Helen Richwine (1.27.25-8.9.12)

Helen Richwine was the mother of my wife, Lois Richwine, grandmother to our son, Dashiell. We said good-bye to her Monday, August 13, at Weed-Corley-Fish Funeral Home, 2620 S. Congress Ave, Austin, TX 78704. The service included prayers and a message from Rev. Ryan Schmidt, with the obituary and tribute delivered by me. Ryan sang the hymn “Higher Ground.” In lieu of flowers, we suggest donations to The Humane Society or American Diabetes Association.

Thank you for your friendship and condolences

OBITUARY (printed in Austin-American Statesman Sunday, August 12, 2012)

Helen Richwine died peacefully on the evening of August 9, 2012, leaving a big hole in the lives of all who knew her and her lovely smile, her love of family and her fierce devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. She was born January 27, 1925 in Monessen, PA., one of nine children born to Philomena and Nicholas DiMascio. Harry Richwine, her husband of 59 years, preceded her in death in 2007.

Helen is survived by a daughter, Lois Richwine, son-in-law Jesse Sublett, and grandson, Dashiell Harry Richwine Sublett. Her parents were Italian immigrants. Two surviving brothers, Cataldo and William, still reside in Pennsylvania. Her other siblings were Dominic, Angelina, Carolyn, Armand, Yolanda and Mario.

After Helen and Harry married in 1947, Harry’s career with the USAF Strategic Air Command entailed residency in places near and far: Tucson, Sacramento, Nevada, Iceland, Germany, Panama and San Antonio, Texas. The birth of their daughter, Lois, and grandson, Dashiell, was for them an enduring source of joy, delight and finally, support during the final years of their lives.

Clockwise from left, Lois, Dashiell, Jesse

Helen was a diva with a black bubble perm, renewed every Friday like clockwork, always dressed in the latest fashions, none of which was on sale when acquired. She was an incredible cook and she imbued her daughter with similar passions for style and good living.

Helen, left, with her sister-in-law, Glenna Richwine, at Ellis Island, 1950s.

She loved little dogs. When Helen moved to the Summit at Westlake Hills retirement community in 2010, her Yorkshire Terrier, Frisky, assumed guardianship of her son-in-law, Jesse Sublett.

Frisky, a k a, The Doglet

At the Summit, Helen enjoyed the care and friendship of the staff, volunteers, and residents. Her vocal involvement in televised NFL games did take some getting used to, but after a couple of roommate adjustments, harmony was at last achieved.

Lois and her mother, Helen, in the 1980s.


[Be sure to see the DiMascio photo gallery at the end of this]
Before I begin, I want to express our thanks to everyone–all our friends and family, those of you who came here today to pay your respects to Helen, and particularly, to Pastor John and Christ Lutheran Church. Pastor John visited Helen often and she really appreciated that. The guy who had the job before John, Pastor Jim Lindermann, helped us out a lot when I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997 and we were all a little freaked out. I called him up, and he had only met us once, when he baptized Dashiell, years ago, and it’s no secret, we are not really church-goers. But he said, Sure, I’ll be right over to visit with you. But I’m on the ninth hole here. Would it be OK if I play out the rest of the holes with these guys? I said, of course. Anyway, we also want to thank everyone at the Summit Retirement Community at Westlake Hills, the staff, administrators, volunteers, everyone. They’ve been great. And also Moncrief Dialysis, who took great care of Helen, too. And I also want to recognize my mother, Elizabeth Sublett, who loved Helen very much, but could not make it here today.

We will all miss Helen terribly, and it will take time for the loss to fully sink in. She had a very vivid presence. She gave out a lot of love and received a lot of love in return. That love will survive in our hearts as we go forward.

She passed from the everyday world after a very full life, peacefully, with style and grace and, as one would expect from a lady also known as “Hell On Wheels,” according to her own schedule.

Helen DiMascio was born January 27, 1925 in Monessen, PA. Her parents, Philomena and Nicholas DiMascio, were Italian immigrants. Harry Richwine, her husband of 59 years, passed away on Easter weekend, April 2007.

I am married to Lois Ann Richwine, the only child of Helen and Harry. Our son is Dashiell Harry Richwine Sublett.

Of Helen’s nine siblings, two brothers remain. Both still live in Pennsylvania. Cataldo, Uncle Cal, who is in pretty good shape for a 94-year-old, thought the trip would be too much for him.

But William, Uncle Billy, the baby of the family at 84, is with us today. Although Billy retired from bar fighting a few years ago, he still has some dancing steps he wants to perfect, so he plans to live to 105. I don’t know what’s wrong with 110, but it’s his choice.

