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.