arts demonstrations, traditional Japanese music, and dance. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children (6-12), free for children under 6 and members. 402-346-4002.
lauritzengardens.org

Planes, Trains, and Autos, Oct. 7-8 at Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, 28210 West Park Highway, Ashland. Guests are encouraged to come in costume and trick-or-treat at various stations while learning about various modes of transportation. The event will include five aircrafts, 20 unique muscle cars, and trains. Admission: $12 adults, $11 senior citizens and military with valid ID, $6 children (4-12), free for children 3 and under. 402-944-3100.
sacmuseum.org

Fall Chrysanthemum Show at Lauritzen Gardens, starting Oct. 7

Fall Chrysanthemum Show, Oct. 7-Nov. 17 at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Discover a fascinating fabrication of flowers. Bold mums combine with brilliant colors, rich fabrics, diverse textures, gifts from the people of Shizuoka to the people of Omaha, and other exotic design elements representative of Japanese culture. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children (6-12), free for children under 6 and members. 402-346-4002.
lauritzengardens.org

Night at the Museum, Oct. 21 at Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, 28210 West Park Highway. This event includes behind-the-scenes access to aircraft and robotics activities. The keynote speaker, astronaut Clayton Anderson, will speak at 5 p.m. 5-8 p.m. Admission: $12 adults, $11 senior citizens and military with valid ID, $6 children (4-12), free for children 3 and under.402-944-3100.
sacmuseum.org

HutchFest, Oct. 21 at Midtown Crossing, 3110 Farnam St. HutchFest is a celebration of Midwestern artisans. The event includes food, drinks, live music, and 100+ vendors, selling everything from homemade jewelry to elegant hand-designed stationary to beard balm. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $5 adults, free for children under 12. 402-926-6747.
hutchfest.co

Ghoulish Garden Adventure, Oct. 29 at Lauritzen Gardens 100 Bancroft St. Come to the garden in costume for the annual Ghoulish Garden Adventure. Explore the visitor and education centers, visit the gardens, and trick-or-treat at different activity stations. Noon-4 p.m. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children (6-12), free for children under 6. 402-346-4002.
lauritzengardens.org

Haunted Houses

Camp Fear Haunted House at Riverwest Park opens Sept. 22

Omaha’s haunted houses deliver an array of thrills from the maze-like Mystery Manor to the Haunted Hollow Theme Park which is located on a seven-acre farm. Camp Fear is one of the most immersive and horrifying attractions in Nebraska. The organizers encourage only the bravest souls to camp overnight.
Camp Fear (Riverwest Park 23301 West Maple Road) Opens Sept. 22. dusk-10 p.m.Thursdays and Sundays; dusk-midnight Friday and Saturdays.
Carnival of Terror (1209 Jackson St.) Opens Sept. 22. 7-10 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Haunted Hollow Haunted Theme Park (12501 Giles Road) Opens Sept. 22. 7-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 7 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Mystery Manor (716 N. 18th St.) Opens Sept. 15. September: dusk-midnight Friday and Saturday only. October: dusk-10 p.m. weekdays, and dusk-midnight weekends.
Ranch of Terror (11001 S. 48th St.) Opens Sept. 23. 7:30-11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7:30-9:30 p.m. Sundays.
Scary Acres (17272 Giles Road) Opens Sept. 15. 7 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays in September; 7-10:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays-Thursdays; and 7 p.m.-12:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in October.

Pumpkin Patches and More:

Fall isn’t complete without a visit to at least one of the area’s many pumpkin patches. They offer many attractions such as corn mazes, hayrack rides, bonfires, scrumptious treats, giant jump pillows, spooky trails, and more.
Bellevue Berry and Pumpkin Ranch (11001 S. 48th St.) Opens Sept. 17. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sundays.
Harvest Moon Farm (1410 US-77, Oakland, Nebraska) Opens Sept. 18. noon-6 p.m. Saturdays; noon-8 p.m. Sundays.
Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch (3935 NE-133, Blair, Nebraska) Opens Sept. 8. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays.
Wenninghoff’s Farm Pumpkin Patch (6707 Wenninghoff Road) Opens Sept. 23. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Vala’s Pumpkin Patch (12102 S. 180th St.) Opens Sept. 14. 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

**Event times and details may change. Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.

Food for the Heart

August 28, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marie Losole still laughs when telling what she calls “the story of our escapade,” a 1967 elopement by train to Idaho, one of two states where 18-year-olds could get married at that time without parental permission.

