My Mother, Little Mom
Erika Redl Trentacoste
June 15, 1919 to September 27, 2012
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.” I could not have said that better, for I feel exactly the same way. My mother had an enormous influence on my life. She affected my philosophy, spirituality, code of ethics, and the very work I do each day.
I loved my mother’s sunny optimism and hungry curiosity about the world around her. She was still small when Charles Lindberg succeeded at making the very first transatlantic flight. Later she got to see man walk on the moon and recently, to marvel at the Curiosity Rover land and explore Mars. She saw the widespread use of the telephone, television, air conditioning, microwaves, all the way to present day, with the advent of personal computers, Wi-Fi, the Internet, smart phones, and social media. She wanted to know about the newest invention, and read newspapers, and watched TV news daily to her very last day.
Everyone marveled at her darling disposition – young and spirited in a way that is hard to describe. Besides the nickname I gave her of Little Mom, sometimes I would call her Little Cuteness, and other times, Little Peanut, as she was quite tiny. She had a way that made you want to come up and give her a big kiss – always grateful for little things you would do for her that really required no thank you at all.
She was deeply philosophical and religious in her own way, and she also had a solid practical sense about life that formed the underpinnings of all the decisions that she was to make in life. She didn’t stress over facing hard facts – she dealt with life’s hardships in a very matter-of-fact way. She also displayed an unshakable sense of humor that remained steadfast in the face of even the most difficult conditions. She gave all those qualities to me.
My mother had very modest beginnings. Born the youngest of five children of German parents who had come to America, the family quickly moved to upstate New York when she was 5, in 1924. They had to move because my grandfather’s doctor suggested he build a “sleeping porch” to help bring relief to his tuberculosis, a leading cause of death at the turn of the 20th century. Sleeping porches were commonly used in those days, for it was thought at the time (and still somewhat undisputed today) that fresh cool air improved the condition of lungs and brought relief to TB suffers. In those days, air conditioning was not available.
Times were hard in those days – the Depression was in full swing by the 1930’s – and because my mother’s family lived in a small town, my highly educated and skilled grandfather, an engineer from Germany, had problems finding well-paying work to support his family of five children. My grandmother started a small garden and raised chickens in a small hen house on the property to bring in extra income and also experimented with grafting fruit trees. Grandma’s techniques came to the attention of Cornell University. Grandmother was invited to submit papers on her research, which grandma did file, by the light of kerosene lamps after her children were asleep.
My mother had problems with seeing chickens the family was raising slaughtered, so to this day, my mother refused to eat any chicken. She ate turkey once a year on Thanksgiving only to please us. The town that she lived in was so small that her school was a one-room schoolhouse that housed many grades. At home, before doing homework, she and her siblings would do chores, such as to fetch buckets of water from the creek at the bottom of Ice Cave Road where they lived, to be sure the household had enough water.
Additionally, once old enough, all the kids chopped wood throughout the year to ensure that the family would have enough fuel to last through the winter (even though they had other forms of fuel, too). The idea of my little Mom, then a young girl, wielding an ax is a picture in my head that is incongruous to her delicate femininity, but she assured me that chop she did. She used to tell me that she would also tap the maple tree sugar sap in March that her mother would boil down to make maple syrup for the pancakes my grandmother would cook up on their wood-burning potbelly stove.
At 18 she saved enough to move back to New York City, leaving behind the small town where she had spent most of her childhood. She found work as a governess for the children of some of the most powerful and wealthy families of New York. She said she always loved going to Horn & Hardart for dinner, enjoying putting coins in the slots to get her meal. She loved the excitement of the big city, but inside her always remained a bit of the country, too. Open any of her personal books and a beautiful autumn leaf would fall out, or a pretty spring flower that she had pressed into that book.
My aunt Harriet, one of the five children (actually, the oldest), was devastated to hear her favorite sister – my mother – was planning a move to New York City. In an effort to stay in close, she suggested they both take a correspondence class so that they could call each other to go over their homework. My mother, always the avid student, loved the idea. “What will we study?” she asked – my aunt said “Astrology.” My mother was floored. “Are you kidding?” My aunt was persistent. My mother was excellent at math, and my aunt Harriet said she needed her to help her calculate the natal charts they would be required to do. My mother loved her sister Harriet – she was her favorite – so she agreed to help her by studying astrology, but promised to show her sister why astrology didn’t work. They took astrology courses for eight years.
The rest, as they say, is history. My mother became quite a scholar in astrology, for upon close inspection she became fascinated with its inner workings, and how it could be used to find solutions to tough problems, but also to use to take advantage of beneficial trends. She never did consultations and readings for strangers, but concentrated her time on the further study of her new hobby.
