Friday, December 31, 2010

Speaking of Languages

My grandmother spoke in broken Italian.  When I was a little girl and would visit with her, she would say, "Nice-a to see you.  Come-a in-a-side-a."  I thought she was speaking Italian, and so when I spoke with her, I spoke what I thought was Italian, too.  "Ok'a," I would say.  If she asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink, I might say, "You have any orange juice-a?"  I was ten years old when she passed away, and I never knew what she thought of my innocent, but artless, attempts to speak her language. 

I did a little better with my introduction to French in the fourth grade.  The nun who was my teacher taught the class to say the sign of the cross in French.  We began and ended our morning prayers this way every day, and after pledging to the flag, she would have us respond to "Bonjour mes enfants" ("Good morning my children.")  with "Bonjour ma soeur" ("Good morning my sister.)  She then would mumble a word or phrase that I assumed meant, "sit down" or "take your seats" since we all sat after she said this.  It sounded like, "bes-ette-et".  Over the years, if the subject of foreign languages, and French in particular, came up, I would mention that I only knew how to say these few things that the nun had taught us.  One day I was having a conversation with someone who spoke French, and pleased that I could remember after all those years, said all that I knew in French. My friend said that she never heard of the word I used for "sit down". She said that "be seated" would be "ĂȘtre placĂ©"  I then realized that "bes-ette-et" wasn't French at all.  It was English, and she was saying "be seated" with a flair.

The next language I attempted was Spanish.  I selected it as my language requirement in high school.  I didn't find it easy as do some people like my friend Christopher who speaks five languages, but with hard work, I did fine.  When I attended Brooklyn College, I again elected to take Spanish for a trimester. I had forgotten most of my high school Spanish, but I thought it might come back to me.  One evening, I wrote a humorous poem in Spanish, as a lark, and showed it to my teacher. He actually liked it, and I know he found it amusing because he chuckled as he read it. He said that coincidentally he was going to announce a Spanish writing contest, and that it was very timely that I had submitted my poem. 

To my surprise, the poem I had written, "El Premir Poema in Espanol" won a prize and was published in a journal called "Luces".  The instructor had polished it up, correcting the grammar before submitting it, so I must say the final copy was much better than I could have done on my own.

I had been invited to a reception where I would be presented an award by a distinguished professor from Spain.  My Spanish teacher introduced me to him prior to the ceremony.   Assuming, I suppose, that a prize-winner in a Spanish writing contest should be able to carry on a conversation in that language, he spoke with me, and I could see that he was asking me questions. I had no idea what he was saying.  At times he would smile broadly, and I found myself, nodding, smiling and saying, "Si" to avoid embarrassment.  


While writing this article, I had second thoughts about posting it to the blog. The anecdotes were humorous, I thought, but was it really a noteworthy coincidence that I had written that Spanish poem at an opportune time?  I hadn't yet written an ending to the entry, when I decided to just send it to my email and file it away.  As soon as I signed on to AOL  right on the front page there was a picture and large caption, “ Reasons to Learn Another Language.”  I guess that is coincidental enough to convince me to post this account. if we look for and are receptive to them, little signs abound.

Joan Virzera

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Timing: Life's Little Ironies (A Poem)

You take your umbrella each day
But the very one day you refrain
Surely you’ll hear pitter patter
‘Cause that’s the one day it will rain.

The phone has been dead as a stone,
Not one single ding-ding-a-ling
The moment that you’re indisposed,
That’s when the phone’s sure to ring.

That thig-a-ma-jig in the drawer,
You’ve had it since heaven knows when,
As soon as you throw the what’s-it away
That’s when you need it again!

You’re watching the clock tick, tick tock,
It’s quiet with nothing to do
You leave for a five-minute break,
That’s when the boss looks for you.

The wherefores of life’s little ironies
The good Lord only knows.
I suspect they’re a kind of coincidence
To keep us all on our toes.

