Born in Houston, Texas, Terri moved to Los Angeles, California in the early 70’s to finish her education at CSULA. After receiving her B.A. in Child Development & Elementary Education, Terri taught for 30 years in the Duarte Unified School District where she earned various other credentials & her M.S. in Literacy & Learning from Walden University. When she retired in 2012, Terri co-founded StoryChicks, an acting company with C.E. Jordan. Both write and perform true stories from childhood as well as other personal memoirs in the Los Angeles area.
Terri has published a children’s picture book, The Velveteen Dress (Inkwater Press, Ltd, 2014) and is currently working on publishing her second book, No Soup for Sadie. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Anthology of American Poets 1976, EastJasmineReview.com (2011-2014), and recently in Down in the Dirt Magazine (Sept.2018). Much of her writing reflects her Texas roots, her love for nature, and a desire to make people laugh.
Snakes-friends. Lizards-yuck! Cockroaches-okay. Grasshoppers-absolutely not. I grew up with all of these and measured out levels of tolerance according to personal experience. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most acceptable, I can gage co-existence with any of these creatures when they come within a 12 foot range.
Snakes are bountiful in East Texas. The woods, bayous and lakes provide a perfect home for these slithering creatures. Some are even poisonous and dangerous! Mama and Daddy warned us of the the corn snakes, the rattlesnakes, and the water moccasins living in the corn shed, the woodpiles, and the ponds, and sometimes even under the front porch. But as kids, we trudged forth proclaiming our playgrounds and wrestling territory from these native creatures.
“Alright now, you kids mind the water moccasins while swimming. Don’t play around. “ My mama wasn’t about to keep us out of Lake Houston on a hot summer day, but she did warn us about the indigenous dangers lurking in the water where we played. At first, we would swim slowly; our eyes watching the water for the serpent’s black head and the slithering ripples as a cotton mouth made its way across the surface. Eventually, we gave up our guard and gaged how fast we could out swim the demon to shore.
“Mama, look what Casey caught!”
My cousin runs up, holding a dead dripping water moccasin hanging from a pine stick. Its sagging ebony skin looped over the branch and tail extended toward earth formed a perfect question mark.
“What the hell do you kids think you’re doin’? Put that down now!” screamed my mama.
“But it’s dead””.
“Never you mind.” I said PUT IT DOWN NOW. “ Mama was not about to let us make friends with the wicked wiles of a water witch.
Snakes have never threatened me, although I respect those that try. I searched grasses and wood piles to know where they hid. One time, I found a small garden snake. I named him Henry and kept him in my empty marble jar. I cut a small slit in the tin lid so Henry could breathe. There he lived with bits of grass and flies. Occasionally, I would open the tin lid, pull Henry out and feel his cool, slick skin, smooth like glass, slide between my fingers. This was my first pet.
One summer we left for vacation, and Henry had to stay behind with Eddie, the boy next door, MARBLE KING.
“Now Eddie, don’t you take him out. Be careful to give him just a few flies. Don’t overfeed him.” I reluctantly left Henry in Eddie’s charge. I should have listened to my gut. Upon returning home, Eddie presented me with an empty jar; Henry was gone! Eddie sure was getting good at emptying my marble jar! Snakes-10!
Most people assume if you love a snake, then you’re bound to find a lizard just as friendly. Not so. Lizards have a wicked, sinister, almost devilish personality. Oh yeah, they look small and vulnerable, but pick one up on a hot summer day when that lizard hates to be bothered, and watch your fingers loose a bit of skin. Lizards can bite and hang on like a bird dog on prey. Their tiny sharp-edged teeth saw into your fingers and fail to let lose. They snarl and hiss and rear their dragon heads, warning you…”I am not in the mood for you.” Well, my sentiments exactly! You can chase them down and around the house. Those Rose-bellies skitter behind jars and under doors, into shoes and up the walls. You can cut their spiny tails and they turn in spite, charge at you and aim to bite. No, no… Lizards are not for me. Their nature is hidden, chameleon relative, ever-changing, not like a snake whose true nature is evident. Lizards-4
You can’t live in the south without witnessing cockroaches. Now they say that everything comes BIG in Texas. This is true of roaches. I have seen, felt, and killed some pretty monstrous buggers! It has somethin’ to do with the heat and moisture, the decaying foliage and the resiliency of cockroaches which makes them inhabitants of all homes. When we turned on the kitchen light at night, thousands, no, hundred thousands of those brown tailcoats ran for cover. The day the exterminator came to our house to snake out these pests, I watched him spray around the cracks and edges of the wall, flushing out millions of glossy coated cockroaches. I swear I did! I watched those winged critters race out and up my daddy’s pant leg. I screamed and jumped onto the nearest chair while my daddy just stood there, shaking out his pant leg. I thought he was the bravest man I had ever seen.
