One Tough, Italian Cookie

white and red flower petals on ground

Toni Jo Terzaghi
May 1, 1961 – Jan 11, 2021

Aunt Toni was one tough Italian cookie. She was tough. She was Italian. And she was sweet. But you might not have always picked up on that right away. She had a really good poker face when it came to her sweet side.

I think she wanted everyone to know she was tough. She didn’t hide that. And she couldn’t deny her Italian heritage. That was pretty obvious. But anyone who got to know her, learned to quickly see past her “tough” exterior to how sweet she really was.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I realized Aunt Toni would cry every time we left from one of our annual summer vacations in the U.P. She was tough. She was Italian. But she was sweet to the core. I’ll never forget those tears. You could tell she didn’t like people seeing her cry. But those tears spoke volumes about how she felt about her family.

That’s amore.

I’ll never forget our trips up here, and I’ll never forget my Aunt Toni. From childhood memories of her listening to any crazy story I could make up, to adult memories of her and Dave making ravioli at Christmastime, or stories of her eagle eye for spotting valuable antiques from over a mile away, to that look she could give you that would make you stop mid-sentence when you knew she didn’t like what you were saying. I’ll never forget her. The U.P. won’t be quite the same anymore without her.

Aunt Toni loved her family. Man, did she love her family. You know how they say you shouldn’t mess with a momma bear? If you ever happen upon a bear cub on a walk in the woods, you better hope it’s alone. Because if it’s not, you’re in for an adventure. If there’s a mama bear nearby that thinks you’re messing with her cubs, you better be prayed up and have your running shoes on.

The same was true for Toni when it came to her family and close friends. You better not mess with them while she was around. You better be prayed up and have your running shoes laced real tight if you planned on messing with people she loved. Lord help the mister who came between Toni and her family. She was one tough, Italian cookie.

Nothing would keep her from standing up for her family, her siblings (Uncle John, Aunt Micki, Nannette, who are here today), her husband Kevin, her daughter Nicole, her son Ryan, their spouses (Dave and Amber), and all those treasured grandkids (Jillian, Cameron, Brianna, Karlee, Isabella, Claire, and Dominic).

Aunt Toni didn’t do anything small. If she was going to craft, it was going to take an entire cabin to contain it. If she was going to get into drinking tea, you better clear out half the kitchen to make room for inventory. She was like that with her love too. She loved big.

Kevin, she loved you with her whole heart. You did an amazing job serving and loving her through all of this. Your dedication to your wife has been on full display.

Nicole, she loved you with that Yooper-sized heart of her’s. Ryan, you too, she loved you with everything she had. And she was so proud of both of you – or I should say “yous guys.” To you grandkids, always remember you had the best Nanna in the world. You’re her legacy.

That’s amore.

She loved her God. She did. Something remarkable happened in her adult life. I could tell the difference and I lived over ten hours away. Toni fell in love with Jesus. And it showed. Like I said, I could tell the difference from hundreds of miles away.

That’s amore.

She loved to serve people. I’ve heard it said that you’re never more like Jesus than when you serve others. Well, if that’s true, and I believe it is, then my Aunt Toni was a whole lot like Jesus. If Toni thought something was the right thing to do, she did it. She just did it.

She was one, tough, Italian cookie. Now, did I mention she was tough? Rumor has it, she had a mean left hook. Just ask my Uncle Kevin. She loved that man. She spent over four decades by his side.

That’s amore.

I have a Bible back in Ohio that’s filled with artwork. It has replicas of paintings by Makota Fujimura, a highly acclaimed contemporary artist and a devout Christian. Not long ago, he was commissioned to create work to adorn a special edition of the Bible. I had the opportunity to hear him give a lecture in Chicago where he described his artistic process.

In contemplating how he would go about things, he wanted a theme verse. He quickly landed on John 11:35. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, just two words: “Jesus wept.” These are the words John the Apostle used to describe Jesus’s response to the death of his good friend Lazarus. The artist made his artwork by looking at the whole Bible through Jesus’s tears.

Of course, anyone who knows the story from John’s gospel knows that’s not the end. Jesus didn’t just weep. Jesus also spoke. “Lazarus,” come forth!” he said. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told the crowd. His compassion didn’t end with tears. It led to action. It led to resurrection.

That’s amore.

The Bible says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). The Bible also says in the presence of the Lord there is fullness of joy and at his right hand there are pleasures forever more (Psalm 16:11). That’s why the Bible says the death of God’s people is precious in the sight of the Lord (Psalm 116:15). Think about that: Precious in the sight of the Lord, present with the Lord, fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.

If Toni were given the choice to stay there or come back here to be with us, come back to this fallen, cursed, world, as much as she loves us, she wouldn’t leave that perfect place for anything. Who can blame her?

She is with the One who died for her. She is with the One who left heaven’s glory to be born of a virgin, to be born under the law, to redeem those who are under the law (Galatians 4).

That’s amore.

She is with the Lord, her shepherd, she has want of nothing. Speaking of the Lord as our shepherd, I think it would be appropriate to take a quick tour of the twenty-third Psalm. Let’s look at it through the tears of Jesus. It gives a perfect panoramic of the Christian life:

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

What is it like that moment a believer leaves this world for the next? That’s a hard question to avoid in a moment like this. In a peaceful moment on the evening of January 11th, 2021, Aunt Toni took a solitary breath and exhaled for the last time. One moment she was here in a world of pain, the next she was standing in a place so amazing we can only imagine.