Joan Virzera

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Little Saint that I Know

Fritz's brother, Philippe

It was the start of a new school year at Little Flower, my second year teaching second grade.  The year was 1986, and I had the second grade once again.  Philippe Francois was in my class; last year I had his younger brother, Fritz.  Early in September the previous year, little Fritz had collapsed during a fire drill and tragically passed away. 

Philippe reminded me of Fritz, and I couldn't imagine how  it must have been for Philippe to have lost his little brother.  I remember one day putting on the blackboard the five new spelling and vocabulary words from the day's story in our readers.  One of the words was "alive", and I asked if anyone could use the word in a sentence.  Philippe raised his hand and said, "My brother is alive."  My heart went out to him, and  I said something like, "Yes, your brother is alive in heaven." 

When Fritz was in my class, he handed me a sheet of loose leaf paper.  He had written,  "I love God.  Why?  Because He loves me."  I remember showing his paper to other teachers, boasting of the little theologian I had in my class.

The morning of the school-wide Mass at the beginning of the school year, as I was leading the children into the pews, Fritz asked if he could sit next to me.  Fritz  was an adorable child, about seven years old, and of Haitian heritage.  He had a smile that could light up the room and chubby cherub-like cheeks.  It was hard for me to say "no" to his request and to tell him to take his place on line.  So I said, "OK, Fritz" and let him sit next to me.  I believe it was immediately following the Liturgy that the priest led the congregation in praying the Hail Mary. I had to chuckle when rather than saying, "The Lord is with Thee,"  Fritz said enthusiastically, and with emphasis, "The Lord is with ME!"  

Philippe was right, his brother Fritz is alive and very much with the Lord as he said that day long ago in his own version of the Hail Mary.  

I am sure that all teachers hope to make a difference in the life of a child and, they may sometimes wonder if any of their former students remember them.  In the case of Fritz,  he may have made more of a difference in my life than I in his. I won't forget him, and I am sure he remembers me.

Joan Virzera

I would call this a continuing coincidence:  When I wrote this account, I didn't think I would ever have contact again with Philippe Francois, but coincidentally, I did.  There are literally hundreds  by the name of Philippe Francois on Facebook, so I lost hope of finding him by searching his name.  I happened to see "Philippe Francois"  on a friend list of a former student I had taught in a different school. I didn't have much hope that this was the Philippe that I knew, but  I sent him a message anyway, and he was the one!  Philippe gave me permission to post his baby picture (which he has as his profile photo).  Anyone reading this, please say a prayer for Philippe. He has been through terrible trials.  I'm sure he would appreciate it.

Did you know this about Christopher Columbus?

Did you know that Columbus always saw Divine Providence as his daily guide, and, to him, coincidences became messages from God?

Did you know that Christopher Columbus was a devout Catholic who believed that God guided him to make his voyage?

Did you know that Christopher means “Christ-bearer” and Columbus means “male dove” (The symbol of the Holy Spirit), and that Columbus was convinced that his name predestined him to be a bearer of Christ to the world like his patron saint?

Did you know that his son, Ferdinand, noted that his father was extremely strict in religious matters and so devout that Columbus could be mistaken for a member of a religious order?

Did you know  that Christopher Columbus made a retreat before he sailed for the New World and that he sailed under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe of Spain?  

Did you know that it was the custom of Spanish sailors to sing the Salve Regina, a hymn in honor of the Blessed Mother, every night at about 7:00 P.M. after reciting their prayers together?

Did you know that Columbus usually prayed in his cabin, but on the night of October 11, 1492, the Admiral decided to sing the Salve Regina with his crew, and at 2:00 A.M. that very morning of October 12, land was discovered in the Bahamas?

Did you know that later that morning Columbus went on shore and claimed the land he had found for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and named the small island San Salvador (which means “Holy Savior”) in honor of the Savior of the World?

Did you know that the full name of Columbus’s ship was the Santa Maria de la Imaculada Concepcion (Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception) and that the Americas were placed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception?

Did you know that on Christmas Day, 1492, Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, had sunk on a sandbar off Santa Domingo (which means “Holy Lord”), and from the very timbers of the Santa Maria the sailors built the first settlement in the New World known as La Navidad (Spanish for “Christmas”)?