My daddy taught me to not fear these beasts. With swatter in hand, a wad of tissue, I could outrun and dodge the fastest roach. They were not scary, just fat and ugly. If only they didn’t have wings. Cockroaches-5
This fear started when I spent summer days at my Aunt Nettie’s farm outside Tyler, Texas.. Billions of brown grasshoppers ate up the dry grasses and fields. To do my chores, sometimes I had to walk through trillions of tobacco-spitting hoppers; those critters could cover your body in an instant. I swatted my way, forging a path so I could breathe without a bug in my mouth. Each step brought forth a “crunch” as my sandals terminated a small “militant” group. If I chose to ride to the pond, sitting on the tailgate of PawPaw’s truck, a giant brown hopper would flip himself up beside me, hitching a ride like we was old friends. “Don’t think so, buddy. Get off my train.” Bamm! I squashed that bugger and kept my guard up.
They are nasty, juice spitting critters. They swirl saliva around in their mouths and eject it on your clean shoes or shirt. They are quick and jittery, changing course and height to land on your head, in your hair, or down your shirt. There they twitch and squirm providing your with an unforgettable sensation which lasts until bedtime bath. How can one love a bug whose eyes are more than half the size of their head and on close inspection, house spiny legs like mutated lobsters? Reptiliatus- Ugh, yuck, gross! GRASSHOPPERS-0!
As I began to record early memories growing up in Houston, Texas, I realized their impact and influence on making me the woman I am today. One of the most vivid and favorite recollections of living in Texas is the rain; water is so much a part of the Gulf Coast world. Rain was a playground. We live in it, live by it, and live because of it. We swim in it; we fish in it; and we’re baptized by it. So to tell the story of my first encounter with big winds and strong rains leads to an understanding of how I love water, love languages, and love warm tortillas.
Strong Winds and New Friends
Mid-September, l961, East Coast Texas. The skies are dark and winds are pickin’ up. I watch Daddy boardin’ up the windows of our little duplex on Knox Street. Mama has gone to the store to stock up on groceries and batteries. A big storm is a comin’! They call her Carla-Hurricane Carla –and she is headin’ our way. I worry if my mama will make it back in time.
On the other side of town, my aunts and uncles join families together in one household, my cousins huddle close under the bed, wondering why my uncle is filling up the bathtub with water. Is it time to take a bath?
“Now you kids do not touch this water. Don’t even put your fingers in it. We may need to drink it later”. My uncle cautions them to stay away from the bath water. They stare at the baptismal font and wonder how come they’re gonna drink bath water when every night they are told “Don’t drink the bath water; it’s nasty!”
We are used to rain in East Texas. It does not seem scary or strange. We git ready for big ones and hole up in our half home, lighting candles and eating peanut butter sandwiches, waiting for the lightning and thunder to stop. At eight years, it is still the lightening which frightens me the most. Its crackle and sulfur fumes radiating in the air. Its super-charged bolts illuminate the house for a brief second, long enough to chase out shadows lurking in corners; shadows which I am sure are the ghosts haunting my sister at night.
But the rain, I love the rain. It’s rhythmic patter on the tin roof measures out songs to my heart. It purifies the earth and brings up worms ready for bait. And the smell of rain lingers long after -fresh and clean.
The Rain now thunders down in our yard, fillin’ up the ditch and coverin’ the gravel. It slowly begins to rise and reaches the front porch steps. The wind kicks the water until it ripples, making waves-a mini ocean in my back yard.
