Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My Schlep Rosary

Some people lose umbrellas; I lose rosaries. Over the years I have lost some of my favorite rosary beads.  One was  turquoise and sterling silver.  My handbag had been stolen and tossed, and when it was recovered, the rosary was gone.  Another was an emerald green crystal and brass rosary with a Jesus, Mary and Joseph center.  It was very unique, and I miss it very much.  I think I left it behind in church one Sunday.  At one point, I decided I would carry in my handbag only a rosary I wouldn't mind losing. 

So, in a drawer somewhere I found a plain black beaded 6 mm rosary with stainless steel links which I called, not irreverently, my "schlep rosary" since I would take it everywhere, transferring it from one coat pocket to another with little care, leaving it here and there, or just dropping it in my handbag.  At some point, I noticed when praying the rosary that it would often open at a particular link, and each time, I would repair it on the spot, pressing the link closed with a fingernail.  Despite the annoyance of it coming apart so often, after a number of years, I grew attached to my schlep rosary, and one day I couldn't find it. It was October 17th, but I don't remember the year.  October 17th is the feast of St. Margaret Mary.  I had been a teacher at St. Vincent Ferrer School at the time, and I remember reading about the Saint of the Day to my fifth grade class the morning I noticed the rosary was missing.

In the months that followed I was to hear stories about rosary links turning gold.  My niece told me that she had a particular rosary, clear crystal and sterling silver.  She used it daily, kept it in a rosary case at home, and one day she took it out and was surprised to see that the links had turned a definite golden tone. She did not for a moment think that the actual composition of the metal had been transformed, but she was convinced that the rosary had indeed turned "gold" as a little sign from God, and I agreed.  I have heard many such stores, but I never expected to have a similar experience. But, exactly one year to the date after I had lost my rosary, not one little sign but two were to follow.

It was October 17th, the following year, and I entered St. Vincent Ferrer Church before the start of the school day. There at the entrance to the church on a table was my schlep rosary!  There was no doubt it was the one I had lost. I recognized it immediately, and it was broken in the same place where it had so often come apart. But there was one difference:  It no longer had silver-tone links, but gold.  I thought it might have been the lighting in the church that had given the links a golden hue, or maybe it was my imagination.  When I went to my classroom, I asked my students what color they thought the links were, and they all said, "gold".

I often wondered where my rosary had been, who put it on the table that day, and what caused the links to change color. Perhaps an environment of high humidity had caused the links to oxidize giving the metal its golden appearance.  I am sure there is a scientific explanation, but the little sign from God still remains.

Unfortunately, I have since lost my schlep rosary. It's been a number of years now, and I don't expect to find it.  But every year on October 17th, on the feast of St. Margaret Mary, I can't help but wonder if the familiar broken rosary will coincidentally cross my path.

Joan Virzera

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Bookmark in the Bible

"There's a Star Shining Bright" was a new Christmas song in 1988.  A friend whom I had met while doing volunteer work had written the song, and my brother produced and recorded it in his studio. (See Living is Giving post, December 2010.) The singer and I were also to become good friends.  At that time 45 rpm records were being replaced by audio cassettes, and so the song was released in both media.  The reverse side of the recording was a production of the Infancy Narratives of St. Luke over an instrumentation of the Christmas song . It had been an exciting time, having developed two new friendships, and I wanted to help popularize this very special Christmas song.  It seemed that almost everyone that heard it had been moved by it and wanted a copy. I had taken a supply of cassettes along with a portable player to various schools and churches in my neighborhood, and within a few weeks, I had sold nearly fifty tapes, many of them to be Christmas gifts.

I had an appointment with a dentist on Long Island.  He was my brother's dentist and although I lived in Brooklyn, I would visit my brother often enough to see a dentist in his town.  The dentist had his office in his own home, and his waiting room looked like a furnished den with bookcases all around.  As I sat there this particular day, I was thinking about the Christmas song and wondered which version of the bible had been used for the narration.  If there were a bible on one of the bookshelves,  I could look it up, I thought.  I glanced up at the bookcase in front of me and on the shelf that first caught my eye, I saw a bible.  I took it in my hand and as I was about to flip through the pages, I noticed it opened easily to a particular page because there had been a bookmark in it.  The bookmarked page was Luke: 2,  the Infancy Narratives.  It had been the only bookmark in the bible, and it directed me right to the passage I had been seeking.