Did you know that on May 21, 1506, Columbus uttered his last words which echoed Christ’s on the cross:  “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”?  

The very next day was Ascension Thursday, when all the church bells throughout Europe sang joyfully Christ’s Ascension into heaven.  (Surely Columbus would have thought this another “coincidence” planned by God!)  

Joan Virzera

Feeling Forlawn

As Spring began this year, my thoughts went to, "What am I going to do about my lawn!"  I almost resigned myself to believing that I fought the lawn and the lawn won, but I couldn't give up.  I went online, headed for Amazon, to buy a rake or thatch, when in popped an email for a backyard makeover contest.  Could it have been providential that I would receive this email, enter the contest, and win?  No more weed worries?  Last I checked, there were over 15,000 entries, so I figure I had made the right decision to buy the rake anyway.  

My entry:

Lived most my life in Brooklyn
On a concrete city block.
I'm now a Long Island lady
With severe suburban shock!
I concede the wisdom of the phrase
"You reap what you have sown"
Yet I haven't sown a single seed
And reap every weed that's known.
I was just online this morning
to find a rake or thatch.
I wish I could remove my lawn
And start anew from scratch
When in popped an email
Which gave me hope and more!
A lawn that looked almost like mine!
Till I saw the word "Before".
My backyard's much worse than the front;
The only saving grace
Is that it is more private
So less of a disgrace.
I read about your contest:
An outdoor dream come true!
I've never won the lottery,
May have better luck with you.
So here's my humble entry,
Just one of lots no doubt
I leave you now.  I'm busy.
Got more weeds to pull out!

Joan Virzera

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mrs. Walsh

It was about 8 Am that morning.  As was my routine, I had attended the 7 AM Mass and was in the schoolyard waiting for the students to arrive. The children seemed happy, and as usual, some of them were playing and running.  The teacher on yard duty could be heard telling students to take the gum out of their mouths or to stop running.  I would often thank God that we as teachers in this Catholic school had only to deal with such minor offenses.  One of the male teachers who taught the sixth grade had recently told me that he came from a public school where some of the students would try to trip him on the stairs, a few would throw books at him when he turned to write on the blackboard, and that some even were caught carrying weapons to class. 

The school principal was walking toward me that morning, and the expression on his face was serious.  He looked that way once when he was to inform me that one of my students had been accused by the parent of a second grader of stealing the younger boy's Game Boy from his book bag.  But what happened this time was different and could have been a tragedy.  He said that yesterday afternoon a group of boys in my class were playing ball in the schoolyard.  An elderly parishioner, Mrs. Walsh, had been walking through the schoolyard to go into church when the boys, apparently focused on their game and not seeing her, knocked her to the ground.  She was in the hospital undergoing surgery for a fractured hip. I knew this was an accident, and the boys didn't mean to hurt her, but I also knew the seriousness of a hip fracture in the frail and elderly, and I felt terrible.  

We started the day with routine morning prayers, and I asked that we pray for a special intention for an elderly lady from the parish who needed to have an operation because she had fallen and broken her hip. When they were seated, I asked them, and the boys involved told me what happened.  I said that Mrs. Walsh would not have fallen in the schoolyard if they had not been there playing ball.  They had been told that they were not to play in the school yard after school.  I was disappointed that they did not seem at all remorseful.  One even said in an offhand manner,  "It was only an accident."  "Yeah," said another.  I proceeded to tell them the implications of a broken hip, and quite frankly, that as a result the woman they had caused to fall could even die.  "This elderly woman could have been your grandmother," I said.  Gradually, I saw they were starting to understand, and a few of the boys even began to cry.  They said they were sorry and that they hoped she would be OK.  I asked them what they thought we could do now to help Mrs. Walsh.  "Pray for her."  "Buy her flowers."  "We can make her Get Well cards."  I said we would do all three things.

