Joette Giorgis was introduced to music in the fourth grade, learning to play trumpet, then piano. At 15, she bought her first guitar and is proficient at guitar and ukelele.
A professional musician who plays at local events and teaches others, she says that music has become the primary focus in her life. “I see my guitar as a friend, and I don’t go anywhere without it.”
Giorgis was born to Polish parents in Buffalo, New York, the oldest of five children in a strong Catholic family. Although she prayed about becoming a nun, she decided she wanted to get married and “have lots of children.”
Giorgis laughs as she remembers her first Earth Day celebration at high school. Population growth was discussed, including the value of having no more than two children. “A lot of my friends said they weren’t having any, so I figured I could have more and it would all even out.”
Giorgis met her future husband, John, at a prayer meeting their sophomore year of college. John says his father threatened him “with death and damnation” if they married before graduation, but soon after, they tied the knot.
Instead of settling into a honeymoon apartment in New York, the newlyweds moved to Oregon, working for a year with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Giorgis taught music at an inner city school, also serving as a school librarian. John worked with Mike Jones’s Transit Bank program on Portland’s Skid Row.
“I took my sewing machine with me,” Giorgis remembers, “so we had curtains but when you sat in the bathtub you could see the outside through a big hole where the drain plug was supposed to be.”
Back in New York, Giorgis worked at a drapery shop, then as a substitute teacher, for three years until their first child was born. “My mother had been sewing my clothes, always a little too big because she thought I’d get pregnant right away.”
Once the family grew, though, it grew rapidly — Giorgis’s first two children are only 18 months apart. John, meanwhile, worked for Sunoco. The company moved them to Syracuse, then Philadelphia. Giorgis subbed and taught private lessons while training to become a Suzuki method instructor.
Eventually, private lessons required more time and she quit subbing. She was the leader of a music group and elected president of the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society. Her career was hitting the high notes. John’s, however, was ending. In 2009, Sunoco laid off 750 white-collar employees.
And by this time, Giorgis had been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease. A smaller, one-story house with a lower mortgage made sense.
Giorgis attributes their move to Florida as divine leading. They had always loved vacationing in Florida. Several friends had moved south, as had one of Giorgis’s sisters. A Syracuse friend had moved to Port St. Lucie. One day, while attending a tap dancing class in Collegeville, a suburb of Philadelphia, two visitors told her about an adult tap group in Stuart. When Giorgis went online to look at housing prices here, she was shocked at the affordability.
Giorgis eventually applied for disability. John worked for awhile in Homestead. They rented rooms through AirBnB for a time. They opened, then closed, a restaurant. The one constant was church, and music.
“It’s always taken her about 10 seconds to become involved locally,” John says.
In addition to playing at church, Giorgis helped found the Treasure Coast Classical Guitar Society. She’s played at renaissance fairs, Heathcote Botanical Gardens’ Festival of Lights, art walks and other special events. Monthly, her Blue Sky Strings group hosts a folk jam and song circle at Savannas Preserve State Park on Walton Road.
Although not defined by her condition, Giorgis is active with a Parkinson’s support group and religiously attends a weekly therapeutic dance class via Zoom. She writes several blogs, including Living with Parkinson’s where she recently posted about how therapeutic music can be. And on her Haiku blog, this poem says much with few words:
Walking in step/Music in my earphones/Pushes me along.
“I tell people with PD to be satisfied doing things an easier way,” Giorgis says. “You have to stay active. If you can’t do something as well as before, still do it in a limited way. Distract yourself with activities.”
The majority of Parkinson’s patients are men older than 60. Giorgis wonders if her diagnosis is tied to years of swimming in the polluted waters of Lake Erie. Although not getting better physically, Giorgis says that medication helps with sleep. If she gets overtired, her tremors are more pronounced. Cognitive changes have slowed her speech. When her legs jump around — dyskinesia — moving purposefully with “little dance steps” helps.
“But I’m getting worse so slowly that most people don’t notice,” she says.
John, who does most of the shopping and cooking now, says his wife is “Amazing. She’s still ambulatory, still driving and communicating. It shows her commitment to her health.”
Whether babysitting her 7-year-old granddaughter, teaching students, leading worship, pulling weeds, writing multiple blogs or reading at the beach, Giorgis’s guitar is never far away.
“I wonder how people can live without music in their life.”
Joette Giorgis has no plans to find out.
Lives in: Crane’s Landing neighborhood in Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Semi-retired music teacher
Family: Husband, John J.; son, John D.; daughters, Marie and Ruth; eight grandchildren
Education: State University of New York at Oswego; master’s degree from SUNY Fredonia
Hobby: Guitar, babysitting, gardening.
Who inspires me: “God inspires me and I pray.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I write haiku and I’m a member of the Haiku Society of America.”
Jan. 12, 2023