I would venture to guess that almost everyone in the world knows of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa. Although diminutive in size, Mother Teresa was a giant in stature. This past week has brought that same acknowledgement closer to home for my family and those we know as we celebrated the life of our own “Mother Theresa”, Theresa Russo.
I met our Mother Theresa in 1985 – introduced to as and called her “Mrs. Russo” until the day she passed. Over the course of 31 years, she went from being my friend’s mom to being my “other mother” and my friend. Even at the whopping 5 foot, 1 inch she originally stood at, she struck me upon our first meeting as a woman who was dutiful yet strong in her own right, someone who lived by a set of rules and raised a family with respect and gratitude. I was always afraid of not “doing the right thing” in her eyes and often worried if she was upset with something I may or may not have done, you know, like some of us are with our own parents.
Theresa Russo was born in 1928, the same year Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. That was always our private joke – I would always comment on she and Mickey being the same age, referring to him as “her brother”. She would laugh and shake her head and we would always have a good chuckle about it. I always had a fascination with the stories people would tell of their lives, however mundane they may have thought those stories were, I found that people are always happiest when they regale in the stories that shaped them, good or bad. And if you remembered those stories, you tended to make a connection with them more quickly. So, I listened and learned.
Funny, that the “listen and learn” comment came in here as that was an expression often used by Theresa’s husband and members of his family. But the one thing I learned in spending over 31 years in Theresa’s company was just that – listening. As a very young child, Theresa became quite ill, so ill in fact, she almost didn’t survive. But survive she did and grew to possess a strength of will if not in body. She always smiled when she told her daughter Rachael and I about those childhood stories – going to the movies with eleven cents, ten for the price of the ticket and a penny for candy, at a time when “movies were movies”; coming home for lunch, having her mom serve lentils and her refusal to eat them, and her mother turning the bowl over on her head!
She always smiled broadly when she spoke of her father – how she and her sister would wait by the window, peering down the street to watch for their father’s return home so they could signal their mother to throw the pasta in the water, timing Sunday dinner to be perfectly placed on the table by the time he sat down. Her father who worked his own business many hours during the day but would meet his daughters by the train station to ensure their safe return home at night. Theresa’s mother, would always say that when she walked down the street with Theresa in the carriage, people would always remark on what a beautiful the baby was.
Over the course of her lifetime, Theresa married, raised four sons and a daughter, supporting her husband in his business ventures while keeping the home, as women of her era did. Having five children in six years, she quickly learned to appreciate the help and support her mother was able to give and she navigated all her responsibilities and charges in to an “organized chaos” – a home filled with activity and love.
In the thirty-one years I knew her, we shared stories, many meals, vacations and countless hours just talking. As she watched all of us become adults and begin our own lives, she settled in to the role of guide, mentor and friend. Laundry, house cleaning and how to save money when you shopped were in the fashion she explained. Our conversations always resulted in laughs and teasing about how her daughter, Rachael, would be “telling her what to do”, resulting in the two of us referring to her as “The Warden”. As the summer of 2016 wore on, Theresa became more and more ill. Although visits to various doctors became the norm for her, this was much more than ever before. After four stays at the hospital, my poor friend’s body could not take much more. We lost Theresa when God called her home, one day after her husband’s passing twenty-five years before and on the same day her mother passed at the age of 99 eight years earlier.
Rachael and I prayed with her the night before she passed (I know she was probably laughing as she always shook her head at my “fallen way Catholicism”). But it gave me a strange peace, a connection to the realization that she was truly my friend too, not just my friend’s parent. She welcomed me into her house and family from the time I was nineteen years old. She taught me a tremendous amount of things and always to be aware of people and the things they do and say. She was “old school” and traditional. She made up her mind about things and often wouldn’t be swayed in any other direction. She was strong in her family and in her faith. We celebrated her life this week, where twenty-five priests concelebrated the Mass of Resurrection for her at The Church of Saint Mark, fully decorated in Christmas splendor – her favorite holiday. As I stood with my family during the service, all I could think of was Theresa seeing all this and saying, “All this…. For me?”
Yes, indeed, Mrs. Russo, all of it was for you – you were so special to all of us!