We spent the entire Religion period making Get Well cards for Mrs. Walsh.  The children took out their art boxes and I passed out colorful construction paper for them to make the nicest possible cards for her.  They took out markers, crayons, scissors, scotch tape, and paste, and also special materials such as, ribbons, glitter glue, stickers, foil stars in various colors, ink stamps of Disney characters and little animals, and holy cards. One of the girls shared white paper doilies with other girls, and someone passed around a hole puncher that would make heart and star-shaped holes in their one-of-a-kind Get Well cards.  I saw one boy attach to his card his own brown scapular that he had worn around his neck under his shirt.  (The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel consists of two small rectangular pieces of brown woolen cloth attached by a cord to be worn around the neck.  On the cloth is an image of Our Lady holding the Baby Jesus, and under the image, a promise of Our Lady to those who wear the Brown Scapular piously:  "Whoever dies wearing this (brown) scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.  Mary's promise.")  Some of the children were writing notes on loose-leaf paper and pasting them into their cards.  There were lots of red and pink cut-out hearts with arrows going through them and declarations of love.  Usually during an art period, the children were animated and cheerful.  This time, they were very quiet, seriously going about their work of doing something good for Mrs. Walsh.

I wish I had made copies of the children's cards before sending them on to Mrs. Walsh at the hospital.  But I do remember two of them distinctly. Joel, the boy with the scapular, had written:  "I hope you don't die, but in case you do, put this on so at least you won't go to hell."  Roy put this note on his card:  "Adam and Eve didn't listen to their leader and they fell.  We didn't listen to our teacher, and you fell.  I hope you get well."   

Mrs. Walsh did get well.  In fact, a priest from St. Vincent Ferrer, Fr. O'Connell, was kind enough to take me to her home to pay her a visit when she was recuperating.  She was soft-spoken and frail.  She thanked our class for the prayers and flowers, and the "wonderful cards".  We sat in her living room and spoke a while, when I noticed an old black and white photograph in a small frame on one of the end tables.  It was a little boy, maybe ten years old, about the age of my students, but apparently it had been taken a long time ago.  The boy looked familiar, and the picture seemed as if it could have come from one of my own family albums as it had the look of old photographs my parents had taken of me and my brothers in the late fifties and early sixties.  My attention kept being drawn to that picture. Mrs. Walsh must have seen me looking at it, and she said, "That's my nephew when he was a boy," and said his name.  Upon hearing it, I immediately recognized the name.  We had been classmates from first through eighth grade at Little Flower School.  "He was in my class at Little Flower when I was little," I said.  Mrs. Walsh said, "What a coincidence."

Some years passed, and we had a new school principal.  One morning she came to the door of my classroom with a small black book in her hand.  It was a St. Joseph Daily missal.  She said that an elderly woman from the parish had passed away, and the book belonged to her. It had been left among some other effects in her office to distribute to anyone who might want them.  She said, "I couldn't think of anyone but you who would want this old book."  I attended the Traditional Latin Mass in Brooklyn where I used one just like it and appreciated having another since original pre-Vatican II missals were hard to find. I opened the book, and inside, Mrs. Walsh had written her name.  I did not know that she had passed away and was learning it for the first time.  I didn't tell the principal what I knew about Mrs. Walsh, the accident years back in the schoolyard, and her nephew having been in my class, but simply thanked her for the book.  Perhaps, one day, she may come across my blog and read about it.  Wouldn't that be a coincidence?

Joan Virzera

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Child in White

I had a dental appointment that day, years back when I lived in Brooklyn, at the office of a small dental group at the corner of Avenue D, about a block from Little Flower church and school.  I was getting ready to go, putting on my watch and rings, when a strange impulse came over me, somewhat like a temptation, to remove my crucifix pendant or hide it under my blouse. It was an intrusive thought, an irrational one, that I should not draw attention to my faith, especially since the dentists were non-Christian.  I considered taking it off, but feeling somewhat abashed by what had gone through my mind, I decided to keep the cross on my neck in plain view. 