The DiMascios’ home town of Monessen was one of the steel towns of the Monongahela River Valley, a place of hard working immigrant families. Communities clustered on the hillsides, close together. Monessen boomed to over 20,000 people in a space of only 3 1/2 square miles.

When the DiMascios arrived in the teens of the 20th century, the average work week was 86 hours. The pay scale was tied to ethnicity. Italians were paid less, for example, than Welshmen. The unions brought improvements, but working in the mill would always be hard, brutal work.

Maybe that’s one reason people there had such a zest for living. People like the DiMascios, a big family with a huge joy for life.

Helen and Harry in Germany in the 1960s.

I liked seeing the smile on Helen’s face when she mentioned her father, Nicholas, Grandpap, and his habits. Making his garlic and sausages, drinking his dago red. Going down to the Italian Club, going out to watch a wrestling match.

Then there were Helen’s other brothers and sisters, each one with a story.

Dominic, Uncle Herky… He lived in Van Nuys, California, and when Lois and I moved to Los Angeles, he came over and gave us his copy of the Thomas Guide, a big spiral bound map of LA. This was in 1987, before iPhones and GPS, and with a Thomas Guide in your automobile, you were never lost.

Mario… and Carolyn … and Yolanda, these were all people who could really light up a room.

Angelina, Aunt Angie, Ang, bigger than life, lived in Queens, New York. She and Uncle Augie had no kids but 14 cats. She made a turkey for them once a week. She was an extra in The Godfather. A group picture of the DiMascio girls: those huge white sunglasses, shapely figures, black helmet perm. Who needs Housewives of Orange County?

One brother, Armand, died at age three. Helen was five when their mother died. This was the Depression, too, but there was more than steel being forged in the Monongahela Valley.

Helen was a beauty. Her brothers and sisters called her “the flapper.” Billy says she’d refuse to go to school unless she had a new dress. This personality evolved but did not mellow very much over time. Diva… prima donna… Helen was a force of nature. Many times Harry would walk the little doglet up to our house and he’d smile and shake his head. “She’s in rare form today.”

She never lost her eye for style. Many times she told Lois she didn’t care for her new hair color and offered her the money to get a redo.

We loved her little spoonerisms, which increased with the years. A spoonerism is sort of like a Freudian slip, an error of speech. More often than not she called me Frisky, the doglet’s name, or Dashiell, which I took as a compliment. From now on I’ll always think of mental telepathy as having “ESPN.” Once in the ER the nurse asked her if she knew where she lived. The correct answer would have been The Summit Retirement Community at Westlake Hills. She said, Yes of course. I live at the Hyatt.

The day after she reaffirmed her decision to stop taking dialysis, and when asked if she knew the consequences, said, “Yes, they say I’ll have a week or maybe two weeks,” she was still doing her make up every morning as usual, and she gave Lois a list of beauty products to order from Estee Lauder. She may have realized the order might arrive after she herself departed, and perhaps it didn’t occur to her. If you knew Helen, this makes perfect sense.

The Richwine family lived in Belle Vernon, a small borough a few miles downriver from Monessen.

Harry and Cal were pals, so he knew Cal’s kid sister, but no sparks were struck until after he returned from the war. Harry joined the Army in ’41, before Pearl Harbor. He served four years in a forward artillery unit in the Pacific. You should see pictures of him–tall and buff, cigarette on his lip, very tough. The Japanese never had a chance.

When Harry came home to Pennsylvania, this kid sister Helen was a 20-year-old beauty.

They got married in ‘47. Harry tried brick laying but it wasn’t for him. Harry signed up with the USAF and rose through the ranks to Senior Master Sergeant.

He was assigned to the Strategic Air Command. He developed and supervised recreational facilities on US air bases. Not just baseball, volleyball and tennis. Harry was a weightlifter and judo instructor.

This was an adventurous time for the Richwine household. Harry’s duty assignments entailed changes of address to Tucson, Sacramento, Reno, Nevada, Iceland, Germany, Panama and San Antonio, Texas.

In Reno Helen briefly worked as a cigarette girl in a casino–her only employment outside of being a homemaker.

Harry and Helen were very athletic. Sorting out their belongings, Lois and I unpacked box after box of trophies they won–judo, tennis, volleyball, softball, and golf–Harry ran the pro shop at Kelly AFB golf course. Helen was an avid golfer. They met celebrities like Arnold Palmer and movie stars that way.

The birth of their daughter, Lois Ann, must have seemed a miracle to them. Three previous babies had not come to term. They really loved Lois. It may not be fair to say that Helen and Harry loved her more than most parents love their children, but if you know Lois, you know they had a really special bond.

When I started dating Lois in 1978, the love and traditions and joy of living that her family shared impressed me greatly. It was like moving to a foreign country where I instantly felt at home. I was still stuck in that phase of young adulthood where you think your parents are uncool. Lois never felt that way.