I suppose it isn't unusual to find a bible on a bookshelf, even though it was in a dentist's waiting room, and, perhaps, a bookmark at a particular chapter could be explained by the fact that it is a popular passage.  But I believe little signs from God are like that:  co-incidents with a message.

St. Luke:  Chapter 2
 8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
 15And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
 17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
 18And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
 19But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
 21And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Joan Virzera

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Angel Gabriel's Lesson

Periodically the school principal would observe each teacher presenting a lesson in a given subject. I had been teaching at St. Vincent Ferrer School for a number of years, and I had been thinking about the lesson I would prepare for my formal evaluation. I was scheduled to be observed that year teaching Religion to my fifth grade class.  The date of my observation would be Wednesday, March 24, 1993.  

Sunday morning, prior to that date, I had it in my mind to prepare a lesson about St. Gabriel the Archangel, since March 24th was his traditional feast day. Then, I had second thoughts when I considered that his feast day had been transferred to September 29th and shared with Sts. Michael and Raphael the Archangels. I wondered whether or not I should go ahead with my plan anyway. 

I rarely would turn on the television on a Sunday morning, but that day I sat with a cup of coffee and the remote control and began to change the channels on the TV looking for something to watch for a few minutes before getting ready for Mass. At that time, we had only the local channels, 2, 4, 5, 7,9, 11 and 13.  No cable or satellite. I clicked on a news show, and my mind wandered to whether or not to do a lesson on St. Gabriel when I heard the host of the show ending the program and wishing viewers a great week.  Before signing off he said, "And remember that tomorrow is the Feast of St. Gabriel, the patron saint of television."  I could hardly believe what I heard!  This was not a religious broadcast, but a secular news program, reminding viewers of the Feast of St. Gabriel, and in the traditional calendar, no less!   

Regina, a first grade teacher, had been kind enough to pick me up in the morning so that we could drive together to school. As we rode in the car, I mentioned that I was being evaluated that day and that my lesson was about St. Gabriel. I went on to tell her about the amazing little coincidence I had taken as a sign to proceed with the lesson on St. Gabriel.  Regina was skeptical. "Well that's very nice," she said.  "If it helps you to think of that as a sign, that's fine."  Not the response I expected.  But, before classes were to start that day, Regina was to be surprised.

We had arrived early enough to sit a while in the teacher's room in the Primary building before the start of the school day.  I said that I wondered it there were a bible around.  Perhaps, if there were time, I could read an appropriate scripture passage to the class.  There happened to be a bible on the table, and Regina picked it up and was flipping through it to help me find a reference to St. Gabriel.  I had been looking over her shoulder, and when she came to a passage in the bible that mentioned Gabriel by name, she said, "Here it is!, Gabriel."  At that very moment, we heard a voice from the end of the hall calling "Gaaa-bree-el".  I'll never forget Regina's reaction.  "Mother of God!" she said.  The voice belonged to the secretary, Lillian. Gabriel was a  three-year old pre-schooler in the before-school program. He had been wandering down the hall, and the secretary was calling him to come back.

The lesson went very well, and in the weeks that followed, I took pleasure in noticing many unexpected references to the Angel Gabriel such as hearing Schubert's Ave Maria  in unusual places such as in restaurants and in a train station. (Ave Maria is Hail Mary in Latin, the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary) But, the most uncanny coincidence was to take place a short time later when taking my class on class trip to a television studio in Manhattan.

It was to see the filming of a children's show, and the trip had been arranged by some of the other teachers. My class had been invited to come. The show consisted of various short supposedly comedic skits introduced by an emcee, but no one seemed to be laughing expect the people in the show.  I felt an uneasiness in the studio as if there were something unwholesome about the place.  Perhaps it was some dank aspect to the building, the slang language that was used, or the overly casual demeanor of the cast that made me uncomfortable, and I hoped there would be nothing to come that would be a bad example to the children.  As I sat in the darkened theatre, I felt the impulse to pray a Hail Mary. Suddenly, a small boy, about six years old, dressed in what looked like a white gown walked across the stage. As the spotlight followed him, he looked like a little angel in the light. He had been wearing what resembled a lab coat that reached the floor and which may have had some connection to a particular sketch.  I think it was to appear that he had wandered onto the stage, although his appearance was a planned part of the show. The emcee said, "I'd like to introduce you to my son. His name is Gabriel."  