When I arrived at the dental office, I noticed there were some people ahead of me in the waiting room, and in the fifteen or so minutes I had been there, a few others arrived.  I had been going through the magazines that were on the table, looking for something interesting to read.  Whenever I would go to the dentist as an adult, it was nostalgic for me to look for an issue of Highlights for Children, since, as a child, it had been my favorite magazine, and it seemed to be available only at dentists' offices. What I liked best was Goofus and Galant, a cartoon contrasting two little boys, one who did not behave properly and the other who made the better choice.  It was nice to see that the magazine was still in publication and that the Goofus and Galant cartoon was there to inspire new generations of children.

I would glance up each time I heard someone come through the door, and then I would go back to reading, I hadn't heard or seen anyone else come in, but I suddenly sensed that someone was there. Standing before me was a beautiful little black girl, about six or seven years old.  In contrast to the sea of blue jeans I saw around me, she was wearing a wedding-white dress which fell below her knees but not quite to the floor, and she looked like an angel. She spoke to me and said only these words:  "Jesus loves you."  I said, "Yes, and He loves you, too."  I immediately made the connection between my earlier quandary about whether or not to wear my cross and this surprise encounter. I thought that if her mother were there, I wanted to exclaim what a beautiful little girl she has and tell her what she had said to me!  I looked around the room, but saw only the same people who had been there before, and I wondered how it could be that this little child was unaccompanied by an adult, and why she was dressed this way to go to the dentist.  

Ever since I was a little girl I have loved holy cards, and today I have a treasured collection of both laminated and beautiful vintage die-cut and embossed holy cards.  Some were given to me by the Mercy nuns who taught me when I was attending Little Flower School.  I, in turn, passed on the tradition when I became a teacher and gave holy cards to my students as little rewards or when they made donations to the help support the missions.

I carried a particular holy card in my wallet.  It was a three-dimensional card of the Face of Jesus, and when tilted slightly it became the Face of the Holy Shroud.  One year I had bought these holy cards as little gifts for my class. Being accustomed to giving holy cards to children, I thought I would give one to this extraordinary little girl who spoke of Jesus, but I wasn't sure if I still had one or if I had given the last one away. Searching through my handbag, I was happy that I readily found the card in my wallet, but when I looked up to give it to her, she had disappeared. Where could she have gone within less than half a minute?  I even looked outside, but I didn't see her. 

Who this angelic little girl?  Did she see me reading Highlights for Children, and is that why she approached me?  How is it that she seemed to mysteriously appear and disappear?  I do not know, but when I wear a cross on my neck, never since have I been tempted to remove it for any reason.

"So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven."  (Matthew 10:32)

Joan Virzera

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Good Name for an Angel

"Do you have a name for your guardian angel?" a friend of mine asked me.

It was about fifteen years ago. I was living in Brooklyn and visiting my uncle who lived upstairs in the same house. I had taken my cordless phone with me that evening so as not to miss any calls.  My uncle was in the living room, and when my phone rang, I went to what he called, "the spare room" to take the call.  It was a cozy space which was equipped with a comfortable chair with a lamp next  to it, a traditional mahogany desk, a curio cabinet with various antique pieces, and an old console style television that didn't work but which he kept "as furniture". 

"Mine is Amateus," my friend said.  Chris is a man of faith, but he also has a whimsical sense of humor, and since we were speaking over the phone, I could not see if he had a twinkle in his eye when he said it.  Perhaps sensing that I thought he was speaking in jest, he became serious and explained that when he prayed to know the name of his angel, "Amateus" was the name he heard in his heart.  

I hung up the phone, and with it still in my hand, I sat in the spare room and thought about our conversation.  I thought about The Lord's Prayer and that the Lord chose to address the Father as Abba, the more familiar form of the word "father" in Aramaic, closer to "dear father" or "dad", and that  He taught us, too, to pray, Abba, offering us, His children, a participation in His relationship with the Father. I was convinced that it would not be irreverent if one were to be on a "first name basis" with the one who always beholds the face of the Father (Matthew 18:10), who lights and guards, rules and guides.   

I thought, or perhaps it was a prayer, "I wonder if I should know the name to call my guardian angel."  It was surprising that the name, "Eugene" came to my mind.  I didn't know anyone by that name, but I did like the sound of it, and I thought, that the next time I spoke with Chris, I would tell him that I would call my guardian angel, Eugene.

