Notes from a Jersey Girl

by Lisa G Westheimer


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The Day I Met Mother Teresa

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“I want to give you a gift and I know you don’t want it,” my friend Father Peter said on the phone.  It was late January, 1994, and a blizzard was on its way.  I was living in Soho in NYC and a parishioner at The Catholic Center at NYU on Washington Square.  I had become good friends with Father Peter Cameron who was a pastor at the church.

In general, life was very very good for me.  I had a wonderful husband, was living in a loft in Soho, had a good job- I could have been Sarah Jessica Parker’s respectable friend in an episode of Sex in the City had it been on the air yet.  But at that time, life was a bit of a trial-  In the span of a week, had lost 4 friends very suddenly to various circumstances, and had to put my dog to sleep.  One of those friends was my best friend’s mother, who was like a second mother to me when I was a teen.  She died fairly young and suddenly, during a routine medical procedure.  Her funeral was the next day.  All of this had me questioning life, and my faith.  The night before that phone call from Fr Peter, I asked God why he took them instead of me, and wondered why in the scheme of things, I should keep going on this path he laid out for me.

“I want to introduce you to Mother Teresa,”  Father Peter said, “that’s my gift to you, I want you to meet her.”

“You’re right,”  I replied, “I don’t want to meet her.”

Meet Mother Teresa?  Me?!  What would I say to her?  What would I do?

“Besides,” he went on, “I have to say mass for her in Harlem, it’s going to snow and you’re the only one I know with 4 wheel drive.”

“Well in that case, ok,”  I said.  I hung up the phone, looked upward and said, “you could have come to me in a dream you know.”

So that is how I happened to be in my car at 6am, slogging up the west side of Manhattan in the driving snow with Father Peter riding shotgun, and in the back seat, another friend Mike, who was a professor at NYU and a boy Fr Peter was mentoring who was in the RCIA program, about to be baptized and confirmed into the church.  We swung by and picked up a Sister of Charity from their convent the West Village then made the trek up to Harlem.  Here we were, 5 pilgrims squeezed in my tiny tin can of a car plowing through the snow heading towards a day of spiritual reckoning.

From what he told me, Father Peter met Mother Teresa quite by accident on a flight from California to New York.  He was wearing his clerical collar, minding his own business in coach when a very nervous steward approached him.  He said that Mother Teresa was on the flight, they put her in first class, no one knew what to say or do with her and would Peter mind moving up and sitting next to her during the flight?  He did, and they spent the entire time talking, became great friends, and before deplaning she made him promise that whenever she was in town, that he’d say mass for her at the Sisters of Charity in Harlem.  Well here she was in town after cataract surgery and her flight back to Calcutta was cancelled due to the storm, so she was in Harlem and needed Fr Peter to say mass.

I figured mass would be in a cathedral, I’d sit in the back row and sneak out right after the blessing and go wait in the car while everyone else lined up and shook her hand.  Mother Teresa would be a little speck in the distance of the cavernous space, and no one would know I gave her the slip until it was too late.  This plan was thwarted when we arrived at a nondescript building in a shabby neighborhood.  We were ushered into a tiny room with a table for an altar and straw mats on the floor for pews with missals on them.

I suppose this is where in the story the readers get separated between the believers and the non believers. I had never felt this before and I don’t think I ever will again.  The minute I crossed the threshold, I knew I was in the presence of someone not of this world.  If someone had blind folded me I would have known exactly where Mother was in the room at all times.  In the corporal she was a tiny, bent over gnarled tree twig of a woman, but in the spiritual she radiated a white hot powerful energy, something that hit me in the chest and radiated to the tips of my toes and fingers.  It was a disturbing feeling.

We walked in and she immediately latched onto the boy who came with us.  She plunked him down on his knees next to her on her mat, picked up the missal and held it for him to follow along.  I thought he would keel over in a dead faint but he remained upright.  Father Peter got ready to say mass and Mike and I settled on mats behind Mother Teresa and the boy.  I was wearing my best Donna Karan go to meeting suit and, behind her radiance, felt like something smelly scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

After mass I got up and made a break for it.  “Please don’t leave,” one of the sisters serenely said touching my arm gently and steering me for the next room, “Mother wants to talk to you.”

Oh my God.

There she was standing next to Father Peter.  She had just talked to Mike.  She grabbed my hand and looked me straight in the eye.

