Jennie Poncia, a lifelong Tomales dairywoman known for her resourceful spirit and inexhaustible energy, died April 1 at age 92. The mother of two, grandmother of six and great grandmother of eight, Poncia touched many. “Jennie was a strong woman and a caring lady, and one of the easiest people to talk to,” family friend Kathleen Sartori said. “She loved her grandchildren and spent as much time with them as she could before they left the nest. She was very good to her family. She got along with everyone.”
On most days for much of her adult life, Poncia could be found outdoors, chucking hay and slugging dirt. “People would drive by and always see her out in the garden or in a field, in her classic little getup—rubber boots and coveralls, bandana and cotton gloves. She worked her tail off,” her son, Al, said. “If she didn’t have anything to do, she’d find something to do.”
Poncia’s work ethic was renowned. “She was the hardest working woman I ever knew,” friend Mary Zimmerman said. “No sooner than married a week and she was out milking the cows. She raised her kids and still went out to milk the cows. Back and forth to the barn, always checking up on the cows. It never happened that you went by without seeing Jennie doing something. I wish I had half the energy that she had.”
Jennie Marie Albini was born January 10, 1920, in Bodega Bay. Her parents, John and Marietta, were Italian-Americans who had emigrated from the Lake Como region of Italy, where they labored as peasant farmers. “They made their life out of sustainable living,” Al said of the small dairy they built on Coleman Valley Road. “They milked their own cattle, made their own cheese. There was no electricity or running water. They came here just like a lot of immigrants, looking for a better life.”
The third of four children, Poncia learned of the demands and dividends of outdoor labor at a young age. She and her siblings, Americo, Alice and Elsie, worked on the family’s dairy nearly every day, doing chores before and after school, in evenings and on weekends. Poncia loved the work, in part because of the luxuries it afforded: in her spare time she took to riding a black horse named Beauty in the hills.
Poncia went to Tomales High School, but dropped out to work full time on the dairy after her father became ill in the late 1930’s. Never graduating was one of her biggest regrets; decades later, and well into her 60’s, she completed her GED. “She was very proud of that,” Al said.
In 1938, at 18, Poncia married a dairyman from Fallon named Alfred. The two managed a small dairy north of Tomales, milking 35 cows by hand twice a day. They built a house and eventually gave birth to Al and his sister Eduardeen, or “Deenie.”
The dairy’s modest size allowed the Poncias to spend more time together and with friends than some other dairying families. “We didn’t get up quite as early in the morning or come in quite as late at night,” Al said. By late-morning work typically broke for a couple of hours. “Mom would put together lunch and Dad would maybe go into town to pick up the mail. Oftentimes people would drop by, have a drink—a glass of wine, a shot of whiskey or some coffee—some salami, cheese, bread. They entertained a lot.”
Poncia was adept in the kitchen, and was known both for her classic Italian and standard American dishes. A specialty was her Jell-O pudding, which, according to Al, was stuffed with cottage cheese, fruit and nuts. Her home was always well decorated, and was known as a refuge for students and peers during raucous nights out. “Our place was always a safe house for anyone who was out partying or anything,” Deenie said. “Everyone would wind up on the couches and on the floor. Mom loved knowing we were safe.”
Poncia was also a woman of class, and enjoyed social occasions in which she could dress up. “The most amazing things about Jennie was after a long day’s work she would come in the house to freshen up, put on a lovely outfit and get all decked out in her high heels, jewelry, lipstick and nail polish and step out of the house being one of the most beautiful women in the county,” her daughter-in-law Cathie Poncia wrote in an email. “She looked pretty damn cute all made up,” Al said.
To her grandchildren, Poncia was a helpless doter and lasting role model. “Noni loved us unconditionally, perhaps to a fault,” her granddaughter Jessica wrote. “[She] never fussed, never scolded us. She wanted us to feel free to play, find fun, and be kids.” When they visited, she set a warm bowl of tapioca pudding on the kitchen counter.
Poncia adored animals, particularly gimpy ones. “Everyone knew her as the Mother Teresa for animals,” her grandson Loren said. “She’d take in any stray pet and turn them into the most wonderful creature. She would save anything.”
Eventually the children left the ranch, and Poncia busied herself in the community—the Lady Druids, the Tomales PTA, the Altar Society at Church of the Assumption—and took a part-time job driving the school bus for Shoreline Unified. “She would get up at the crack of dawn and feed the calves and then head to the bus shed,” Cathie wrote. Loren, who rode her bus, said Poncia always brought candy with her for the students. “She was not much of a disciplinarian, to be honest,” he said. “All she’d ever say was, ‘Hey, you kids knock that off.’”
Poncia worked on the ranch into her late 80’s, despite former vows to slow down. “It was the only time she lied to me,” Al said. “I remember it was 2002. She pulled me over and said that she would finally retire when she was 85. She didn’t.”
In the last few years, Poncia spent as much time as possible with her immediate and extended family. Her health deteriorated, but her spirit kept on. “It was hard to see her inactive the last year or so,” Sartori said. “I think she worked so hard, the good Lord just decided to finally give her a rest.”
Jennie Poncia is survived by her son, Alfred L. Poncia; daughter, Edwardeen “Deenie” Vendetti; grandchildren Jennifer Poncia, Melissa Williams, Jessica Valentine, Loren Poncia, and J.C. and Darin Vendetti; great grandchildren Lindsay William Valentine, Callan Wells Valentine, Tate Forest Valentine, Perrin Neely Valentine, Fallon Delia Williams, Chapin Gregory Williams, Avery Jane Poncia and Julianna Colman Poncia.