Fifty years after running away together, Don and Marie Losole are still running—running a restaurant together. Its name, Lo Sole Mio, is a play on words, combining their last name and the famous Italian love song “O Sole Mio.”

Like their love, the restaurant has endured. August marks 25 years for the venture that embodies their passion and lifelong dream.

The couple, who met at Central High School, both come from restaurant families and began their restaurant careers at age 14. Don was head chef at a large country club by the time he was only 21.

In 1975, the couple opened their first restaurant, Losole’s Landmark, a favorite with the downtown lunch crowd. A job opportunity briefly took the family to California a few years later, but they soon realized the West Coast was not a good fit for them.

After their return to Omaha, Don worked on the supply side of the restaurant industry while Marie began creating dishes for delivery, a side business that “pretty soon got so big that we knew we couldn’t keep doing this from home,” she says.

In 1992, the family took a leap of faith that became Lo Sole Mio. Villa Losole, an event venue, followed in 1997.

Both facilities are located near the Hanscom Park area, tucked away in a quaint neighborhood, exactly the sort of location that the Losoles were seeking—a destination. The charming ambiance is a perfect backdrop for the Italian cuisine and family atmosphere.

“We are a family supporting other families…We are very blessed to have some good employees who’ve been here a long time and some loyal customers who have become friends,” Marie says. “I like to walk around and visit with my customers and see what brings them in, just thank them for coming here…I love being a part of people’s memories.”

Lo Sole Mio has employed all six of their children over the years and now some of their older grandchildren (they have 17).

“My mother always used to say to me, ‘as you get older, time goes by faster.’  Well, my summation of that is that time doesn’t go any faster, it’s just taking us longer to do what we used to do,” Marie says.

Sure, the couple boasts some artificial joints between them, and Marie says “my feet ache a little more, my back aches a little more,” but the Losoles are proud to continue maintaining their “old-school” work ethic and hands-on management approach.

“We make sure it’s something we’d want to eat; quality is very important for us,” Marie says. “We are now at the point where we can enjoy life a little bit more without having to be here 80 hours a week or more. But this is still our first priority. We will probably be here until we pass away, I would imagine.”

In fact, she says, “My husband says to me, ‘This is what’s keeping us young.’”

Visit losolemio.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

La Famiglia di Firma

August 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Like a good book title, the names of the Firmature brothers’ bars and restaurants could almost paint a picture of what awaited customers.

At The Gas Lamp, you could savor a prime rib and listen to a live ragtime band from your marble-top table (provided you wore a suit or a nice dress during its early years of operation). A Sidewalk Cafe offered diners a chance to people-watch at Regency while they ate a crab salad. The Ticker Tape Lounge gave downtowners a brief respite from work and prominently featured an antique stock market ticker tape. And if you really had a rough day, you could always drop by Brothers Lounge, get a cocktail, and flop down on a couch or a rocking chair.

With the exception of Brothers Lounge at 38th and Farnam streets, none of these places exist anymore. When Robert Firmature turned Brothers Lounge over to current owners Trey and Lallaya Lalley in 1998, it ended nearly 70 years where the Firmature family had a major presence in the Omaha restaurant community.

In the early 1930s, Helen and Sam Firmature opened Trentino’s, an Italian restaurant, at 10th and Pacific streets (which would later become Angie’s Restaurant). The restaurateur family also consisted of Sam’s brother, Joseph, and his wife, Barbara, along with their three sons: Robert “Bob,” Jay, and Ernest “Ernie.”