Suddenly the telephone rang in my hand.  It was an elderly lady friend of mine who lived on Troy Avenue, across the street from Little Flower, the school I had attended as a child and where I was later to teach second grade.  Mrs. Zito was plump and kindly and enjoyed her popularity in the neighborhood, which was well deserved.  Everyday after the 9 AM Mass the regulars (about a dozen people) would come to her home for coffee, cake or bagels.  She called it, "The Little Flower Coffee Shop".  The nuns would bring their Christmas gifts to her, and she would wrap them, as she said, "like the department store."  I knew Mrs. Zito since I was five years old.  She was a volunteer at the supply room of the school, and she liked to remind me that when I was in kindergarten, she sold me my first tie, a navy blue clip-on bow, that was part of the school uniform.  Her husband had passed away, and a few years later she lost her beautiful daughter. My visits and daily phone calls helped, and there were times that she was cheerful. She had a distinctive high-pitched voice which was a dead give-away in confession. Her shrill voice was once heard in church from inside the confessional box, "How ya doin'?", and then, "How did you know it was me, Father?"  She called me "Joanie", never "Joan". 

"Hello," I said.  The unmistakable voice of Mrs. Zito at the other end said, "Is that Eugene?"  I was speechless!  "What?"  She responded, "There must be something wrong with me.  I just called you Jean". "What was I thinking about?  I told her about the phone call a few minutes earlier from Chris, and about naming my guardian angel, Eugene, and the coincidence in her calling me "Jean" and saying, "Is that you, Jean?" which sounded like "Eugene".  I don't think Mrs. Zito was following me because she didn't seem at all impressed and simply said, "That's good."  
I don't know if we will be inspired to know the names of our guardian angels if we ask, and so I don't know if my guardian angel's name really is Eugene.  But I do know that the one who is ever at my side is deserving of my gratitude for always watching over me, even if his name is not Eugene.  If it is, well, as Mrs. Zito said, That's good."

Joan Virzera

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Smiling Before Christmas

I remember, as a new teacher, being admonished by veteran teachers "never to smile before Christmas".  I believe it had something to do with students not taking a smiling teacher seriously, especially early in the term.  I must say that I never took this advice to heart because, well, children just make me smile! 

I must say that my students were usually very well behaved, but as Christmastime drew near, the children were excited about the upcoming season, and maintaining good behavior became more of a challenge.  Dress-down days, which were school-wide, and believe me, not my idea, were especially difficult, as it is my observation that when children dress in play clothes, they want to play. These final days of Advent were as rough for the teachers who held the "No smiling before Christmas" philosophy as for those who didn't.  The students looked happy, but none of the teachers were smiling now!

One particular day, lots of things seemed to be going wrong, such as a fire drill at an inopportune time, a student accidentally knocking over and breaking a statue of a saint, petty squabbles, unexpected lunch duty, constant chattering, and a multitude of little annoyances.  What a day!  I must have been an optimist because no matter how rough a day it had been, I truly anticipated that tomorrow would be better, sort of like starting a new day with a clean slate.  

This is how the new day began:
As it was my routine to attend the 7:00 AM Mass each morning before class started, I knelt down to say a prayer before the liturgy began.  "Please God, don't let it be another day like yesterday!"  As I spoke this silent prayer, my kneeler collapsed.  I was stunned for a moment, and then I just had to smile.  God does have a sense of humor.  I think He was showing me that even when things seem to be collapsing under me, He can still put a smile on my face. My students should have been there.  They missed seeing the biggest smile before Christmas!

Joan Virzera

An Unexpected Birthday Gift

It was my birthday weekend, a Saturday afternoon, and I walked to my home parish church, St. Therese of Lisieux on Avenue D in Brooklyn to, as we used to say,  "pay a visit".