With those words, I no longer was uneasy.  I felt that Angel Gabriel was letting me know that he was protecting us.

Joan Virzera

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Calvary in the Parking Lot

My Uncle Armand passed away on August 15, 1991, the Feast of the Assumption.  I have wonderful childhood memories of  times spent together, especially Christmas Eve parties at his home where we could hardly wait for Santa Claus to come. My father would play the guitar and sing Italian songs accompanied by my Uncle Armand who played the mandolin along with their brothers who played various instruments. I never realized that when Santa came, there would be one less musician in the room.  The parties would end after midnight, and my private tradition when we arrived back home would  be to put on my pajamas, and go quietly into the living room to watch A Christmas Carol, the original black and white movie with Alistair Sim  as Scrooge on our big 25 inch console television.

My uncle and his wife lived only a few blocks away from us in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn,  and I was always happy when they visited us or when we would visit them, and often I would enjoy spending time with their children, my first cousins. My uncle would search his pocket change and give me the quarters that he found, and I would look forward to spending them on pizza, comic books, penny candy, devil dogs, maybe a new Spalding ball. My aunt and uncle would sometimes meet us to "go for the paper" which meant buying the first edition of the Daily News when it arrived on the newsstands sometime after 9 PM,  and,  since we were out why not  "go for coffee".  Going for coffee evolved into having huge desserts at Garfield's cafeteria or having a plateful of those little square hamburgers at the White Castle.  I would usually order a hot chocolate with whipped cream and a cinnamon bun and the young lady behind the counter playfully greeted  me as  "Cinnamon Bun" when we walked through the door.  So many details of these happy times came to my mind.  My uncle always called me, "Joanie"

I  had attended a Traditional Mass that day.  At that time there were few so-called "Indult" Masses "approved" by Pope John Paul II.  I was glad for this opportunity, and in my state of grief  I especially appreciated its solemnity.  The priest friend of mine who celebrated the Latin Mass said that it was a blessing that my uncle had passed away on the day of a beautiful feast of Our Lady.  I prayed for my uncle during Mass and tried to comfort myself in the blessing of his passing on the Feast of the Assumption.

My brother and his wife had a favorite place to eat in our Brooklyn neighborhood, the Aegean Isles Restaurant, and we had gone there for dinner. It was a quiet restaurant with no loud music so we could talk.  I am sure we spoke of my uncle at dinner, but what we were to experience leaving the restaurant was so extraordinary that it is all that I can remember of that evening.

We must have stayed in the restaurant for a long time because when we left the sun had already set and it was dark  We started toward my brother's car which had been parked in the restaurant's small parking lot.  As we walked, my brother said that it would be nice if God gave us a sign about our uncle, something to let us know that he is at peace. I said that Fr. Karl said that  it was a good sign that the died on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.  He said, "I know, but that's not enough.  You want more."  

We were now close to the car. "Signs are all around," I said.   I turned around and with a gesture of my hand said, "You just have to look for them."  There on the cement wall, where I had gestured was the shadow of a hill with a cross and two smaller hills, one on each side in perfect symmetry. It was Calvary in silhouette.  I remember my brother saying, "Wow!  Look at that!"  We had to find out what had caused the image, and so tracing back, somewhere in the distance behind us, we saw a trash container with various pieces of wood in it and other debris around it.  Somehow, the reflected light of the moon and/or streetlights had turned what was worthless into a sacred scene. 

"More" signs:  My uncle had been in Calvary hospice, and he was buried in Holy Rood Cemetery.   

The definition of Holy Rood:  
Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) (often capital) the cross on which Christ was crucified

I believe this sign was meant especially for my brother who never took my little signs too seriously.  I had heard him tell of our experience that night many times  over the years with the reverence of one speaking of a small miracle, and I believe it was to even further strengthen his faith and devotion to Christ crucified.  My brother was to become very ill, and showed amazing courage and joy in his final days.  I believe it was significant that he passed away on Good Friday.