Ernie cut his teeth bartending at Trentino’s and at a motor inn (The Prom Town House, which was destroyed in the 1975 tornado) before he opened The Gas Lamp in 1961. He also briefly managed a club called the 64 Club in Council Bluffs.

Located in the predominantly middle-class neighborhood of 30th and Leavenworth streets, The Gas Lamp was a destination spot for anniversaries, promotions, and proposals. Flocked wallpaper, antique lamps, and Victorian velvet furniture was the décor. Live ragtime was the music. Prime rib and duck à l’orange were the specialties. In an era where female roles in restaurants were still primarily as waitresses and hostesses, The Gas Lamp had two women with head chef-style status. Katie Gamble oversaw the kitchen. And Ernie and Betty’s son, Steve Firmature, and daughter, Jaye, were routinely corralled to help with clean-up—the cost of living in a restaurant family.

The Italian family name was originally “Firmaturi.” A popular account of the spelling change involves a bygone relative trying to make their name more “Americanized.” After researching family history, Steve suspects the name changed as a result of a documentation error—a mistaken “e” in place of the final vowel. Steve says those style of errors were common back then (due to errors in ship manifests or as depicted in a scene from the movie The Godfather: Part II).

Before she was even a teenager, Jaye Firmature McCoy was tasked with cleaning the chandeliers and booths. While cleaning, she would occasionally dig inside booths for any money that may have accidentally been left by a customer. At 10, she was promoted to hat check girl. At 14, she was the hostess. Steve did everything from bus tables to help in the kitchen.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have titles for people that cooked. Today, I think we’d call them a sous chef and a chef. We had two cooks,” Steve says with a laugh.

In the early ’60s, Ernie enforced a dress code for customers.

“When we first started, a gentleman couldn’t come in without a coat and tie. A woman couldn’t come in wearing pants [dresses only],” Jaye says.

The dress code (which eased in the late ’60s) may have been formal, but the restaurant retained a friendly atmosphere where some patrons returned weekly.

William and Martha Ellis were regulars. Speaking with Omaha Magazine over the phone from their home in Scottsdale, Arizona, they recalled going to The Gas Lamp almost every weekend. They became good friends with Ernie, to the point where all three of their children eventually worked for the Firmature brothers (mainly at A Sidewalk Cafe).

“Ernie wanted you to think he was this sort of tough Italian mobster, but he was really sort of amusing,” Martha says.

The Gas Lamp came to an abrupt end in 1980 when a fire destroyed the restaurant. It was ruled as arson, but a suspect was never caught. Instead of rebuilding, the family decided to “transfer” some of the signature dishes of The Gas Lamp to A Sidewalk Cafe. The Firmature brothers had purchased the restaurant from Willy Theisen in 1977.

Along with the three brothers, another Firmature, Jim (Helen and Sam’s son), was also a partner in owning A Sidewalk Cafe. Bob spent much of his time managing Brothers Lounge. Ernie managed A Sidewalk Cafe until he retired. Jim and Jay also helped manage the place. Jay (who is the only surviving member of the three) primarily worked in the business area. He was brought in by Ernie from Mutual of Omaha.

“He always said, ‘I should have stayed at Mutual,’” Steve says with a laugh.

Though not as formal as The Gas Lamp, A Sidewalk Cafe was still a destination spot. Located in the heart of the Regency neighborhood, the cafe aimed to pull in people who may have assumed Regency was out of their price range. Still, the cafe maintained an upper-end dining experience. DJ Dave Wingert, who now hosts a morning show on Boomer Radio, would routinely take radio guests to the Sidewalk Cafe in the ’80s. One guest was comedian and co-host of the NBC pre-reality show hit Real People—the late Skip Stephenson.

“I remember the booth we were sitting in, and telling him about being shot at Club 89,” Wingert says.

Since A Sidewalk Cafe closed its doors in the late ’90s, Omaha’s food scene has only grown in regard to available dining options and national recognition. Wingert says A Sidewalk Cafe would fit with today’s culinary landscape. Jaye agrees.