Like countless numbers of people from all walks of life, I have a special devotion to St. Therese.  I attended St. Therese of Lisieux School (affectionately called Little Flower School) from kindergarten through eighth grade and later became a school teacher at the very school I attended.  (How this came to be is another coincidence which I'll describe in a separate posting.)    As a little girl I was captivated by a full color holy card given to me by one of the nuns depicting St. Therese cradling a crucifix surrounded by a bouquet of roses of various colors.  She looked beautiful and kind, and even at five years of age, I knew she was real.  

Over the years, I became very much inspired by her "Little Way" whereby ordinary people in the course of their daily lives can find numerous opportunities to grow in holiness by doing small things with great love for God and others.  I felt close to St. Therese, as if she were the sister I never had, and I turned to her often in prayer regardless of how small the matter.  

When I arrived at the church, I noticed in the vestibule there were some items on the table next to the holy water font, some lost and found items, like a single glove, and some things apparently left for people to take.  I saw several paper holy cards of the kind that religious orders send through the mail with requests for donations, a few religious greeting cards and pamphlets, and then, something I did not expect to see:   Story of a Soul, a nice vintage edition of the Autobiography of St. Therese in excellent condition.  I had wanted to read that book for a long time, and I was excited to find it.  But then I had second thoughts.  Should I take it? Could it belong to someone who forgot it in a pew and would be back for it?  It would be nice if God gave me a little sign to let me know what to do.  I took another look inside the book, and there at the bottom of the title page, I found the date St. Therese was canonized by Pope Pius XI:  May 17th, 1925.  Although I was born years later, my birthday is May 17th.  I thought, "What a coincidence, St. Therese was canonized on my birthday."  Or I should say, "I was born on the same month and day that St. Therese was canonized."

The book is on my bookshelf.  One day I'll read it again.  I think of it as a birthday gift from the Little Flower to me.

Joan Virzera

Seeing is Believing: Eyes to See

My mother was pure and simple as was her faith in God.  She passed away on September 29, 2008 at the age of 93.  In her wallet she kept pictures of the immediate family at different points in time, including a baby picture of me with my brothers, as well as a holy card of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception.  She often wore a large two sided bronze medal with Jesus on one side and the Blessed Mother on the other.  She would sometimes show me that she was wearing it and would refer to the image of Our Lady as "Mother Mary".

When my mother was in her eighties, she needed cataract surgery.  One of my brothers recommended a friend of his, one of the finest ophthalmologists in the country, to take care of her. None the less, I was still somewhat worried that something might go wrong. As is the usual procedure, each eye is done at a different time and one eye was scheduled to be done on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the other on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption.  These are the two traditional feasts of Mary that are holy days of obligation in America in the Catholic Church.  The cataract surgeries went exceedingly well, and my mother enjoyed keen vision without glasses for years to come.
Years later, my brother invited his friend, the ophthalmologist, to a party at his home where he introduced me to him.  His words about my mother were warm and kind, and he was trying to recall when he had seen her.  I immediately mentioned the dates of December 8th and August 15th, and he was amazed!  I did tell him how I remembered, and perhaps, he found that more amazing.

I think the "sign" of the scheduling of my mother's eye operations on the two feasts of Our Lady meant more to me than to her.  She wasn't at all surprised at the coincidental dates and said, "See, Mother Mary is with me."  She knew that all along.  She wasn't the least bit worried.  It was I who needed the sign.

Joan Virzera

It's in the Bag!

Uncle Louie, my mother's brother, passed away a little more than twenty years ago.   He was kind, gentle and soft-spoken like my mother, and I was saddened.  I would say a little prayer for him throughout the days that followed when thoughts of him came to my mind.
I lived in Brooklyn in those days, and I remember strolling along Ralph Avenue where there were a variety of stores and walking toward Woolworth's, what was then called a "five and dime".  There was nothing in particular I needed to buy, but just walking around the store, seeing other people, and hoping to make a small purchase was somehow comforting.  It was the type of store where one could always find a little something to lift the spirits without spending a lot of money.  I don't remember what I purchased that day, but what I left with was priceless.

