A Celebration of Life for Helen will be held at St. James Episcopal on California (Eighth and Ninth Avenues) Saturday, July 31 at 2 p.m. Kindly RSVP at maxlantz.net/mom
Helen came to the Richmond District about 40 years ago, at first feeling ‘out there’ like many of those moving from more bustling parts of our City. Any feelings of isolation were swiftly overcome by the community she became a part of.
First, she became a ‘1-Californian,’ somehow managing to look elegant while wearing the formal office attire required of a woman working at a bank at the time – and bright white tennis shoes – which came in handy when the bus couldn’t make it up the hill in Chinatown.
She then met her husband, Chuck, who loved sailing. As a crew member on the Transpac California-to-Hawaii race, he put up signal flags reading “HM, will you marry me? CL.” The announcer deciphered the message and read it over the loudspeaker. Helen said yes, and a few years later, gave birth to me in what was then called Children’s Hospital (on California at Cherry). They first lived on 18th Avenue, where Chuck was instrumental in the fight to build the Richmond Rec. Center, and where Chuck’s daughter, Joanna, lived with us for a time. The ’89 quake moved us to 12th and Lake, where they lived for 30 years..
Over the decades, their roots deepened. She could drive you around the City pointing out buildings she had worked on loans for, complete with colorful backstories. He could take you around in his cherry-picker truck, showing you signs he installed for local businesses, and pointing out the ones you didn’t want to be standing under in an earthquake.
Beloved community members
My parents were known in the community for being friendly and helpful, and supporting neighbors through crises. Chuck was heavily involved in local politics and once ran for supervisor. Helen was a very active member at St. James Episcopal, serving on the vestry. Some remember Chuck from when he volunteered to teach art at Alamo, building the school’s haunted house at Halloween, or as an announcer at youth baseball games.
Helen could be seen around the neighborhood walking our dog Fergie (and later, Ginger), and over the last year, taking full advantage of the slow streets with her friends. Chuck was part of a group of Mountain Lake Park tennis players who hung out in front of Lake Market (now Avenue 12 Gallery), chatting and indulging in brown-paper-bagged beers and games of dice.
Many neighbors remember both my parents from their involvement in the Friends of Mountain Lake Park and our dog Fergie at the dog run. Chuck was especially involved in neighborhood goings-on, like the time an alligator was caught in Mountain Lake (and magically grew a few feet with every satellite truck that arrived to report on it). I remember cops aiming their guns at the lake, while I showed reporters the secret trails through the marsh that only the local kids knew.
Myrtle the Swan
But without a doubt, it’s the story of Myrtle the swan that will be most remembered. Before Mountain Lake was dredged, a pair of swans lived there. One was quiet and reserved, the other, named Myrtle, was everything but. She fell in love with Chuck while watching him play tennis, and made sure everyone knew it. She would wait atop the hill in the playground for Chuck to drink his morning coffee on the porch, honking loudly and flailing her wings to greet him. That was our cue that we only had a few minutes, rushing to the car before she managed to waddle down the hill and try to get in with us. If she got there first, we had to guide her back to the lake so she didn’t follow the car. If any of my Alamo Elementary teachers are reading this, that really was why I was late. We’d get random calls from businesses and neighbors on Clement Street telling us to “come get her” when she’d taken herself on a field trip. She did like her stepson (me). The neighbors built a pen to keep her from wandering around at night, which I herded her into at sundown. Once, a newly deputized Presidio police officer radioed that a “juvenile was harassing the wildlife.” Like the Alamo teachers, he didn’t believe my story. Naturally, Myrtle was not fond of Helen, her competition. If the disdain was reciprocal, Helen never showed it.
You can watch a video of Myrtle and Chuck online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJZ13zIv5IQ
After 75 years of living with gusto, Chuck fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer. He stubbornly held on for six weeks (those who knew him will understand). He died at home surrounded by his wife and children. Thanks to cannabis activists and voters, he was not in pain – and was very, very high.
Devastated by the loss of her soulmate, Helen lived for another 21 months. She valiantly worked through her grief, but her heart was literally broken. The woman who never had so much as a cold, woke up short of breath. I took her to the ER, and she was admitted. She insisted I go walk the dog. While Helen was telling the doctors how happy she was to have spent an amazing quarantine year with me, her son (I normally live in São Paulo, but came home because of COVID), she had a heart attack. She waited for me to speed down Fulton Street and honk my way through a left turn off Stanyan Street into the ER, slipping away right as I grabbed her hand. She died like she lived: with grace, thoughtfulness, and beauty.
I am in awe of the support I’ve received from this community. A Wash/Presidio friend spent hours in the ER with me, another rushed over at 4 a.m. Yet another dropped off pastries the next morning. The fridge was full for weeks. Cards and flowers came so fast, I still don’t understand how they got here so quickly.
While I wish my parents had realized their dream of retiring on the beach in my mother’s home state of North Carolina, I take solace in the fact that in a community like ours, struggling to keep its born-and-raised and long-time residents and businesses, my parents made their lives and died in this unassuming yet magical place that made me who I am. They never left the Richmond, and it will never leave me.
Neighbors might remember me speeding on my bike around the neighborhood and Mountain Lake Park, being a fixture at Sonia’s Lake Market convenience store, my time as D-1 representative of the Youth Commission, or Laurel Hill/Alamo/Presidio/Wash. I normally reside in São Paulo, Brazil.