“It was probably the one [restaurant] that was the most survivable, I think,” she says.

Jaye has left the restaurant business. She is now owner and president of FirstLight Home Care, an in-home health care business. Though the industries are vastly different, Jaye says much of her experience with the restaurants has carried over to health care.

“Restaurants and bars are something that get into your blood,” she says. “It’s about the people and taking care of people.”

Find the last remnant of the Firmature family bar and restaurant empire at @brothersloungeomaha on Facebook.

From left: Ernie, Robert “Bobby”, and Jay Firmature

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

100 Years Strong

August 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Bryant-Fisher family reunion celebrates an important milestone in 2017—its 100th anniversary. The three-day reunion event will conclude with a final day of festivities in Elmwood Park.

The “Dozens of Cousins,” named for the 12 branches of the prodigious African-American family, will gather in Omaha on Sunday, Aug. 13, to eat, converse, and renew bonds of kinship while reinvigorating ties to local neighborhood roots.

The first reunion was a picnic in 1917 held at Mandan Park in South Omaha, where family roots run deep. Mandan hosted the picnic for 74 years. Its trails, gardens, and river views offered scenic backdrops. The park is also near the family’s homestead at 15th Street and Berry Avenue, and Graceland Park Cemetery (where many relatives are buried).

The picnic, which goes on rain or shine, relocated to Carter Lake in the 1990s and has since gone to various locales. It is coming to Elmwood Park for the first time this year.

Hours before the picnic, a dawn fish fry kicks things off. With bellies full of fried food, the descendants of Emma Early head for a family worship service followed by the picnic.

Always present is a star-studded menu of from-scratch American comfort and soul food staples: ribs, fried chicken, lasagna, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.

The family’s different branches provide tents under which they set up their family feasts. Monique Henry belongs to the Gray tent and says everyone waits for her first cousin Danielle Nauden’s peach cobbler to arrive on the table.

The meals may be the highlight, but the day also includes games, foot races, a dance contest, and a pie/cake baking contest, which Henry says is mainly for the teenagers. The baking contest garners between 20 and 50 entries, depending on the size of the reunion.

Competitions are an intense part of the picnic gathering.

Film-television actress Gabrielle Union, the star of hit BET drama Being Mary Jane, is a descendant who grew up with the reunions. She understands what’s at stake.

“Having a chance to compete against your cousins in front of your family is huge,” Union says. “Some top athletes are in our family, so the races are like the Olympics. Each section of the family is like a country sending their best athletes. You trained for it.”

Union vividly recalls her most memorable race: “I wore my hair in braids but tucked under a cap. I won the race, and then somebody shouted, ‘That’s a boy,” thinking this fast little dynamo couldn’t possibly have been a girl, and I whipped off my cap like, ‘I’m a girl!’”

Although the large family has expanded and dispersed across Omaha and nationwide—and descendants of Emma Early Bryant-Fisher now number in the thousands—the picnic has remained in Omaha the second Sunday of August as a perennial ties-that-bind feast.

Union returns as her schedule allows. The actress grew up in northeast Omaha, attending St. Benedict the Moor. She often visited relatives in South O, where the home of matriarch Emma (a street is named after her) remained in the family.

Union introduced NBA superstar husband Dwyane Wade to the reunion last year. “It was important for me for Dwyane to come experience it,” she says. “No one I know has a family reunion of the scale, scope, and length we have. It’s pretty incredible. It says a lot about the endurance and strength of our family. It’s a testament to the importance of family, sticking together, and the strength that comes out of a family that recognizes its rich history and celebrates it.”

A tradition of this duration is rare for African-Americans given the historic struggles that disrupted many families. Bryant-Fisher descendant Susan Prater James says, “The reason for celebrating the 100th is that we’re still able to be together after everything our ancestors went through.”

