ERMA by Erma with Leonard Ray Teel Calderon


Email this review


The ragged autobiography of an elderly black woman from the South--cruelly abused in childhood by her family, succored in later years by the gratitude of her wealthy employers. (A microcosm, perhaps, of the experience of her generation--or a sad, unwitting commentary on it.) Erma Calderon, b. 1912, had a drive for survival--but also that desire for approbation and dramatic self-image frequent among those at the bottom of society's barrel. Her story begins with happy memories of 1915 Savannah: a strict but loving mother who worked in a posh private club and fed the neighborhood from its leftovers; sister Caroline; and sister Vinnie, who had a ""power"" no one could understand (she entertained invisible children and predicted her own death at 15). But World War I brings penury; eviction by Aunt Ida--into the snow; and Mama's death, of cancer. Erma's father--supposedly ""gone to Heaven""--carries her off, and beats and torments her until she runs away with Mama's friend Miss Pearl . . . who takes her to Florida, where she sleeps on a counter, and does dishes and laundry. After Pearl nearly chops off her finger with a cleaver, Erma escapes into marriage--at age eleven--with a Bahamian; and they share ""beautiful days"" working in an orange grove. The next year she has a son, but Miss Pearl visits and kidnaps the baby; she won't see him again till he's 15. In between Erma and her husband go to Harlem; she settles some family scores, and forgives her oppressors (""Who am I not to forgive anyone . . .""); she is reunited with sister Caroline, who then steals her clothes and makes free with her husband. . . from whom Erma separates. At last she finds son James--and kidnapper Pearl demands 15 years of board money! (Erma settles that too.) The jobs have gotten better, meanwhile, and Erma spends her last 25 working years in the service of the Pinckney Island (So. Car.) well-to-do--as cook, manager, and then devoted companion to her beloved Mrs. Barker. ""Erma, you are the last, you're the last of the Old South,"" says General Doolittle (to her satisfaction). Some intriguing vignettes--of childhood games, funeral parades, Father Divine in gloria--dot the family squabbles. And some light is shed, however repetitively, on a life struggle within a society whose larger evils Erma does not confront.

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 1981
Publisher: Random House