She was born Patricia Ann Benjamin, but after the divorce, she moved to California where her guru advised her to embrace her inner goddess. Her name was there and then changed forever to Tera, and her title became Empress of the Universe. Some years later, my mother abdicated that throne to Gaia, but while she was Empress, we had grand gatherings, banquets from back yard harvests, celebrations, and always, always, the love kept pouring out.
Oh, that’s not to say she was some kinda saint. She was fierce, like me, in love and battle. Ms. Tera Tripp Treadaway was a real firecracker in her day – sporting a bumper sticker on her VW bus that said “Born Again Pagan”, and another one, come to think of it, that said “Pro Child Pro Family Pro Choice”. The neighborhoods we lived in in Oakland, California were pretty much of the same mind. Still, the young men in their starched white shirts would ring the doorbell asking “Have you heard the word of the Lord today?” and Mom would ask them had they read the “Wiccan Creede”? She would tell them to come on back after they had done a little homework on Pagan beliefs so they could have a real conversation. She lost that playfulness in those last painful days, but that’s how I remember her. Gardening in full Halloween makeup, face all painted purple with streaks in her long hair, setting off the neighbors to gossip and scaring their kids.
That was back in Miami – Dade County, home to Bible thumpin’ homophobes. Mom backed me up when I declared in all of my eight year old wisdom, that there was no God. Grandma’s priest had just told me that un-christened babies go to Hell. I was shocked. For what? Babies hadn’t even the chance to do anything bad, what sin could they possibly have committed? I was pretty loud about it in class. The other kids started sending me home from school with Bibles – no doubt their parents felt the need to save my poor soul. Mom donated them to Goodwill.
It’s been nigh on ten years now since Mom died, I thought I would be done grieving. I know she is in a warm gentle place in the universe, where there is no pain, and I surely would not wish a minute more of the bone searing pain of her last days. I understand now that the grieving period for a woman of such magnitude needs be longer than for folks who won’t be missed. She comes to me in my dreams, vivid, her hand on top of my head, saying soothing words, my port in a storm.
She had long brown hair that lightened in the Florida sun. I have pictures of Mom in her braid – we were kids then. She wrote a column for the weekly advertiser called Pat’s Patter, and sometimes it was about me and the words I’d invent, like “Perk-on” for how my mom got going in the morning after the coffee had percolated in the Corning ware pot. My hair came out white and fine like Angel Hair made of glass, the white clouds of threads that used be on the inside of Grandma’s Christmas ornaments. You’d cut your finger if you caressed those fluffy balls, then there would be brown specks of infant blood inside, so we learned to handle them carefully.
“It’s going to be a tight Christmas”, Mom said every year. No matter what, the refrain would start up in November. In good years and bad, she always felt financially insecure. On a molecular level, I rebelled against crying poormouth, or maybe it was the German side’s vaunted stoicism. I just saved up all my allowances and birthday coins in a plastic dinosaur piggy bank, and it was filled with coins when my brother Chris and I ran away from home. We decided with our four and six-year old wisdom that we should buy lots of bubble gum, so if we got hungry, we could just chew it. So we walked and we walked through the suburban streets of Miami, Florida for the better part of a day. We kept walking even when it got dark, and somehow wound up at Grandma’s house that night. She immediately gave us some cookies, and calmly asked us to explain how we had gotten there. “Well, Big Sister beats us up all the time, and we are tired of it – don’t call Mom, we are never going back!” Of course she called Mom, who was frantic with worry. Shortly after, she came to pick us up, kissing us repeatedly. We felt betrayed by Grandma, but Mom promised to talk to our older sister, and make her stop. And that worked – for awhile.
What I learned from that mighty sojourn was that to have money meant you didn’t have to stay where you were miserable. Mad money, my mom called it – so if you get really mad, you can pay taxi fare and get the hell out of there. On Halloween, I would put my candy away (some in the freezer) and would still be eating it in December. This drove my brother and sister crazy. But I had set my sights on financial independence, on ALWAYS having “mad money”, and worked steadily toward that goal. All these years later, I still keep candy in the freezer, because hey, you never know.
When I was a teenager, I pestered my mom to let me pierce my ears. I assumed it would be done in a doctor’s office, or one of those mobile clinics they set up in the shopping malls. But that cost money – hence the wheedling. Surprisingly, mom had no discernible negative reaction to that. She just said “Your grandmother is coming in a few weeks. She is a nurse, I will ask her to bring a needle, and we’ll do it right here.”
The appointed day did arrive, and we sat on Mom and Pop’s bed while Grandma laid out her piercing kit. By this time, Mom had divorced Dad, and married Pop Treadaway. He was a good stepfather for many years, an artist, who spiraled down into his nascent paranoid schizophrenia after Mom died. But this day, this day was about the piercing of ears.
“Bring me some ice, Pat.” My mom, who had changed her name to Tera months before, just obeyed. My Buscia called me Catazgina with a soft “G”, Polish for Catherine. I wish now that I had tried to learn her parent’s native language, but Polish was not offered in school, and in those days, the immigrant population wanted very much for their children and grandchildren to be Americans, and did not want them speaking any language other than English.
“What’s the ice for, Grandma?”
“To numb your ear.”
“Wait, that will just make it cold, not numb. Don’t you have any Novocain or something like that?”
“Catazgina, this is how all of the women in our family have it done.”