During that time, my mother met my father at a dance in New York City, but the way they met was so charming, I must tell you about that meeting. I had heard the story many times, but my sister and I loved it so much we would pretend we had completely forgotten the story so that my father would recount it again with his trademark enthusiasm.
The AT&T telephone company would have special dances for their employees at the Hotel Astor in Times Square, and they were called the Pioneers Dances. These parties were known to be special, and intended only for telephone company employees, but as the story goes, if you came looking like a good kid – clean, neat, and presentable – the guards at the door would look the other way and let you in.
My father noticed my mother one night. As he would tell us, he had seen her once before, and noticed she had come along with the same girlfriend. He told us he was instantly smitten with my mother – 5’2″, chestnut hair, and eyes of blue. That night, he got up the courage to ask her to dance. He was Italian American and looked a little bit like Sean Penn. As he told us, she turned him down. (At that point my sister and I would howl in disbelief as we glanced at my mother, “You said no?” My mother would just laugh and nod, clearly enjoying the recounting of this tale.)
Undaunted, my father went back to the friends and the brothers he came with. (My father was the oldest of seven siblings, and four were boys.) He asked Joey, his friend, if he had a pencil and paper. As my father would recall, Joey replied, “Why do you need pencil and paper? This isn’t school, this is a party!” My father insisted. Joey suggested, “Go talk to Sal – I think he has a pencil. I think Pete has a piece of paper” My father got what he needed. These were the precise words my father told us he wrote:
This is my son’s reference. He is a good boy.
My father then folded up the paper into a tiny square and went back across the dance floor and handed it to my mother. She was a little bewildered, and asked, “What is this?” He replied, “I know you don’t know me. This is my mother’s reference.” Still a little confused, she unfolded the paper and read it in the dim light – and laughed. Smiling, my father asked, “Now that you have my mother’s reference, will you dance with me?” Still laughing, she said yes. What was to ensue was a love affair that would last their entire lives.
My father, Antonio, worked with my grandfather in an Italian specialty store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at the time. My grandfather and great uncle owned the store, so at the time my parents first met, my father was young and working as a junior helper. (My father was still just learning the ropes of running a business that dealt in highly perishable foods in the hopes he would eventually take over the store with his younger brother, Charles, my uncle, which they eventually did much later.)
When my father heard that my mother had fresh farm eggs to sell him, he jumped at the chance to sell those eggs, for it was a good way to get to know my mother.
They dated 10 years before marriage. She was modern in every respect – she wanted to enjoy her independence and first learn to be self-supporting. She would laugh and tell us, “Your father kept asking me to marry him, and I kept saying ‘No – and that’s final!'” Even though they dated a full decade – she was 28 when she married – it’s important to add here that my father was her first love and only love. She never dated anyone else, for she knew in her heart that he was the one for her.
She was modern and far ahead of her time. Why did she keep refusing my father’s proposal to marry? She wanted to get to know herself, and experience some of the fun and sights of the city. She also wanted to experience supporting herself first – unheard of in her day. She always gave me the advice, “Get married when and if you want children. If you are not ready for children, wait until you are ready, for otherwise, there is no point.” I have to say, I agree with her view.
She asked my father to promise that if they were to marry, that all their children would go to college. In her day, not everyone went to college, and if any child went, it was assumed it would be only the sons. She wanted to be sure if she had girls they would get to go, too. As luck would have it, my parents would have two daughters, my sister and me. I have a BS degree in business, and my sister would get her Masters degree too, in business. (Coming from an ever-practical family, we both chose a major – business – that would lead to a solid job.)
I am getting ahead of myself, however. After my parents were married, I was born first, and then my sister came along several years later. I was born with a severe birth defect that baffled doctors, so she was hesitant to have another child until doctors could decide what was wrong with me. But time went on, so she gave up trying to find out the answer. Astrology told her that the mystery of my illness would not be discovered until I was fourteen. Rather than wait, they went ahead with another baby a few years later, and my sister, Janet, was born, completely healthy.
I loved that my mother was always my staunch advocate, always believing in me, even when the rest of the world seemed against me. Every child needs an advocate – without one, I feel the child would grow up to feel weak and defenseless in this world. My birth defect caused excruciating pain whenever I got a sudden attack, and once it had struck, would last 6 to 8 weeks, one or two times a year. When I was well, I was near perfect in every way, but when an attack would come I was not able to move an inch in the bed. I had different names for pain, in the same way Eskimos had made different words for snow. White pain was the worst and made you want to leave your body, so badly did you want to get away from it. It was worse than red pain or blue pain – it gave you the feeling mustard was in your mouth.
