The View From 101: Erma Giussi

By Joy Conklin December 15, 2010 15:20

Erma Giussi

“Overalls! Oh my Lord,” says Erma  Giussi. “You had to wash every day or you’d never keep up.”

From her cozy Sonora living room, Erminia Paradisa Girardi Giussi is looking back to 1926 where she can still see herself washing the family clothes on the back porch of her childhood home behind the old Tuolumne General Hospital.

“Lots of boys, lots of overalls,” she recalls. “You hung them on the line, or if it rained, behind the stove or on the porch.”

It’s been 85 years, but her mind’s eye is sharp. At the age of 101, she can still see the five washtubs flanking her younger self as she scrubbed overalls, sheets and towels on a washboard with strong brown soap.

It was the spring of 1926, Erma was 16 and already out of school. Just a month earlier it would have been her mother, Adelaide Girardi, scrubbing and singing on the back porch, but her mother died of pneumonia that March, at age 46.

It was up to Erma to care for the family. How did she cope? “I just went right along,” she says. “I knew what I had to do and I did it.”

But Erma had been a tomboy, and there was a lot she didn’t know about running a household. The neighbors taught her how to wash, iron and cook.

Grief had visited the family before. Her parents had lost four children, three before Erma was born. Erma was the second Erma in the family, and sister Mary was the second Mary. There had also been two Dominics. One died in Michigan, where Erma was born. The second died in Sonora at age 3 of quinsy, a throat infection.

Mother was the heart of the young Girardi family, and she took good care of her husband, Benjamin, and their six children. Neighbors stopped to listen when she sang “Santa Lucia” over the washtubs in the back.

“She was full of joy,” Erma says. “She loved to laugh. She enjoyed us kids, and every night she heard our prayers.”

It was her mother who arranged for the neighbor children to play outside Erma’s window while she waited out a diphtheria quarantine, and who gave her the freedom to live a full rich childhood.

“I was a rowdy girl,” says Erma, who roamed all over Sonora and got into trouble wherever she could find it. Back home from school, “I was out of that dress and into overalls.”

She was 6 when the family moved from Michigan, a climate change aimed at easing her father’s arthritis. Here he worked as a logger and laborer. They first lived in a rental near Lyons Street and “China Town,” a series of huts at Lyons and Stewart streets.

“I had never seen a Chinese or an Indian in my life, and I was curious,” Erma recalls. “I would stand across the street where the little post office is now, and stare and stare and stare. They would come out and say, ‘Little girl, go home.’ I wanted to see China Mary, and I wouldn’t go home. China Mary had such tiny little feet, and when she would come out she would go tap, tap, tap.  She wore bright red robes with big flowers on them. I had never seen anything like it.”

“There were Indians, too,” continues Erma.  “When something was going on in town they would come down off Big Hill and down from Hope Lane.”

The Sonora depot was located where the main post office is today. Erma played there as a child.

The family moved to a house behind the old Tuolumne General Hospital, and Erma proceeded to explore. She was a favorite around town. Just down the street at the Chinese-style train depot (where the main Sonora post office is now) they let her play on the telegraph machine. Across the street was Standard Lumber and the Hales and Symons feed store. Down the road was the big U.S. Lime factory where her father sometimes worked.

“My father always wanted our cow to have fresh grass, and I had to pick a sack full every day,” Erma says. “Behind Hales and Symons they grew some kind of grass, alfalfa maybe, for their delivery horses. My neighbor worked there, and he would stand and watch so I wouldn’t get caught … Sometimes I would come and they would have a sack of grass already picked for me.”

Erma could never let a dare pass by. One day kids dared her to climb a cherry tree and pick cherries from a teacher’s yard. Next day, they got her to do it again. “I was up in the tree and the door of the house opened and there stood the teacher,” she recalls. “She had a bucket in her hand and she said, ‘Pick some for me too, will you Erma?’”

By age 12, Erma was working. She was a “mother’s helper” who got the high school art teacher’s two babies ready for the day. Erma also washed fancy dishes at another house. While still in grade school, she cleaned the town library, hauling ashes from the stove, dusting and polishing.

Erma’s first “real” job, at age 17, was at the telephone company, where Yosemite Title is today. She was still doing all the housework for her family and raising sister Virginia, who went to a neighbor while Erma worked. Erma was much younger than the other women at the phone company and they mothered her, even picking out her yellow wedding dress, “lacy as heck.”

Erma married Guido Giussi in 1928.  She was 19. The Depression was coming on but Erma’s family always managed. They had a garden and a cow, chickens and rabbits. Her husband worked for Hale and Symons in those years. But there were others in town who were homeless and hungry.

“The government would send a truck with food and park it in the area where the high school is now,” Erma recalls. “One time there would be cheese and rice and sugar and potatoes.  The next time it would have something else, but our family never had to use that.”

By 1944, Erma’s marriage was over. She had 4 children, Pete, 13, Leroy, 12, Lorraine, 11 and Arthur, 8. Once again, Erma didn’t shrink from what she had to do. She got a job.

“I didn’t even know how to ask,” says Erma. “Instead, I stood and cried in Mallard’s Grocery store, but Mrs. Mallard offered me a job anyway.”

How did she know Erma needed one? “Everyone knew,” says Erma.  “It was a small town.”

For five years she worked at Mallard’s (on Washington Street where Sonora Music is today), waiting on customers and stocking shelves. Mrs. Mallard loaned her a truck to drive between home and the grocery store. Later, Erma worked at J.C. Penney and in the kitchen of Tuolumne General Hospital. She got so fed up with cooking at work and at home that at night she’d tell her kids, “I feel like going outside to just yell and yell.” So she quit the kitchen job, but later resumed working for the county, cleaning the courthouse and other buildings until retiring at age 63.

Why did she never marry again?

“Whatever makes you think I’d have done that?” she says. “Who wants to go through that again?”

Back then, alone with four kids, neighborliness once again surrounded and supported Erma through those years.

“Just like my neighbor helped me get grass for the cow, and my neighbors taught me to wash and cook and iron. Just like the women at the phone company babied me, now everyone helped me raise my kids,” she recalls. “My father and brothers took care of my house, kept up my yard. My neighbors took my kids to the mountains in the summer. When I had to go to work early, my daughter would go to the neighbor who would do her hair. My kids were never alone. I’ve had a lot of people around me all my life and everyone always liked me and helped me.”

Family now includes nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Her sister, Virginia, 89, still visits from Sacramento; her other siblings have died. Sons Pete and Leroy have passed away, but daughter Lorraine lives in Sonora and son Arthur keeps in close touch from Washington State.

Good friend Sandy Hargrove, who has helped Erma for the past 11 years, is in and out most days. She’s almost family. They’re as close as friends can be.

Today at 101, Erma has slowed down some, though not her mind and not her wit.

“My family says I’m spoiled,” she says.  “And I say, ‘You keep it up, too.’ ”

© 2010 Friends and Neighbors

By Joy Conklin December 15, 2010 15:20