Dancing Through Life: Terry McLaughlin
By Catherine Davis, Editorial Assistant
August / September 2012
Ninety-one years old and still as vivacious as ever, Irish American Teresa McLaughlin shares her life story and her secrets to living well.
The second installment in a new series on inspiring Irish-American seniors.
Teresa “Terry” McLaughlin is doing something right. At 91, she receives frequent reminders that she’s still a man magnet, but it would be truer to say simply that she is magnetic; no qualifiers necessary. Maybe it’s the subtle way she has of smiling. Maybe it’s that she radiates an aura of inner peace and joy, as so many strangers-from-across-the-room have sworn to her she does. Or, who knows, maybe it’s just that she dresses well. Whatever the reason, this former professional dancer and current great-grandmother of eight is – like the earthy, golden hue she’s worn for her visit to Irish America – unassuming, but only at first.
Born on May 3, 1921, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn to Catholic parents, Terry Carl always had a confidence about her. The youngest of five, she quickly took on the role of entertainer. “When I was a little girl, they used to call me Tootsie,” she says, smiling. “I used to imitate Charlie Chaplin, with my father’s derby. I’d come downstairs with the cane and everything, make my mother laugh.” Her mother, Elizabeth Bridgette O’Connor, encouraged her, paying for lessons in tap and Irish step dancing. Elizabeth had distant roots stretching back to a town called Greysteel in Faughanvale, Co Derry, where the O’Connor family once owned a pub and general store. “As a kid, my mother had ideas of me going places,” Terry explains. But her mother wasn’t the only one dreaming big – Terry, too, had her sights set high, only her goals were a bit more specific. “I’m going to be a professional dancer and have ten children,” she would tell her friends in Brooklyn. It turns out Terry wasn’t imagining, so much as she was prophesying.
She auditioned for Earl Lindsay right out of high school, and earned a spot in his review. At just 18 years old, Terry was living her dream as a professional dancer, performing at the Lotus Club in Washington, DC. For two years, she continued to perform with Lindsay’s review. But during a visit home for rehearsals, she discovered that her father, William, who worked for the Daily News, was sick with worry about her. “He didn’t want to tell me. He wanted me to continue with what I wanted to do,” she explains. “He used to call me his ‘pet.’ I was his baby.” But after seeing what her being away was doing to him, Terry felt she couldn’t in good conscience continue with a lifestyle that would take her so far away from her family. She traded in her career as a dancer for a job in bookkeeping at Grace Line (part of W. R. Grace & Co). “I used to meet [Peter Grace] at the water machine on the seventh floor!” she exclaims, then laughs, “Oh, I had a lot of fun.”
Terry was 25 when she and two of her friends, on their way home from a bridal shower, stopped in at a local pub for a beer. There, an embarrassing mishap involving inadequately labeled restroom doors resulted in a chance meeting between Terry and Navy vet Vincent McLaughlin – whom she would marry just six months later. He and his two friends joined the women for a drink, and “There was just something about him, a kindness,” she says, to which she was drawn. As fate would have it, Terry’s friends paired off with, and also eventually married, Vincent’s companions.
A widower with a three-year-old daughter, Vincent offered Terry a considerably different life to the one she had been leading. Vincent (whose great-uncle, Hugh McLaughlin, was a politician, and played an important role in the creation of Prospect Park and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge) was also from Brooklyn, and that’s where the newlyweds stayed for their first several years of marriage. However, soon after the couple’s third child was born, the McLaughlins, now with four young children, moved to a farm in Waterford, Connecticut.
So, in her early 30’s, this fashionable young woman from Brooklyn was raising young children in a country house with only cows and chickens for company; the nearest neighbor over a mile away.
Like her mother, Terry encouraged her children to express themselves creatively. Once a week, she and the kids would perform a Talent Night for Vincent, who worked as a traveling salesman and was home only on weekends.