Doctors could not diagnose the problem, and therefore would angrily accuse me of making up my illness so I could avoid going to school. Some doctors suggested I needed a psychiatrist. All of this was preposterous and very hurtful – I would come to identify with the vast number of people accused and unjustly sent to jail. It was hard enough to be in pain, but not to be believed was even worse. The Board of Education would ask, “What kind of illness keeps a child out of school for six weeks at a time and has no name?” Talk about pressure!
I remember one day, as I lay in bed, her putting on her black suit, her red lipstick, her lady-like purse, and black leather gloves and heels, to take the subway to Brooklyn to fight my case with the Board of Education – officials again were demanding answers. She was smart, and could talk circles around anyone who debated her, but did it in a way that was kind and very feminine. This was evident in her gestures, the tenor of her words, and the softness in her big blue eyes. I would be on pins and needles until she got home, but once in the door, she would say we were OK for now, but that the day was coming where we would have to get to the bottom of my mysterious illness.
As things turned out, she was right about the timing of the mystery being solved about my leg – at 13 and 11 months, I had the attack of my life and I was not healing. I waited, but it was not to come. I had to have exploratory surgery. By now I was old enough to do so, so I held my breath and said OK, let’s do it. I was tired of never knowing whether the day would end happily or in agony with an attack.
Doctors found the problem was severe malformation of my veins and arteries that would simply turn to tissue paper and cause massive internal bleeding spontaneously from time to time. Something as simple as being excited about my birthday or Christmas would set it off. There are only 47 cases on record – I am the only person to survive surgery, for it is so treacherous. During the surgery, my brilliant surgeon, an orthopedic specialist and protege to the chief of staff at the time, expected to do a simply cartilage surgery but I disagreed. I was feeling a volume of thick liquid suddenly drop into my leg, something like glycerin, or the consistency of chocolate syrup. (What is closer to blood than chocolate syrup?) My doctor, who was to become one of the most famous doctors in the world in time, and who was even knighted by the Queen of Sweden, was faced with several harrowing surgeries on me.
He had to find a way to keep me from bleeding to death and at the same time save the left leg from amputation – the place where all my circulatory problems were based. When I woke up from surgery, I realized that I had become paralyzed from the knee down that year, but my doctor promised to get the leg working again. I was later to break my femur (thigh bone) four times because so many of the vessels were removed, the bone was starved for nourishment. My doctor got a rod in, but I died on the table during the surgery and he somehow managed to get me back.
I could have never recovered without the brilliant skill of my doctor, but it was also my mother’s love that would get me back on my feet, quite literally.
Little Mom was not going to trust my recovery to hospital food so each day she made homemade meals that she kept hot by jumping into a taxi to the hospital. She did this during the whole time I was a patient, 11 months straight. I had many blood transfusions and too many close calls on my life to recount. The hospital staff had me on tilt tables, parallel bars, and wearing big metal brace to my hip – and then I was back in the operating room for more surgery, a skin graph and other procedures. My mother remained my cheerleader – I did none of this alone – and I walk today because of her indomitable spirit and willingness to keep me going, even when the pain was crushing, and interns were telling me privately not to bet the farm on my recovery. (They were wrong, she was right.)
During those teenage years, after I finally got home, I was to be home schooled, so that I could do the 6-hour-a-day physical therapy for three years to regenerate the left leg’s nerve that had been damaged by the powerful, extremely tight compression bands that my doctor had use to tourniquet the bleeding. I went from junior high to college, home through all of my high school years, from sophomore to senior year. My mother taught me all that I learned, although the Board of Education sent a teacher two hours a week to my house, and a teacher to monitor state exams on a regular basis. It was during that time I had so much time with my mother, and her influence in me grew. She was always there, step by step to keep me optimistic – I would walk again – and I did.
She never dwelled on the pain of what I was going through but instead painted a picture of what was to come. “Susie, you will have so many new shoes, and so many pretty dresses, you won’t know which one to choose. You will be able to travel when you get well too, not like before, when you always had to stay close to home, lest an attack strike!”
I used to say I grew up in Manhattan, but now I just say, “I grew up in hospitals.” If you add up all my hospital stays I have had, each of them very protracted, it comes to about seven years in all. To this day, I have had 40 blood transfusions and I hope will not have any more in my life. Even something as simple as giving birth to my first daughter Chrissie turned into a crisis, and required a two-month hospital stay with transfusions and six months in a wheelchair.