As I walked along,  I saw an elderly nun in a modified habit with veil coming from the other direction walk through the door of Woolworth's, and perhaps, associating a nun with such things as faith and eternal life, I thought of my Uncle Louie's recent passing and wondered if he was in heaven.  A fleeting thought passed through my mind.  "If Uncle Louie is in heaven, please God, let the nun speak to me."   I had never before prayed for a sign that someone was in heaven, let alone on a whim and with such specificity as this one.  I immediately dismissed the thought and entered Woolworths.

I had been in the store about a twenty minutes, browsing, looking for nothing in particular.  I found myself adjacent to the handbag section just walking slowly down the aisle, picking up items, looking at them and placing them back on the counter, when I saw the nun standing in the handbag section of the store.  She turned around, walked toward me, held up a handbag and said,  "Do you like this bag?"  I don't remember what I said or even leaving the store. I was in awe.  I believe that God had given me the sign I needed.  But it doesn't end there. 

It seems sometimes, where there is one sign, another follows as a confirmation of the first.  About a year or two ago I was at a gathering at the home of one of my brothers.  My cousin, Billy was there.  His father was my Uncle Louie.  During the course of the evening, I told Billy the story about the nun and the handbag. Although it had been nearly two decades since my uncle's passing, I had never had the proper opportunity to share my experience with my cousin.  He said, "That is really something! Do you know my father had his own handbag shop?"  I then remembered that when I was a young girl, my Uncle Louie had given me a leather handbag, but it was so long ago that I had forgotten.  Over the decades I probably had dozens of handbags, some which I eventually discarded as they became worn and others which I donated to charity for one reason or another.  But to this day, I still have Uncle Louie's handbag in my closet. 

I looked up the definition of the expression, "It's in the bag" and found that "It's in the bag means that it is a sure thing, a done deal, a slam dunk."  Is Uncle Louis in heaven?  I could not be more hopeful, but I will continue to pray for him and all the faithful departed.  Only good can come from prayer.

Joan Virzera

Living is Giving: An Advent Coincidence

Back in 1990 I began teaching at St. Vincent Ferrer School in Brooklyn.  That year, the Friday before Advent, the school principal had asked, actually mandated, that all teachers have an Advent wreath in their classrooms that Monday. It seemed that the other teachers had theirs from previous years. Unfortunately, I didn't have one. I had looked in various stores that Saturday, with no success.  I was almost resigned to being the only teacher without an Advent wreath when I received a phone call from a friend of mine from Queens.  

Victor is an older gentleman whom I had met doing volunteer work, and we became friends.  (An aside coincidence is that in 1988 when I first met him, he mentioned that he wrote a Christmas Song called "There's a Star Shining Bright" and asked me if I knew anyone who had a recording studio. He had a friend, Christopher, who was a singer with a beautiful voice, and they wanted to make a recording.  How many people know someone who has a recording studio!  Well, my brother is in the music business, has a recording studio, and he recorded the song.)  

It must have been about 9 PM that night when the phone rang. After speaking a while, I mentioned to Victor my disappointment that I couldn't find an Advent wreath for class, and he said that he had just received one in the mail as a free gift along with some Christmas cards from a religious organization.  He said it was small, made of brass and had three little purple candles and one pink or rose-colored candle.  He said that maybe it was providential that one had been sent to him, that I was welcome to it, and that he would be happy to come right over with the wreath.  This is a very kind friend, one who has always gone out of his way to help other people, someone who lives his faith and has always been an inspiration to me.  He often would say, "Living is giving."  Yet, I didn't want to impose upon him.  I told him how much I appreciated his kind offer, but that it was late and I felt bad about his making a trip into Brooklyn on a Sunday night when I knew from his conversation that he was tired and wanted to relax for the evening. When I protested, he said that Christ said (John 15:13) that greater love has no man than to give his life for his friends. I did not understand the point he was making, until he went on to explain: "Life is made up of time.  When you give your time, you are, in essence, giving your life, as Christ said."   

When I hear this scripture read at Mass or when I see an Advent wreath, I am reminded that there are numerous opportunities to give my life for my friends.  Living is giving.

Happy 86th Birthday, Victor!

Joan Virzera

January 13, 2012
My friend Victor Zino passed away.  Requiscat in pace.