I look out the screen door across the small lot which separates our house from new neighbors, the Garcias. I don’t know them and have not met them, but I can see the mother in the kitchen door. She’s wavin’ at us. She wears a frantic look and continues to gesture while the rain pours down, bucket drops,
“Mama, come here. The lady next door wants somethin’. She might be in trouble.” My mama rushes to the screen door and shouts ”Hello, you okay?” Mrs. Garcia says something neither me nor my mama can understand, but she continues to wildly gesture for us to come over. My mama is worried that somethin’ bad has happened to one of her little boys. I remember seeing them play alongside the house, but was always too shy to speak to them. I don’t think they speak English and I didn’t understand Spanish. I didn’t know then that was not a problem, since children have their our own form of communication called “ play.”
My mama gathers up some candles and a large umbrella. We head across the small lake which has now formed around our two homes. I try wadin’ through the torrents of water, but the rise is too high for my little legs to navigate. Mama picks me up and carries me across. I hold the umbrella to shield us from the pounding raindrops.
When we reach Mrs. Garcia’s, a wonderful warmth and aroma hits my nose. It is not a familiar smell, but I like it. She greets my mother with universal language and hands her a flat pancake, smeared with butter and jam. She offers me one as well and rolls it up so I may eat it better. It is buttery joy, unlike anything I have ever tasted. She calls them “tortillas”. This was my first Spanish word. Mrs. Garcia was offering us comfort and sanctuary in her home while the winds blew strongly around us. There was no trouble, no emergency other than the joy of sharing food and space.
I simply remember standin’ there in her kitchen, surrounded by her family, her children, eating buttery warm tortillas, delighted to have made new friends. In my mind, I imagined my mama and I had crossed an ocean and had washed up on some distant foreign shore. Homemade tortillas united our two families across a mini-ocean, new friends from foreign places sharing a moment of warmth, a safe haven, while Hurricane Carla knocked the rest of the world down.
Hurricane Carla was one of the worst tropical storms to hit the U.S. coast. Originating in the Caribbean Sea, its winds reached 170mph when it touched Port Lavaca, TX. Over 50,000 homes, 5,620 farm buildings, and 10,487 other buildings were damaged in Texas. At least 34 fatalities and over $300 million in damages resulted. Carla was the first reported Category 5 hurricane in U.S. history, But it couldn’t keep a small Texas family from crossing its waters to foreign land.
Walking Through Water
When it rains, it pours. No, in Houston, when it rains, it floods, cats and dogs. There are times when it rains an inch in seven minutes forcing water to overflow the city sewers and drainpipes. So where can all that water go but up and out!
The water rises and rises and rises until only the tops of trees are visible, and cars float like lost canoes, without oars or captains. And when waters finally recede, snakes find themselves beached upon a front porch.
Some school days, by the time the bell rang, it was coming down so hard, we’d have to hitch up our skirts, roll up our pants, pile our books atop our heads and wade home. No one carried umbrellas: that was for sissies! School books served a much better purpose.
“Hey, wait up.” I am wading through water up to my knees, balancing books with both hands. The water is quickly rising and my 5th grade best friends, Kathy and Lisa are way ahead. Today, we are caught off-guard by heavy rain and we hope to get home before the skies decide to really open up. My pint size legs are pushing hard against the current of water rushing toward sewage drains-creating a tsunami opposition to my progress. I am seriously getting a Jack La Lane workout and my thighs are screaming. If I am not careful, I could go down and under in two seconds…no one second!
Suddenly, wild thoughts wander into my watery brain. My body washes up on some lonely widow’s front porch and I would rest there; my tiny chest compressed against its pillars, surrounded by cast off litter and lost snakes. My face bloated and unrecognizable ; my parents, confronted by guilt in not rushing to pick me up after school on such a horrendous, stormy day, search for weeks, mourning their loss. Friends weep, memorials are held; the school erects a building in my name…..
Meanwhile, my underpants are soaked, well; I am entirely soaked, and I don’t seem to care. The water is warm and clear. I tilt my head back, stick out my tongue and taste its purity. I revel in the water’s healing properties, refusing to witness rain as a menacing force. It is a water witch, not like the slithering water moccasins Mama warned us about. No, it is the Good Witch of the Wet, luring me with magical wet tongues, licking my nose and trickling down my cheek. When I arrive at our destination, I am cleansed and healed, wet as a drowned dog, and for some reason, thirsty!