“Yeah, maybe back in Poland, but Grandma, this is 1970, and new procedures have been invented.”
“We’ll have none of your back talk, Catazgina. Ah there it is.”
My mom returned with a bowl of ice and a russet potato cut in two.
“Hold the ice to your ear lobe, honey.”
A minute and half of eternity later, I lowered my arm, and quick as lightening, Grandma put that half a potato on the front of my right ear lobe, pushed the needle through the skin, placed a gold earring post on the tip of the needle, and pulled it back through.
“OW, OW, OW! Just the one, Grandma, I don’t need both ears pierced! I’ll be happy with one.”
“Don’t be such a baby. Now turn your head.”
I was squirming convincingly by now, and as I write this memory out, I put my hand up to feel which of my ears was pierced straight through. The left side is crooked, not in the center of the lobe. Oh yeah, I was not sitting still when that second needle jab rounded the corner of my face. My cousin Cathy Sue was waiting outside in the hallway for her turn. When my Grandma called out, she was gone. Cathy Sue did eventually get her ears pierced, but it would be years later. I loved my grandmother, but my left ear reminds me how tough she was.
When I was in my twenties, I surprised my Mom by stating loudly and dramatically that I hated camping. As a matter of fact, I went down on one knee, shook my fist at the air and proclaimed in my best Scarlett O’Hara that: “I will nevah go campin’ agin!” In the 1970’s summers, the five of us would pack food and tents and sleeping bags, and head up the coast of California. I did NOT want to go. I hated the ticks though Mom coolly drove them out with the hot tip of her extra long cigarette. They were menthol Mores, which I always thought was a wish unfulfilled. Then there was the long cold walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the washing of the dishes made difficult without a proper sink. And my brother and sister, who were lousy company in the city, were trapped with me in a tent that we had to put up ourselves, arguing the whole time. And no matter how thick the sleeping bags were, the ground was still cold and hard in those makeshift beds. I travel in comfort now, but have developed some compassion for those who prefer roughing it.
I got my “gallows humor” from Mom, and some from Dad – the tackier the better. Like that time on the ride back from the Oncologist with Mom. It was her last visit to the doctors in 2008 when we found out the kidney cancer was terminal. I piped up in the back seat with:
“Hey Mom – we got some good news today”
“Oh yeah honey, what’s that”?
“You can take up smoking again!”
“Well, that’s right – not going to die of lung cancer, might as well.”
Or that time when my brother Christopher broke his neck at age 14, my mom stayed by his side as he recovered from burns in the rotating bed at Shriner’s Hospital. One day, he begged to be allowed to die. Mom goes “Hey you should be grateful, Chris.”
“Oh yeah, for what?”
“You could have wound up a blind quadriplegic, that would have been really bad. Running over your own pets in your electric wheelchair. Yep, coulda been much much worse.” It makes the unbearable less tragic, if you can laugh at it.
Usually, I’m not a material girl, I hoard memories and photographs, but in the days after Mom passed, when I was clearing out her office/writing room, I found this pen, black tip, gold barrel. It came in a velveteen-lined case from the Cross Pen company. Engraved on the top piece that clicks into place both fore and aft is my mother’s chosen name: TERA. The pen was a gift when she graduated with a Masters in Early Childhood Development from Cal State Hayward, and I used it for the first drafts of this memoir. I wish I had the rest of her writings – her grieving husband, my stepfather, went mad with sorrow and took them all. He vandalized their home on his way to a cramped apartment where he cursed the world, and banished everyone who loved him forever. I was at his bedside in the VA hospital’s hospice unit, and he said he was sorry for all the hurt he’d caused. His best friend Bobby came with me, and we both felt we had achieved “closure”. Forgiveness, not so much - when he died, the journals and diaries were not among the rubble of his ruined life.
In 2010, my husband and I photo safaried in Africa, dwelling in Canvas Villas with running water, copper bathtubs, verandas, indoor and outdoor showers, desks and couches, hot water for bush tea, fresh towels folded in the shapes of elephants. No phones, no internet; our wakeup call was one of the guides standing outside the steps – not actually knocking of course, because the door was not made of wood, just saying “knock knock” until we mumbled back, “good morning, thank you”. The stunning Botswana sunsets with their trees etching bare branches against the sky are burned into the inside of my eyelids, forever calling me back. I think, though, that my mother would have said that I did love camping after all, and laughed and laughed and laughed.
If Catherine’s writings were expressed in one color, it would be yellow, bright as sunlight, highlighting the salient portions, deconstructing air brushed stories, and finding humor and courage in the unloved corners. A scribbler since childhood, Catherine has published financial columns, short stories, poetry, and since leaving banking behind, concentrates on telling the her story of brave women. Her work has been published in Pilcrow and Dagger, Wingless Dreamer, Reedsy, and she has read her work for several Zoom shows in 2020, including the Mask Monologues, Coffee and Grief and Creative Caffeine. “Dear 2020”, an essay was awarded Honorable Mention by Writer’s Digest in 2021. Her recent writings and blog posts have been insightful, fast-paced, evocative essays about current events, and memoirs about the tangled branches of her family tree. She lives in Hawaii where she is writing a historical novel about Mary Ellen Pleasant a determined abolitionist entrepreneur.
Writers Website: https://www.cgtrippenterprises.com/
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/catherinetrippwriter