How did she keep from going stir crazy? “Oh, I’d talk to the hens!” she replies. Perhaps the real answer, then, is that she didn’t keep from going stir crazy. “One morning, I went into the coop and saw an egg lying there, and this hen was up walking around. I said, ‘Get over there, you’re supposed to be sitting on that egg,’ and so help me, it went over – sat down on the egg!” Terry chuckles, “I used to have more fun with them.”
In fact, there were so many hens on Vincent and Terry’s farm that she decided to make a small side-business selling eggs. “I put up a sign on the trellis, ‘60 cents a dozen.’ And I’d ask them to please bring back their boxes, because you know, I didn’t have a lot of boxes. And they would. When my husband came home, he was surprised.”
Suddenly Terry’s story begins to sound oddly familiar: Early show business aspirations. Comical accidents. Living-room variety shows. A young family from New York City moving to a farm in Connecticut. The mother scheming to sell eggs, her husband in the dark about it. All this happened on I Love Lucy! And, hold on, didn’t Lucy once dress up as Charlie Chaplin, too?
Terry concedes to a measure of resemblance between her own life and that of a certain Lucille Esmeralda McGillicuddy Ricardo. Of course, there are differences. Her husband was not from Cuba. And Terry, unlike the fictional Lucy, came to confront a kind of adversity that would have felt very much out of place on the light-hearted sitcom.
In 1960, the couple moved to a larger house in Merrick, Long Island, to accommodate their growing family. But in 1964, just six months after their tenth child was born, Vincent went into the hospital for an operation, and died from an overdose of anesthesia. Suddenly a 42-year-old widow with ten children to raise on her own, Terry found herself “in a daze.” For a year I couldn’t go up to the bedroom. I slept on the couch. Never would I have made it without my faith. I prayed, ‘I can’t do it alone,’” she reflects.“But, you know, no matter how bad situations are, you get through them.”
Vincent died not long after President Kennedy was assassinated, and Terry looked to Jackie Kennedy for strength and inspiration. Terry made her bed every morning, and did her best to make sure all her children were taken care of. As if the new economic strain was not enough of a challenge, Terry also faced the overwhelming concern over how she could protect her many children.
One afternoon, she was alone with just her youngest child and one of her teenage sons who was sick with the flu when an intruder forced his way into their home with a gun. The man told her to get on the floor, and instead of complying, “I said, ‘No,’” she explains rather matter-of-factly. “And I fought him, I fought him. I fought him because I had just lost my husband. And what ran through my head was, ‘My children will be orphans.’ And I fought, I just fought.”
Police told her she had done the right thing, that the man was not expecting her to put up a struggle, and got frightened when she did. “My God, Terry,” her friend and neighbor, Ed, said after reading about the incident, “I’d never fight a gun.” To this day, she has no reply, other than “I’m Irish.”
The few moments of peace Terry was able to enjoy during this period of heartache and worry were found at a local pub called The Hearthstone, where she would sometimes join friends to relax and dance for a couple of precious hours.
She eventually sold the Merrick house and moved to an apartment in New Hyde Park, where she worked as a bank teller until she finally retired and moved in with her daughter Teresa and her family in Florida. These days, she spends about half the year visiting her other nine children (Rosemary, Paul, Irene, Laura, Vincent, Kenneth, Christina, Virginia and Richard), and along with them, her nineteen grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
But, back to the story about selling eggs, I urge Terry. Vincent was surprised, yes, but was he good-surprised, or was he Ricky-Ricardo-surprised? She laughs again, “He was very happy!”
And, of course, he had every reason to be happy. Because if Terry has only one actual thing in common with this ridiculous television character to whom I insist on comparing her, it’s a similarly dogged refusal to allow unfortunate circumstances, and life’s unrelenting unpredictability, to ever diminish her optimism, or her ability to find humor in the moment.
Perhaps this is what people are picking up on when they find themselves inexplicably drawn to her. “I think it’s because I love people,” she muses, “and when you love something, it comes right back at you.”
I don’t know much about auras, but I’m inclined to say that Terry’s is a warm constant glow. Less like sunshine, and more like the Sun itself.