Joan Virzera

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

High Hopes

The song, High Hopes, was in my mind because I had put a You Tube clip of Frank Sinatra and a group of children singing it on my tutoring website (www.tutorfromlindenhurst.com).

After shoveling snow this morning I was making some hot tea and toast.  I was thinking with some concern about certain bills that would be coming due.  Then my mind shifted to the song, High Hopes, and I was thinking that the lyrics are really unusual.  It's such an uplifting song, and I found myself singing it in my head while waiting for the water to boil for tea and the toast to be done.   Just as I came to the line, 

"All problems just a toy balloon,.  They'll be bursted soon.  They're just bound to go POP" and at the exact moment that I said, "pop", the toast popped out of the toaster.  

I think that was a little sign of encouragement.  
Scroll down to play the song.

Writer(s): Cahn/Van Heusen

Next time you're found, with your chin on the ground
There a lot to be learned, so look around

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he'll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can't
Move a rubber tree plant

But he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes
He's got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time you're gettin' low
'stead of lettin' go
Just remember that ant
Oops there goes another rubber tree plant

When troubles call, and your back's to the wall
There a lot to be learned, that wall could fall

Once there was a silly old ram
Thought he'd punch a hole in a dam
No one could make that ram, scram
He kept buttin' that dam

but he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes
He's got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time you're feelin' bad
'stead of feelin' sad
Just remember that ram
Oops there goes a billion kilowatt dam

All problems just a toy balloon
They'll be bursted soon
They're just bound to go pop

Oops there goes another problem kerplop
Oops, there goes another problem kerplop
Oops, there goes another problem kerplop

Joan Virzera

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In the Market for Teaching

When I learned I had passed the Series 7 test, I was thrilled. I studied hard, and I was now a stockbroker. While I had great hopes for the future, I was advised that it would take some time to develop a clientele, and so it might be a good idea to take a small part-time job in the meantime as a source of income. I lived in Brooklyn at the time, and I pondered what type of little job would be suitable, but not be too taxing, so that I would have the energy to focus on my career as an Account Executive.

The thought occurred to me that perhaps I could teach one of the lower grades at Little Flower School, the school I had attended as a child. It was walking distance from my home, and teaching little children until 3:00 PM seemed light enough, and I would have the rest of the day to devote to the brokerage business. I love children, and I thought it would be fun, a pleasant little job. Obviously anyone who describes teaching as "light" or a" little job" has never been a teacher.

It was February, the middle of a school year when teachers are not likely to be hired, and I had an administrative rather than teaching background. Yet, in my naivete I was optimistic that the school just might happen to be in need of a teacher. I phoned the school and spoke with the secretary. "I was wondering if you have any teaching positions," I said. She asked if I had seen the advertisement in The Tablet, the diocesan newspaper, for a second-grade teacher. When I said that I hadn't, she commented that it certainly was a coincidence that I had called at just the right time! I was asked to come in for an interview with the principal the next day and was instructed to wait for her in the schoolyard at a particular time.

I had passed the schoolyard many times over the years, but having stepped inside, I felt a certain reverence to be in a place reserved for teachers and students. The children were playing as children do. Some of the little ones walked toward me, and I spoke with them. They wanted to know if I was going to be a new teacher. They were adorable. After a short while, and before the bell rang, Sister Paulette approached me and introduced herself as the principal of the school. She was an attractive, youthful nun, elegantly dressed, though not wearing the traditional habit that the Sisters of Mercy wore when I had attended the school. She asked me to come with her to the principal's office. When I was a child those words would have been chilling, but now they held promise.

As she led me up the stairs and through the hallway of the school, I felt a comfortable familiarity. The building was well kept, and smelled pleasantly like a school, probably from new books and notebooks, chalk, pencils and crayons. We sat in her office and she described the position. It was for a second-grade class that "had been though a great deal" this year, two of their teachers having left the school for reasons I never asked. She explained that losing two teachers can be traumatic to children and negatively affect their behavior and performance. Sister Pat, the assistant principal, had taken the class until a permanent teacher could be found. Sister Paulette had read my resume, and I answered all of her questions, apparently to her satisfaction. She was particularly interested in why a stockbroker and someone with my administrative background would be seeking a position as a Catholic school teacher. I said that I wanted to supplement my income while building my business. When I said that the brief hours would leave me time to do my other work, she smiled and said that, "You will be very tired when you get home and need to rest." She also mentioned that the first year I would probably catch lots of colds or whatever the children caught until I developed immunity.