When I risked my life to have my second child, Diana, my mother stood behind me. I asked her if she would be willing to take over the raising of my children if anything went wrong during the birth – specifically, if I were not to make it through. She replied, “Of course.” Brave soul, my mother!
She asked, “How is your chart looking, Susan?” I answered, “That’s a sore point – I have a packed eighth house.” (The eighth house rules death, but also surgery). She nodded. “That shows the condition.” I looked up at her – “Wait! It shows the condition but not the outcome?” She smiled and said, “Yes. Did the doctors ask you to write your will?” I nodded affirmative, and added I had just seen a lawyer to do my will a day earlier. She explained, “Of course! Had you not had a packed eighth house, the topic of your will would not have even come up.” Then she asked, “Do you feel you can have this baby, Susan?” I replied that, despite the doctors’ dire warnings, absolutely yes. And I will never forget her steady, measured reply, looking at me with such kindness: “And so you will. The end result lies in your heart and in your determination, Susan, always.”
More health bouts would come throughout my life, but she was always there, forever practical – we do what we must to get healthy, and we do not spend unnecessary energy bemoaning why it is necessary – we get on with what we need to do without delay. That way, we more quickly become well.
It was to be my mother’s sense of philosophy that I found influenced me the most. I will give you an example of a defining moment that was to forever change the way I would view my life and my place in the universe, all because of her.
One day, when I was about 9 years old, I got an attack at my grandmother’s house. It was the end of June, so school had just ended for summer vacation. We had just arrived in the country and I knew I was to be in bed the whole time, until end of August, and by then, summer vacation would be over. I wished I were home in my own little bed, or better yet, well, and sitting on a wooden box outside my father’s store in New York City. I loved the heat of summer, for I was not a country child – I missed the city. I was frustrated.
That morning sun was steaming in the window on the second floor of my bedroom; a pale green, leafy tree was brilliantly lit just outside my open window. It was about 11 AM and I could hear my little sister Janet squealing downstairs as she ran around the yard with another neighborhood child.
My mother had just taken an hour to change the sheets on my bed, as she had to carefully push the old sheets under me slowly and at the same time gently pull the new, clean sheet under me too, after removing the old one. It was the way they did it in the hospital, but it took a lot of time. During the 6 to 8 weeks that an attack lasted, I was as fragile as nitroglycerine, but she knew precisely how to gently handle my leg, holding it a certain way by the ankle, careful never to twist it even the slightest, which always rested on a pillow, so not to set off spasms and attacks of unbearable, pass-out pain.
That morning, I felt the need to say something shocking – something that would sum up my frustration. I blurted out, “This old leg! I wish someone else had this old leg!” My mother, by then pushing fluffy pillows into new pillowcases at the foot of my bed, looked up in disbelief. I had never, ever wished my pain on anyone else. “What did you say?” Determined to shock my mother over my frustration with my illness, I repeated what I had just said.
Still wearing her apron, she sat in a chair next to my bed. “Susan, don’t you know you were hand picked by God to have this painful illness? What If I told you that your pain might take away someone else’s pain in the world?” I was so surprised at this new idea that she had just offered me – that my pain could actually be used for a good and noble purpose. It was so intriguing, that I was momentarily stunned. I asked, “Is that possible?” She replied, “We know nothing about life, Susan. It is, and always will be, a mystery. Anything is possible.” Suddenly my entire world changed in a flash, for the better. The very idea that pain could have a positive result in the world, that it was not at all useless, and that I might be able to take away someone else’s pain, inspired me deeply and completely reframed my relationship to my illness.
“Where would this person be?” I asked her quickly. My mother laughed, and shaking her head, said she didn’t know. I replied, “Could it be a little girl in China?” As a child myself, I was trying to think of the most distant culture I could conjure up – in my mind’s eye I saw a girl about my age, with shiny black hair made up in braids, in pink Chinese printed silk. She nodded, “Why not?” She said she had to go downstairs to start making lunch but that we could talk about this more later. She gave me an epiphany I would embrace forever.
It would take years for me to fully understand the scope of the idea she had suggested to me. Now I realize she was right (as always) – I feel could never write in the compassionate way that some say I do, had I not suffered myself during much most of my life My columns appear in ten different countries of the world each month (translated) and I am working on my tenth book that will appear in many languages, including my latest, in Chinese. My mother was always prophetic.