“You must pray for me!”  she declared, squeezing my hand so my bones crunched together, “You must PRAY TO MARY!”  she commanded, “and you must NEVER INTERFERE WITH GOD’S WORK!”  This is about when everything became one big blur.  I don’t remember much about the exchange but Fr Peter laughed afterwards that I kept saying, “yes sister!” after everything she said.  She then said she would kiss miraculous medals for me, how many did I want?  Realizing I had been stricken mute at this point, Father Peter  said that he thought 8 would be enough, so she kissed them and pressed them into my hand and she let me go and I went into the next room.

Mike was there, literally jumping around the room in joy.  The experience transformed him.  The boy was with him looking bewildered.  “Don’t think you’re going to have a private audience with the Pope next,” I said to him, “just cause you met Mother Theresa before your first Holy Communion and all.”  He was still paralyzed by the experience.

So that is how I met Mother Teresa.  Shortly thereafter we all squeezed back into the car to head south in the snow where I would drop everyone off then head through the Holland Tunnel to my friend’s mother’s funeral.  I had 8 medals in my pocket and knew I’d give my friend one, keep one for myself and give one to my mother and grandmother.  Who would get the others?  They were to me like pills that cured cancer.  Who would you give them to if you only had 4?  That story is for another day, but I’ll tell you one thing.  I wear mine daily fastened to my bra over my heart.  It keeps me in good stead except when I forget to take it off before going through security in airports.  It makes for quite a story when the TSA agent wands me.

So you bet I pray to Mother Teresa, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.  I pray to Mary, and I try really really hard not to interfere with God’s work, but I get confused sometimes.  I do everything Mother told me all those years ago.  Who am I to argue with a saint?

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On this day, Sunday, September 4, 2016, we celebrate with great joy the canonization of Mother Teresa, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, MC.

Hail Mary, full of grace

The Lord is with thee,

Blessed art thou among women

Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God

Pray for us sinners

Now and at the hour of our death, amen.

Blessed Teresa pray for us!

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Paris, France, November 13, 2015: after

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Notre Dame as seen through the rain from across the street under an awning at Shakespeare and Company

Bill purchased timed tickets for the Picasso Museum for early Saturday morning, so before retiring for the night he set the alarm on his cell phone.  About an hour later it began to go crazy with beeps, dings and buzzes.  What the hell?!  We got up to turn it off, looked at the screen and low and behold there were several texts from friends telling us to stay safe and asking if we were all right.  From our slightly open window I could hear sirens in the distance and a helicopter over head.  Come to think of it, the sirens had been going on for quite some time, beginning after dinner.  Cars with blue lights racing down the streets along the Seine.  We also almost bumped into several people dressed in emergency costume walking over the bridge when we returned from dinner to Ile St Louis.  They didn’t look alarmed so we thought nothing of it.  There was no indication that anything was wrong earlier in the evening.  We took the metro to and from dinner at Boullion Chantier on Blvd Faubourg in Montmartre with friends Nora and Francois, having had a lovely time, with plans to meet up with them after the Picasso museum to go to the Brocante in the Bastille.

Bill fired up the laptop and logged into the NY Times website.  Holy moly terrorist attacks in Paris, right under our noses!  Around the same time we could hear people milling around outside our door and lots of muffled buzzes of cellphones logging messages in vibrate mode outside our room.  120 dead at a concert!  A bomb going off at a soccer stadium?!  Restaurants and cafes attacked?!  OMG!  I lay there in my nice comfy bed staring at the grey sky, listening to the sirens and the helicopter.  No, please God, not again.  I was in lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks, what now?  We called my mother.  We answered texts.  We frantically texted friends in Paris.  We slept about 2 hours.

“Bon jour, comment va votre famille?” is all I could formulate, right or wrong, reaching into the nether regions of my memory banks to high school French.  I practiced in the shower so I could ask the very nice lady who cleans our rooms and the man who fetches our morning coffee if their families were all accounted for.  They stopped in their tracks, a slight hitch in their steps, a deviation from the morning routine.  Each looked at me and smiled and said everyone was ok, thank you, and for me to be CAREFUL and wished me good day.