I was taken to see the second grade. I was struck by the size of the desks and seats, how little they were and how I towered in height over the children who stood as directed by Sister Pat, to say, "good morning" to me. I thought it was a charming environment, and what could be nicer than to spend time with children.

Sister Paulette said that she had observed me interact with the children in the schoolyard and was confident that I had the potential to be a good teacher. Until then, I would be learning the ropes and observing Sister Pat teach the class. I was asked to come in and observe for some time before making a final decision. 

Providentially, I was to be offered and  take the position that was open the day I happened to call, and thanks to Sister Pat's dedication and patience, over time I became confident enough to be left on my own in the classroom. It felt wonderful. I wanted to stay.

Sister Paulette was correct on all counts. Teaching was exhausting, especially in the beginning, and I would go home and fall asleep. It took a while to learn how to control a class of children who "had been through a great deal". Despite lots of Vitamin C, I can't remember a time when I did not have some type of cold that year. But most important, I was becoming a good teacher.

I retained my broker's license for several years, but I would never be a happy stockbroker.  I always missed teaching and working with children. Despite the inadequate salary,  I believe it was what God had called me to do, and I pursued a teaching career.

I have never missed the business world, and a dozen years later, teaching would still be the most rewarding experience of my life.

Joan Virzera

Friday, January 7, 2011


About twenty years ago, I had been speaking with a friend on the telephone. At some point in the conversation, he asked me what time it was. It had been 11:11 PM. We had been having a positive conversation about religion, and when I told him the time, he commented, offhandedly, that these vertical numbers, the ones, can be symbolic of our relationship with God. Since that conversation, so long ago, I have noticed the number 1111 or have happened to catch 11:11 on a digital clock, at coincidental times.

I did a Google search on this so-called phenomenon of the "elevens" and there are all sorts of speculations, some rather outlandish, as to why many people find meaning in seeing this number. Perhaps, it may be that once significance is attached to a particular thing, a number in this case, one is more likely to notice it. Yet, for me, 1111 has become a comforting little sign.

Throughout the years, since that telephone conversation, 1111 has served as a sacramental to me, a holy reminder, to say a little prayer when I happened to see the number. I had also noticed that I would see the number, 1111 or notice the time, 11:11, after I had done something good, such as an unselfish act to help someone.  I saw it as a confirmation that I had done the right thing and that God was communicating to me that He was pleased. 

One summer day, a few years ago, I had been walking along Main Street in my town. I was thinking about my teaching career. I loved my profession and put my heart and soul into teaching children. One becomes a stockbroker, not a Catholic School teacher, to make money, and I would often remind myself that God's plan for me was to give up my stockbroker's license and to follow a teaching career. (I will post separately to the blog just how this came about.)

As I strolled through town, I reminisced about how rewarding it had been and how happy it would make me feel when my class was complimented on  their performance, when they won awards, when they sang beautifully at Masses the songs I had taught them.

All of a sudden, a dark thought came to my mind that my career choice not only involved a financial sacrifice, but there was little merit in it because all my hard work had been motivated by pride in excelling as a teacher, I asked God,to give me a sign that this intrusive thought was not true. Within seconds, I saw in large, black bold numbers, 1111, on a yellow taxi that had stopped right in front of me. They were the last four digits of the phone number of the L.I. Yellow taxi service. I remember reading that the yellow and black combination of colors were the most eye-catching when used in combination. 

I found this on Google:

In 1907, car salesman John Hertz looked at his surplus of traded-in cars and decided to start a taxicab business. Since taxis need to stand out in a sea of cars, Hertz reportedly commissioned a study to determine which color was easiest to spot at a distance. The answer was yellow.

I believe that God did not want me to entertain my disheartening thought for very long, and He made sure I got the message loud and clear!  And I have never again doubted the purity of my intentions as a teacher.

Joan Virzera