I had to beg her to teach me astrology – she refused dozens of times. I simply wanted to know if all the physical therapy would work, and if I had a good chance of ever walking again. It took about 18 months of constant begging her to teach me, to get her to relent. She told me “astrology is not a parlor game – it is real and it is serious. It will require you study with me for 12 years, with absolutely no reading for friends in that time. (I reminded her that not being a student in high school meant I had no friends. I lived home, had a big metal brace on my leg, and was not going anywhere.) She finally agreed.
My mother told me we would study astrology, but also philosophy and religion. We would study how to communicate clearly as well, for she was concerned not only about saying the wrong thing, but also about my saying the right thing the wrong way – and hence, leaving the wrong impression, just as bad. Later, when I was to become known in the field, she said, “I wish I could have written books and columns. It was not to be in my day.” I assured her that I was simply writing her books and columns FOR her: “Little Mom, all that I say, and all that I know, is from you – these are truly your books. I am simply writing them down for you.”
She taught me the essence of love. Her love for my father survived his death two decades ago. My mother had a remarkable habit of talking clearly in her sleep. Her present day aid of six years, Annie, would occasionally tape those nightly episodes so we could hear what she had to say. Nearly every night for years, in her sleep she would talk about her need to rush home to cook, to set the table, and prepare a meal for father. I recently listened to some of Annie’s tapes of my mother’s nocturnal “meetings” with my father in her dreams.
Her conversation with my father might have centered on a world event, the motions of the stock market, or about the new law that was coming before Congress. (My mother’s mind chewed on weighty subjects). At other times, she would talk in her dreams about her four grandchildren or other family members. It was her way of digesting the things she heard and wanted to think about a bit more, and those dreams also seemed to serve the purpose of remaining close to my father.
Who is to say she did not have a mysterious window to the unknown, a way of reaching my father each night as she dreamed? As she used to say, we know so little of life, why we are here and what we must do while we are here. She always said the ways of life are mysterious, and she would remind me that we were but soldiers of God, awaiting our next assignment. She always encouraged me, even as a child, to begin thinking early about why I felt I was born, and how I could make my best contribution to the world, on a little or big scale. One was not necessarily better than the other. She never sought fame (although I think I did give her a measure of that), but she did strive to be the best she could be, and to give all to us, her family.
She lived her life generously and showed me we could always give to others, even when we had very little of our own to give. When my father and my mother heard of someone old in the neighborhood who needed to move because the rent had become too high or because the building was coming down, they would go out of their way to find that neighbor or customer a new apartment. I was 20 and just graduated from NYU and looking for my own place, but my parents kept giving away choice, affordable apartments to everyone who needed a new place.
I finally say to them, “What about me, can’t you help me?” My mother and father would remind me the person they had helped was old, or in pain, and they were more deserving of their help. I actually found their reasoning touching and irrefutable, and finally went out and found my first apartment on my own, also in the same neighborhood,
When the poor came into my father’s store, who were hungry and my parents knew could not possibly pay for what they needed, my mother would put all the food in a bag, and my father would say, “Let’s put this on the tab,” knowing full well that person would never be able to pay, nor would they be expected to do so. This allowed each person to keep his or her dignity – and feed a starving family.
My mother always gave my sister and I the most precious gift a mother has to give – unconditional love and her full attention. She was never distracted with other things; we were the center of her world. She made our childhood wonderful, and even though we were not rich, we were rich in other ways, with the positive, strong family unit she had created. We adored her and did anything we could think of to please her. She took care of us when we were small and we tried to return the love to her when she needed our help in her advanced age.
I always ended my visits with her by saying what she had always said to me when I was little, “I love you as high as the sky (raise my arms up the sky), as wide as the world (and extend my arms out wide horizontally) and as deep as the ocean (extending my arms down straight toward the floor)!” Later, when she lost her hearing due to the antibiotic to cure an earlier bout of pneumonia, we didn’t need the words anymore to our little traditional goodbye – we simply made those hand signals.
So, Little Mom, if you are watching me today from your spot in heaven, I will end my little talk about you in the very the same way we always did, with those little arm gestures. I love you as high as the sky, as wide as the world, and as deep as the ocean. It is a love so strong, it will go on forever in my heart, and in the world. We will miss you, Little Mom.
If you would like to send a donation to the American Lung Association in memory of my mother, Erika Trentacoste, her family would be grateful. October 1, 2012 is Little Mom’s funeral.
Susan’s mother died of pneumonia, and her father died of emphysema. Her grandfather had tuberculosis.
If you would like to send a card to Susan Miller and family:
Susan Miller Omni Media Inc.
Yorkville Finance Station
Post Office Box 286052
New York NY 10128