Why am I here at this auspicious moment?  Was it just an accident of time and place or am I here for a reason?  Why am I in the midst of terrorist action yet again?  All I could think of was God must want me here, but why?  Being over 50, and reading that most of the dead, terrorists included, were in their 20’s with the days of their whole lives in front of them spread like jewels, my heart went to the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  No one should ever have to bury a child.  Then I got angry.  Let me tell you, if I had to pick between sadness, depression or anger I’d take anger any day.  Anger gives you energy.  Anger gets you moving.  Anger gives you fuel to put one foot in front of the other.  Depression and sadness make you take to your bed and pull the covers over your head.  That will not do if your life maybe at stake and who knows what the light of day would bring for us?  No way am I curling up in a corner for some terrorist, no way, no how.  If I’m going down I’m going down swinging for the bleachers.

So we got up, showered, dressed, ate breakfast and went out the door.  My first stop was the church about a block away.  On September 11, before heading home, I stopped in the nearest church I could find.  On September 11, 2001, in New York City, the door to every house of worship was flung open.  Men and women of the clergy paced outside.  People of every color, persuasion, ethnicity, religion, non-religion seemed to be inside each one, stopping for a moment to take a breath before continuing on.  I kicked myself this morning for not remembering my rosary beads.  Anyway, I just needed to go to church to regroup.  I get there, and there’s a sign that it’s closed for the entire day!  I snuck inside anyway and was quickly ushered out.  Wow!  So different than at home.  I guess church is just another public placed closed by the government on this day.  I suppose it’s for my safety but to be real, if I’m going to die, the best place for me to die would be in church.  I’d already be in God’s house, I’m sure the tunnel with the white light at the end would be just through a hallway off the nave, right?  A real cultural correction for me!

So we wandered around a bit.  Bill wanted to go to the Bastille.  I thought he was nuts.  Let’s go to a place the French are really patriotic about when there’s a Jihad going on, oh let’s do!  Then we went to the aqueduct now converted to a park on top, stores below.  Bill wanted to walk on top.  Hello- ducks on parade in a shooting gallery! I don’t think so!  We managed to wander back to the hotel, but really, aside from a line of people snaking around the block to give blood at a clinic, and public buildings closed, there was no indication that anything was wrong.  I was surprised.

My friend Marybeth said if people were like fruit, Americans would be peaches:  soft and sweet on the outside but hard on the inside, while the French are like melons:  hard on the outside but soft and sweet in the middle.  Well the French were putting us Americans to shame.  Heels down, chin up, grab mane was the mantra of the day for everyone we passed on the street.  I was impressed.  Rather than run around like hysterical squirrels the way I do in a crisis, they carried on, hard shells intact.

And speaking of hysterical squirrels, how the hell am I going to get Fred on an airplane in his huge white cardboard box during a state of high terrorist alert?!  Lastly, how do I categorize this installment?  I was just thinking yesterday that this was the first trip Bill and I have taken in years that doesn’t qualify as a wife survival test.  But then again….  Is this a diary?  Survival test?  A rant?  Maybe all 3.

Let me close with one of my favorite prayers apropos of the occasion.  It’s to my favorite uber saint, Saint Michael the Archangel.  If you are not familiar with the hierarchy, archangels trump superheros.  They have amazing powers and are not to be trifled with.  As I pray the following words I envision the AK 47 wielding, grenade tossing demons wrecking havoc over the innocent souls in Paris, who did nothing to deserve their fate other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time, being stuffed straight back into hell where they belong, to atone mightily for all eternity:

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen..


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Paris, France, November 13, 2015: during….

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The greeting menagerie on the main landing of Deyrolle

On “that fateful day” Bill and I spent the day visiting one of our favorite places on the planet,  Deyrolle.  How do I explain this place?  Well, it’s a store.  You can buy things in it, mainly taxidermy, stuffed dead things and books about stuffed dead things.  It is fascinating!  Now before you get your panties all in a bunch please note that except for antiques (it’s been around 100 years or so) all the animals for sale have provenance, mostly from zoos, and most met their demise from old age or illness (or so my command of French leads me to think from reading the posted sign.)

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The posted sign

After having “my hair done” in one of the rooms, we set about shopping.

