by Patricia Florio
If I could only understand life the way she understood life,
I’d live in a better world.
If I could only understand death the way she understood death,
I would have a chance to live in paradise.
It’s been well over fifty years but I remember the first day my brother introduced me to his girlfriend. My father drove a 1951 maroon Plymouth to Coney Island, Brooklyn’s play land, where the sweet smell of cotton candy made my stomach growl. We were headed to meet my brother on a side street near Bay 17.
My mother fussed with her fly-away-straggly hair worried about how she’d look meeting Theresa for the first time. I was ten years old, all arms and legs, embarrassed to meet a girl who recently won the heart of my only brother.
My brother Joe, no slouch in the looks department himself, especially decked out in his Air Force uniform, held Theresa by the hand. It must have been an awkward situation for her. She looked nervous trying to brave a smile. Her lips were glossed, her eyes twinkled, her skin smooth as a porcelain doll. She wore bright colors, a yellow silk blouse that had ruffles down the front of her petite frame; she wore a full multicolored skirt hiding her chunky derriere. The yellow scarf tied around her neck captured me. She looked as elegant as Elizabeth Taylor in an era of poodle skirts, bobby socks, white sneakers and silk scarves. She looks sooo feminine I thought to myself. Being a consummate tomboy, I knew femininity when I saw it.
“This is my sister,” my brother said with his “Joe smirk” pointing me out in the back seat of the car. I clutched my legs pulling them against my chest covering my flat masculine body.
Over the next 50 years I grew to love Terry in spite of her taking my only brother away. She had a way of saying the word beautiful that made her brown eyes pop wide open and her lips stretch clear across her face: BEE-U-TEE-FUL; everything was BEE-U-TEE-FUL in life according to Terry.
Terry was everything I ever wanted to be in a woman, a natural beauty, stylish, soft, cultured, and most of all spiritual. She graduated from a Catholic girl’s high school in a swanky part of Brooklyn where people had landscaped lawns and beautiful rose gardens. We lived several miles away in the “downtown” section of Brooklyn with concrete fronts on a block that buses spewed their black smut on to our street.
The first three years of their marriage, my brother and Terry had two precious daughters to add to our family, Judith Mary and Christine Mary. The girls smelled wonderful from creamed sachets and honey drenched shampoos. Terry primped them in frilly dresses and tied ribbons in their hair. I began to find things out about the virtues that made up the woman.
Terry loved life; she loved my brother and her daughters; she loved to keep house and she really loved to cook. I’d see her puttering around the kitchen humming or singing a song, sifting flour, rolling dough, thrilled and contented to be a mother and wife.
Terry had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. We spoke often about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and about praying the rosary daily. “If Mary was good enough for Jesus,” Terry said, “she’s good enough for me.” Terry helped me become a believer.
I, too, attended an all-girls’ Catholic school for my junior and senior years in a good neighborhood in Brooklyn where I attended Mass every morning that I got to school before classes started. I did my share of praying, but I never quite prayed like Terry.
After raising their two daughters, my brother Joe and Terry became preaching ministers within the Catholic Church. They were the parish Pre Cana couple, sharing stories of their marriage, the struggles, the joys, the hopes and the dreams.
They became Montfort Missionaries, part of a preaching team for well over thirty years, certified by the Abbot of St. Louis De Montfort from the mother house in France.
Terry and Joe devoted their lives to their children, their grandchildren, their extended family, and the people of the church; the men in the local prisons, the women in nursing homes, hospitals, wherever and whenever somebody needed spiritual guidance.
It would not be odd to see Terry sitting out in the car in dead of winter wrapped in a blanket praying so she wouldn’t get comfortable in bed and fall asleep. Maybe Terry was a modern day saint. Maybe she was just a person who cared about other people’s needs.
Ten years ago Terry fell ill. First, she had an inoperable brain tumor. Radiation for a year kept the tumor from growing. She came back to her usual family chores and to the Montfort community even stronger than before. I’ve seen her excited to talk to parishioners. She always made time in her busy schedule, even when there wasn’t any time.
“Pray for me, Terry, for my son, for my brother, for my uncle, my kids are in trouble again. Terry, you won’t forget, will you?” Terry never forgot to pray for someone’s special intention. Sometimes she prayed two, three, four hours a day. Even when worn thin, Terry always prayed.
I believe Terry was chosen. Out of all the people I know, some really good ones, Terry was chosen to be God’s messenger. She did His job, and she did it well.
For over fifty years I’ve watched this woman of faith, I’ve seen the expression on her face when she received Holy Communion; a glow emanated from her body like she knew something we didn’t.
Terry left us last year on a hot summer day in August at only seventy-three years of old. Fr. Fitzsimmons from the Montfort Preaching Team knew Terry the best. He told the attendees at her funeral Mass, “Terry didn’t want what God could give her, Terry wanted God.”
Father Fitzsimmons celebrated her funeral mass at the Montfort Spiritual Center in Bay Shore, Long Island, along with twenty other clergy on the altar. Terry was the only woman to have such an honor. In a Chapel that seats over seven hundred people, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found. Terry’s Funeral Mass booklet proclaimed “Theresa Prato, given to us on July 10, 1937 returned to God on August 16, 2010.”
Terry will always be alive in my heart as the beautiful girlfriend my brother couldn’t wait for us to meet.