“There’s nothing I can complain about [in terms of facing] adversity [that] someone in my family has not only experienced but fought through, and not just survived but thrived,” Union says. “I come from a long line of incredibly strong, powerful, and resilient strivers, and I pull from that daily.

We recognize our uniqueness and specialness, and we never take that for granted. I think with each passing year it just gets stronger and stronger.”

The family tree gets updated with a new history book every five years. “Dozens of Cousins” social media sites keep the grapevine buzzing. The family migrated from South Omaha to North Omaha many years ago, and also once had its own North O clubhouse at 21st and Wirt streets. The Dozens of Cousins, Inc. became a 501c3 in 2016.

A century of gatherings doesn’t just happen.

“We get together all the time, and anytime we get together it’s a celebration,” says Bryant-Fisher descendant Sherri Wright-Harris. “We love on one another. Family has always been instilled as the most important thing you have in this life. This is a part of the fabric that makes us who we are.”

“We don’t know anything different,” says Henry, another Bryant-
Fisher descendant.

“That’s ingrained from the time you’re born into the legacy,” family historian Arlett Brooks says. “My mother committed to her mother, and I committed to her to carry this tradition on. This is my love, my passion. I just think it’s important to share your history, and I want our youth to know the importance of this and to treasure what we have because this is not a common thing.”

The reunion has evolved from a one-day picnic to include: a river boat cruise, skate party, memorial ride (on a trolley or bus) to visit important family sites, banquet dinner-dance, and a talent showcase. Milestone years such as this one include a Saturday parade. Headquarters for the 2017 reunion will be situated at the Old Market Embassy Suites.

The reunion’s Friday night formal banquet means new outfits and hair-dos. But renewing blood bonds is what counts. “It’s a way for young and old to reconnect with their roots and find a sense of belonging,” Prater James says.

Representing the various branches of the Bryant-Fisher family takes on added meaning over time.

“No matter how old you are, no matter how down you get, on that day everything seems to be looking better,” Marc Nichols says.

Cheryl Bowles says she “felt sick” the one reunion she skipped.

Arlett Brooks says she has never missed a reunion, and she’s not about to miss the 100th. “You only get the centennial one time,” Brooks says.

New this year will be a family history cookbook complete with recipes, stories, and photos. Catfish, spaghetti, greens, and cornbread are faves. The history cookbook is expected to be printed and ready for sale at the reunion.

Union says fun and food aside, the real attraction is “hearing the stories—the important stories, the silly stories—and learning the history before people are gone.”

Visit bryantfisherreunion.com for more information.

Monique Henry

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Home Is Where the Oven Is

July 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Nicola Shartrand decides to spend a lazy summer morning with her two young children in their home near Lake Manawa, odds favor the happy trio baking sheets of cookies before noon in their newly renovated kitchen.

When she drives deeper into Council Bluffs to the family’s bakery, often with kids in tow, she makes hand-painted macarons, tortes, breads, cookies, and dozens of cupcakes, which then fill space in the display case, ready for public consumption.

And when John Shartrand takes the family across the Missouri to their restaurant that bears Nicola’s name, they no doubt top off the meal with Nicola’s award-winning Italian lemon cream cake.

The Shartrands’ life revolves around the food created in three different kitchens. The family travels back and forth along the routes that connect the points in their life: Nicola’s Italian Wine and Fare at 13th and Jackson streets in Omaha’s historic Old Market; Stay Sweet, Nicola’s—their bakery at 805 S. Main St. in Council Bluffs; and their gracious home in hues of gray on a quiet cul-de-sac.

The restaurant represents 15 years of ambition, hard work, and faith rewarded; the bakery, which opened in December, symbolizes dreams fulfilled; the new home kitchen has its own story, one with deep meaning for the family.

“John knew I had been putting in all these hours all these years at the restaurant, and he said, ‘You’re going to wake up one day and the kids will have graduated high school, and you will have missed the whole thing,’” Nicola recounts. “He said, ‘You love baking, you’re really good at it, why don’t you practice while you’re at home? Let me run the restaurant at night.’”