I’m reminded of a story Jesus once told in Luke’s gospel about lost stuff. Jesus was a great storyteller. This one story had three substories, each about a lost thing. There was a story about a lost sheep. The shepherd went searching for it. When he found it he threw a party. There was a lost coin. The woman who lost it turned her house upside down to find it. When she did, she threw a party. But then Jesus told the story of a lost son. And it’s very different.

Jesus set a pattern in the first two stories. In both, something is lost, there’s a search, it’s found, and then there’s a party. Jesus loved a good party. In fact, if you remember, his first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding party.

But in this third story, there’s no search. Nobody goes out looking for the wayward son. The Father sits longingly, waiting for him to return. He joyfully welcomes him when his son finally comes home. But why isn’t there a search? Why doesn’t anyone go looking for the son, the way the shepherd looked for the sheep or the way the woman looked for the coin?

I’m glad you asked. Jesus told the stories and set the pattern to get people to ask that very question. In that culture, what they call a patriarchal society, it wouldn’t have been the father who searched for the son. If the boy had an older brother, and he did, the eldest son should have went looking for his little brother. That’s how it should have worked.

Well, where was the older brother? Glad you asked. If you read the account in Luke’s gospel, chapter fifteen, you will see the older brother was angry. The older brother was mad his little brother came home. Why?

If you read the context you will see that Jesus told these stories about lost things to religious leaders who were angry that Jesus “received sinners and ate with them.” In response, Jesus told them this story about a father who received his “sinner son,” and ate with him. The real focus of the story is the older brother who represents those religious leaders who were mad Jesus was partying with “sinners.”

What can we learn from this? Just look to Jesus’s life. Over and over again Jesus said he came “to seek – and save the lost.” In other words, Jesus is the older brother — the better older brother— sent out to find us the very way the shepherd found the sheep, the way the woman found the coin, to lead us back to the Father’s house for a celebration.

These stories about lost things really sum up the entire story of the whole Bible. I like to boil the Bible down to one word: “gospel.” The word gospel means good news. The good news of the Bible is that God loved us so much that he came looking for us.

One preacher put it this way, “The story of Christmas is that you can never be good enough to get to God, so God came to you.” We can’t get to him by trying to make ourselves better. That’s like climbing to the top of this funeral home and bragging about being closer to the moon.

The Bible says if you will admit you can’t be good enough for God, that you are guilty of being disobedient towards him and selfish towards others, that you fall short, if you will admit that and believe Jesus, God’s son, died so that you can be forgiven, you will have his forgiveness. You will have hope, the same hope that sustained Aunt Toni in the toughest of situations.

But you have to receive it. It’s a gift. The Bible says that though we have all fallen short, if we will confess our disobedience and selfishness, what the Bible calls sin, and believe that Jesus not only died for you, but rose again for you, if you will do that, the Bible says you will receive forgiveness. You will be adopted into God’s family. The Bible says that it’s appointed to everyone that we will die, and after that we will stand before God and give an account.

You might think all of what I just said is nonsense. Maybe there is no God. I’ll tell you this, if you’re right, when you die, you’ll never know it. You’ll just be dead.

But if you’re wrong, you will know the second you breathe your last breath. And you’re going to know you’re wrong for a very long time. Jesus warned against this asking, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul.”

Everybody has a way they see the world, certain things they believe to be true. And every way of seeing the world is like a story. For example, if you don’t believe in God, then all of this is an accident, governed by nothing, going nowhere. In this version of reality, chance is the author and there is no grand point to the plot.

But if there is a God, then we have an explanation for where it all came from. We have meaning for our pain, because the author of the world entered our story and suffered himself. And we have hope for the grave because this is not the end.

The Bible says that to all who believe in Jesus, and receive his gift of grace and forgiveness, God gives them the right to become His sons and daughters. Jesus, our big brother, leads us to the Father’s presence. There’s so much joy in heaven any time someone does that, the Bible says God throws a party. You can do that even now. You can call out to God and he, like the father in the story of the lost sons, will run to you with arms wide open.

That’s amore.

I think a believer’s passage from this life into the next looks something like this. When our soul leaves this body, I think Jesus leads us into the presence of the Father for a celebration. There is fullness of joy. There are pleasures forever more. And this is precious in God’s sight.

No. Toni, wouldn’t leave her Savior’s side to come back to her body ravaged by that cruel disease. But she will wait. She will wait for us to join her. For those of us who have received Jesus’s forgiveness, when we like Toni pass from this life, or better, when Jesus returns, we will be reunited with Toni, and even more importantly with the Savior she loves so much.

That’s amore.

But it doesn’t end there. The Bible describes the hope of the Christian faith is not merely that our souls will be in God’s presence, but we are promised a new body. God is going to make everything new. One day our souls will receive a new body, and in a new creation, we will be able to perfectly obey what Jesus said is the greatest command of all, to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul.

That’s amore.

But until then we grieve, but not as those without hope (1 Thess 4:13). We grieve the loss of Toni Jo Terzaghi (daughter, sibling, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, friend) but we know our loss is her gain. For as the Apostle Paul said, to live is Christ, to die is gain (Phil 1:21).

Toni was one tough Italian cookie. And we will miss her. And we will see her again.