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Having my hair done by one of the occupants

 

I was not going home empty handed, but what to buy, what to buy?  All the really cool stuff was way too expensive, mostly because it was made by the artist Damien Hirst.  I have this terrible but useful habit:  the favorite thing in every venue I frequent is the first thing I see.  Sometimes it serves me well, sometimes it doesn’t, but I try to give the entire venue a fair shake before making up my mind when I shop.  In keeping with tradition, the first thing I saw when I climbed the stairs to the taxidermy floor was a meerkat standing sentry on a desk next to a computer.  Not only was he cute, had a personality and looked a little ratty (covers all my taxidermy bases.) He seemed to have a jaunty attitude AND was somewhat affordable (cheaper than a Damien Hirst but more expensive than a bee)  Let’s just refer to the little beast as a thousand dollar rat and call it a day.  Sorry, they wrapped him before I could take a picture.

When we told the shop keeper we wanted to buy him she became a bit upset.  It seems that he is her mascot.  She said the staff names all their “occupants,” and they called him “Gofret” so we named him Fred.  They kind of ceremoniously nestled him in a big white cardboard box full of soft paper and tied it up with string.  We carried Fred for the entire day.  He joined us at Musee D’Orsay, but hung out in the cloak room while we looked at the art.  I must say that I had to my wear my slack jawed demented old lady look to get him past security and if we had tried to enter 1 hour later I think we would have been strip searched and thrown in the brig for trying to enter carrying a large white unmarked box.  Thus began our journey on foot along the Seine carrying a very expensive dead rat in a large box.

It was a very pleasant day.  We stopped in many galleries, had a fabulous lunch and enjoyed the Musee D’Orsay and its contents (the two didn’t exactly fit together,) but the artwork was amazing and the building impressive.

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One of the restaurants in Musee D’Orsay

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Another spot to eat, check out those amazing chairs

 

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Cool museum foot traffic

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Reminded me of the movie “Metropolis”

We walked back to the hotel along the Seine, looking forward to a glass of wine before meeting up for dinner with friends, maybe a spot of window shopping and procurement of gifts to bring back to the States.  But what were all those sirens about???


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Paris France, November 2015, before….

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Love locks on Le Pont des Arts over Seine

 

Bon Jour!  Bon soir!  Merci!  Pardon.  Ou est la toilette?  Ou est le metro?  Ou est la champagne?

Such is life in Paris with the command of the French language of a 4 year old. To make matters worse, I have a terrible accent, as if I’m from Bayonne (New Jersey.)  But I get by. On this trip, more English is being spoken on the streets, in the metro and restaurants than French, so it seems. I try to use anything but English.

I read somewhere that when one studies languages the brain layers them one on top of the other, and for some reason, when accessing one, the brain reverts to the layer succeeding the one you want. So I’ve been speaking a lot of Italian. Which is okay, because a lot of people in Paris speak that too, and I get internal points for speaking a foreign language.

We are about half way into our trip. It is a fabulous jaunt. Let me tell you what a wonderful husband I have: not only did he use Paris Photo as a very good excuse to come here, he padded the trip with several days on either end, and most importantly, brought me. When we arrived he went straight to an atm machine, withdrew a wad of Euros, counted out the bills and handed me half, telling me to spend it any way I want. How did I get this lucky?

We are staying in a fabulous place, Le Hotel du Jeu de Paume on Isle St Louis. Isle St Louis is a pinky finger of land on the Seine across from Notre Dame. It is several blocks long but only a few wide so one needs to cross a bridge to get lost. It has a Catholic church, Bertillon, the most famous ice cream in France, a boulangerie, fromagerie, several amazing restaurants and not one but 2 chocolatiers. Why go anywhere? Le Jeu de Paume is a small boutique hotel. It is very old, built around the time Louis XVI furniture was invented.  In fact, it was built as his tennis court.  A lot of the original structure remains, the skeleton of its wooden framework is a main architectural feature.  Luckily the plumbing and rooms have been recently updated so it is very comfortable.  The staff is wonderful and inviting and very forgiving of my terrible French accent as I stumble over my words.  Luckily one of them speaks fluent Italian.

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Landing by our room where I’m writing to you! Hotel Jeu de Paume

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View from outside our room to the dining area below.

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Looking up at the rafters, aren’t they amazing?

The weather has not been bad.  It is cool but not cold, overcast but not damp, only a spot of rain for about 1/2 hour 2 days ago.  Food and drink are amazing, but then again everything tastes better on vacation.

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Our table at Racine 2, where we had dinner with our beloved friend Jessie Chase who lives and works here now.