And so the original home kitchen became a laboratory for perfecting and tweaking popular dishes served at Nicola’s Italian Wine and Fare, creating new dishes, and developing recipes for baked goods. Nicola experimented for six months on the lemon cake “because Martha Stewart said every restaurant should offer something lemony.” Once perfected, the light, moist, not-too-sweet lemon cake exploded on the scene. As a result, demand for all her baked goods exploded.

So did the family kitchen.

“I pretty much destroyed it from overuse,” Nicola says, laughing as she proceeds to list a litany of problems. “We went through every single major appliance. The cabinet doors fell off from constant opening and closing. The stove went out. We needed a bigger refrigerator. And it was a really cramped working space.”

For Nicola’s birthday two years ago, John announced he would build her a new kitchen. “I wear many belts,” he quips.

The couple used a computer program offered by an assemble-it-yourself home furnishings store to measure, design, and order the materials for the new kitchen. The transaction could have gone better.

“They told us our plans were too ambitious, that we were out of our league,” John says. And when it came time to lug 279 flat boxes out of the store, “they said they wouldn’t help me.”

Undeterred, John loaded a U-Haul truck by himself, drove home, and emptied every little chrome knob and handle, every shelf, drawer, door, and cabinet from the containers. It only took a month to transform the culinary space.

They painted the new cabinetry gray to match the wall coloring. The cabinetry—above and below the long kitchen counter—helps provide 50 percent more storage space than before.

A narrow floor-to-ceiling pantry pulls out shelves and drawers to hold foodstuffs categorized by cans, bottles, and paper, “so nothing gets lost inside it,” Nicola says. Two bottles of industrial-size Worcestershire sauce appear prominently in front, as does a gallon of olive oil, which she affectionately refers to as “the best stuff on earth.”

A backsplash made of off-white, 3-by-6-inch glazed subway tiles provides a simple, clean, classic look.

The couple complemented the backsplash tile by placing an off-white, solid slab of quartz on top of the kitchen island, located in the middle of the open floor plan.

Underneath, a cabinet with 20 drawers of different depths neatly holds everything from dozens of spatulas (Nicola keeps breaking them) and half-used bags of fennel seeds to large pots and pans.

A two-door stainless steel KitchenAid refrigerator shares the kitchen’s color scheme with its gray interior, and the double-oven stove “makes cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the family really easy,” Nicola says.

The doting husband’s wish for his wife, to spend more time with Stavros, 9, and Gigi, 7, has resulted in personal growth for Nicola. Her stay-at-home baking experiments proved so popular she now supplies other restaurants and coffee shops with her sweets. She also takes special orders.

The extra income enabled John and Nicola, who both grew up in Omaha, to purchase a brick-and-mortar commercial space in Council Bluffs last November, which handyman John transformed into a full-service coffee bar and bakery. With its commercial-grade mixers and appliances, Stay Sweet, Nicola’s has taken over as the primary baking site.

John now works 14-hour days. He opens the bakery to start the espresso machine and bake muffins, intersects with Nicola and the kids in the afternoon, then crosses the bridge to oversee the restaurant.

The reward for all this hard work: a happy family.

Visit nicolasintheoldmarket.com and staysweetnicolas.com for more information about Nicola Shartrand’s culinary enterprises.

From left: Stavros, Nicola, and Gigi Shartrand.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

60Plus Opener

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Who doesn’t love reading about food?

When I had a real estate company, we printed an annual cookbook with recipes from clients and salespeople. I still enjoy cooking some of the recipes.

I have to share a family favorite—it’s for turkey casserole. When my children were young, I served my family chili and oyster stew on Christmas Eve until one of my sons became ill after eating the chili.

The next year, I decided to change the menu and saw this recipe in Better Homes & Gardens. It became a popular Christmas Eve tradition at our house, as well as a favorite dish all year long.

I served the casserole alongside barbecued meatballs, green salad, croissants, and lots of Christmas goodies. My sons called to request the recipe when they left home, and we all still make and serve the dish often.

