Our mother, Elizabeth, sang her way through almost 88 years of life, beginning at age 8 in 1938. She recalled that “an aunt gave me a book of old-time favorite songs with piano accompaniment; I played and sang every song in the book.” Her first solo public appearance was in the 5th grade, at a Farm Bureau meeting in the Santa Ynez Valley at age 10. “How excited I was!” she would tell us.
Her excitement never waned. Even after a debilitating stroke four months ago on Christmas morning, her gentle nighttime somniloquies were in song.
Elizabeth Erro grew up on her parents’ Orella Ranch at Refugio Beach, on an idyllic stretch of coastline with only 40 or so ranching families spread between Ellwood and Point Conception. Her rural upbringing, along with musical talent, informed her long life.
She sang in two operettas a year at Gaviota’s Vista del Mar elementary school, until she graduated in a class of six in 1943, and in many celebrations at Santa Ynez Valley Union High, where she graduated in 1947.
In 1950 she married her high school sweetheart, Arne Hvolboll, at Bethania Lutheran Church in Solvang. She sang “Jeg elsker deg” (“I love you”) in Danish to her brand-new husband, a native son, at the reception.
Elizabeth claimed she felt “more alive when singing than at any other time.” She had many other roles in which she was very much alive. She identified those as “physician’s wife, mother, and ranch hand.”
When we were young, she described our bedtime songs as a “special means of communication with my children,” musical tales of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin and Pooh, with different voices for Pooh’s friends Piglet, Eeyore, and Tigger. My sisters and I can still sing those songs, more than 50 years later.
As kids, we observed her comfort with various identities and did our best to become competent with both town and ranch culture. Our mother loved to share and teach us about the family ranch, which her great-grandparents bought from the Ortega family in the 1860s. Walking around the ranch, she sang along with the doves’ coos.
During the fall calving season, Elizabeth searched for newborn Hereford-Angus-cross calves by horseback and an International Harvester Scout 4x4. The calves needed shots of copper sulfate shortly after birth because of a copper deficiency caused by high levels of molybdenum in the ranch water. Some needed obdurate cockleburs cut from their tails.
Back in town from the ranch on Thursdays in time to comb stray bean straw from her long, braided hair — dark from generations of Mexican mestizo ancestry — she’d cook a quick supper and be off to choir rehearsal at the Methodist Church downtown. She was fond of reminding us that the same sharp knife she kept in her purse was used to cut the cockleburs from calves’ tails, peel oranges at church potlucks, trim threads on choir robe hems, and castrate bull calves at spring round-ups.
She taught us to pay no mind to parishioners’ scrutiny of the manure and mud covering our Scout in the church parking lot.
Elizabeth taught us to give her mother’s huge, gentle Black Angus bull a warm soapy bath in an open pasture, to be wary of bellicose badgers, and to gently guide the congenial California king snake, which lived under our grandmother’s ranch house, up our sleeves to sleep against our warm skin inside our shirts on cool foggy days.
Her pastoral parenting led us to search for pond turtles in the narrows at Arroyo Hondo and to lie prostrate on boulders to drink fresh creek water in Corral Canyon. We’d fix broken barbed wire with fence pliers, pick walnuts in the fall from our great-grandfather’s trees, make pies from his limequat tree, grow polliwogs from water troughs into frogs, make Christmas trees out of tumbleweeds, assemble egg enchiladas from the family’s early California recipe, pick elderberries for cobbler, and bake bread in an old wood stove. Elizabeth showed us how she’d catch tarantulas in her purse, and to use only Eureka lemons, Mission figs, pink beans, and wild chanterelles.
She was unperturbed when she found a large rattlesnake curled up in the corner of her ranch kitchen one summer afternoon not many years ago, calmly coaxing it out with a sharp shovel as it buzzed.
While taking care of her family and ranch, Elizabeth kept singing — with the Los Angeles Opera Company, studies at the Music Academy of the West, contralto solos in Handel’s Messiah all over Southern California, offering a cantata at the Ojai Music Festival and California folk songs at most summer Fiesta celebrations since 1946. In 1965 she played the role of the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music at the Lobero Theatre. In 1991 she established El Coro, the Presidio chorus, performing early California music with Luis Moreno. Later El Coro revived Una Noche de Las Posadas, a one-night reenactment of the Christmas story, walking downtown streets with a burro and children.
In 1998 she received the first Fiesta History and Traditions Award for her musical participation in Fiesta for more than 50 years, and in 1999 the Pearl Chase Historic Preservation and Conservation Award for her work in preserving and performing the music of early California.
The music of that period was a special interest because, as Elizabeth explained in 1999, “It lets me create inside myself the sounds and words that many of my ancestors also created … and it lets me inside their minds and souls to understand them better.” With her multicultural background, these songs included American Indian, African-American spirituals, Spanish and Mexican Californian, and western cowboy and pioneer melodies. Her favorite was La Primavera, which tells of springtime in early California. She died on the first day of spring.
In 1961 or ’62 she sang at one of her family adobes, the Gonzalez-Ramirez home, at a private Fiesta reception for Pat Brown, then governor of California, accompanied by one of the fraters from the Old Mission on an antique guitar. After offering the governor her personal musical lesson in California history, he smiled, proclaiming, “You’re a true Californian.”
Elizabeth explored her soul through music, particularly in folk and sacred songs. “Singing, in a special way, has meant life to me.” She enjoyed concluding concerts with a traditional English folk song, the May Day Carol,
My song is done and I must be gone,
No longer can I stay.
So it’s God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May.
Family and friends are invited to a graveside memorial at Oak Hill Cemetery in the Santa Ynez Valley on Saturday, May 12, at 11 a.m. A reception and barbecue will follow at La Paloma Ranch. Friends may remember the Arroyo Hondo Preserve at The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County (PO Box 91830, Santa Barbara 93190) or the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation (123 E. Canon Perdido St., S.B. 93101).