Turkey casserole

• 2 cups shredded turkey breast (I like to use canned turkey, which is more moist.)

• 2 cups diced celery

• 3/4-1 cup English walnut pieces

• 3/4 cup pimento-stuffed olives, sliced (slice whole olives—don’t buy pieces)

• 3/4 cup real mayonnaise

• 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

• 1 teaspoon salt

Mix together and spread in a greased 9-by-13 casserole dish.

Top with a mixture of 2 cups crushed potato chips and 1 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. You want the dish to be hot but the celery to stay crisp.

(You can use chicken breast if you cannot find turkey breast.)

There are many other interesting recipes in this issue—try some.I do not cook much any more, but I might try making some of these.

Enjoy!

Gwen

Gwen Lemke is the contributing editor for 60Plus In Omaha

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of 60Plus.

In Their Own Words

May 25, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

May 19-21 Weekend Picks

May 17, 2017 by

PICK OF THE WEEK—Sunday, May 21: Ladies, if whiskey and dogs are two of your favorite things, then Havana Garage is your destination this Sunday. The Nebraska chapter of Women Who Whiskey is getting together at Havana Garage to sample some hand-selected Blanton’s Bourbon Barrel they recently acquired. The best part, though? Your babies are welcome in this bar! So bring out the pups and have some lazy Sunday afternoon fun. To join the group and stay updated on the fun, go here.

Thursday, May 18 – Friday, May 19: The Big Omaha 2017 Conference started this Wednesday, but if you missed the kickoff party at Berry & Rye (1105 Howard St. in Old Market), you can still make it to the midway party across Howard Street at Laka Lona Rum Club tonight. Friday’s adventures begin with coffee from Beansmith and end with the closing party at Hotel Deco. If you don’t have a conference ticket, be sure to RSVP. For a complete list of all the happenings (and to RSVP), head here.

Saturday, May 20: The 2nd Annual Omaha Food Truck Rodeo: Part 1 is coming to Benson this Saturday and attendees will have all day to sample food from the 15-20 local trucks who stake their claim. Outdoor seating areas, bars, and beer garden will be set up and ready to satisfy your drinking/lounging needs. For the more active, there will also be a DJ spinning, so you can shake off some of the stress from the week. Should the weather get a little iffy, no worries. You can take refuge in Reverb Lounge or one of the many other favorite stops in downtown Benson. Round up your friends and head out to taste some of the best curbside fare Omaha has to offer. Find out more here.

Saturday, May 20: Harrah’s Stir Concert Cove is bringing Grammy-award-winning indie darlings The Shins to Council Bluffs. The band is promoting their fifth studio album, Heartworms, released in March of this year. Chances are, they will still play some fan favorites, like “Caring Is Creepy” and “Kissing The Lipless,” but be sure to check out their latest tunes so you can sing along, especially to the catchy “Cherry Hearts.” For ticket information, sail here.

Saturday, May 20 – Sunday, September 17: Have you ever wanted to experience the thrill of being a spy? Then you need to check out The Durham Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Top Secret: License to Spy. This interactive display will test your skills in the psychology, technology, and science of being a real-life spy. You will receive your top-secret “Spy File” when you arrive and from then on, the mystery unfolds. Night vision cameras and laser beams will be involved, but that’s all you can know for now. To get to the full story, you will have to infiltrate The Durham and bust out your sleuthing skills. But hurry! You only have until Sept. 17 to uncover the truth. To get started, head here to start uncovering your clues.

Sunday, May 21: Looking for opportunities to help out in your community? The Omaha Girls Rock Volunteer Expo can help you out with that! There will be information tables and facilitated discussions about our community. The talks start at 1 p.m. and cover social justice through music, being an ally, and creating safe spaces within the community. You can also sign up for Omaha Gives, and if you’re worried about missing lunch, there will be food provided by Amsterdam Falafel and Kabob. So no excuses! Get down to KANEKO and start making the world a better place. For more info, take a look here.