Sunday dinners by Helen were a revelation. Not just pasta and traditional Italian dishes, but everything she made was perfection, and the meals were a major production, drinks before dinner with Harry on the patio, and Harry taught me how to appreciate good scotch whiskey, how to grill meat, how to be a gentleman.

These meals weren’t just about food. They were about tradition, being close, love. Lois is a great cook, having inherited her mother’s talent and also having acquired a good bit of knowledge on her own, but she’s the first to admit that she can never duplicate Helen’s magic touch. Time after time she would ask Helen what was the secret, and Helen would say, “Well, you just sauté some sliced garlic in olive oil and then you put in some salt and clams, and then you stir some of it with the pasta…” But it just can’t be duplicated.

I loved the stories from Helen and Harry and Lois’ lives in exotic Iceland, roving all over Germany and Austria and other countries in their big American car down those narrow European streets, going to festivals and bars and Hitler’s Eagles Nest… and from what I gather, the legal definition of driving under the influence may have been more lenient back then. But those were different times.

And when they lived in Panama, Helen and Harry celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, with a big party with all their friends, I love the photo of Helen in her white Capri pants, looking like she might be doing the twist. Those were good times. The Greatest Generation had saved the Free World, and they had a right to party.

Helen was a diva with a black bubble perm, renewed every Friday like clockwork. More than once in her later years, I remember that one of her doctors would want her to come in to have her heart checked on Friday. But that was unthinkable. “No,” she said. “Friday’s the day I get my hair done.”

She loved little dogs. After Harry died, then Helen moved to the Summit at Westlake Hills retirement community in 2010, her Yorkshire Terrier, Frisky, assumed guardianship of her son-in-law, me. I had never been a dog person before. Besides, we have three cats. But Frisky stole my heart. He had the cool good nature of Harry, and the stubbornness and impulsiveness of Helen. He got where he would refuse to eat anything but hamburger patties. We ended up hitting every drive-through burger joint in South Austin. When he died in January 2011, I cried like a baby.

During her last years, Helen had some rough times because she became immobilized. Lois did everything for her, visiting her and bringing her food at least once a day. It was very hard on her, but to do any less was unthinkable. That’s how close they were.

Finally we moved her to the Summit Retirement Community in Westlake Hills. There were some bumpy times as everyone got adjusted to each other. Once football season started, Helen’s roommate complained of the TV’s excessive volume and combat stress. The next roommate was a little more flexible, especially after we got Helen headphones for the TV. But down the hall every could still hear Helen yelling at the referees and whatever hapless team opposed the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The nurses and staff had to get used to being told how to do their jobs properly. The hairdresser made the mistake once of styling Helen’s perm in a way that, as she complained, “makes me look like an old lady.” But after a while, everyone seemed to fall under her spell. They were charmed by her beauty and her sense of humor and how could they fail to be impressed by the devotion of her daughter, who continued to come, without fail, every day.

And the joy that her grandson, Dashiell, brought to her, not just his visits, but the mere mention of his name, would impress anybody.

Plus, at the end of Helen’s breaking in period at the Summit, she had them running a pretty tight ship.

Diabetes and other health issues made Helen’s life increasingly complex and difficult during her last years. Sometimes it made her cranky and afraid. She had always been impatient and impetuous. If you were going out to lunch with her at 12, she’d often call you at 11:30 and ask you why you were late. If a new dress were going on sale tomorrow, she’d buy it today.

About a year ago, she started having dialysis three times a week. She hated it. It was painful and very unpleasant.

During this same period she also became much more peaceful overall. She started playing bingo and participating in other group activities at the home. She watched TV with the sound off.

After her last dialysis, three weeks ago today, she told Lois and Dashiell that she wasn’t going back anymore. We thought she’d change her mind, but she didn’t. She told us and the social workers and Hospice Care she knew what she was doing. In fact, she was clearer about this than anything I had seen in years.

She put her makeup on every morning and sat in her wheelchair like she was ready to go out to the mall or to a restaurant. She said, “When the Lord is ready to take me, He’ll take me. I’m going to be with Harry again.”

When the staff asked if she wanted to lie down and rest, she said no. She remained upright all day, entertaining visitors and staff and volunteers. She cracked jokes.

She got puffy right away, but she made it through one week without dialysis. Then another day. That was Tuesday.

Her weekly hair appointment was coming up on Thursday. Dialysis had finally forced a change in that ironclad schedule.

She said she wanted to see Billy and Cal if they could come down. This didn’t give them much time to make arrangements, but by now they were used to their sister wanting to do things when she wanted to do them. And oftentimes, that meant right now.

Billy arranged to arrive on Saturday, August 11. But that turned out to be too late. Wednesday, she slept all day. Thursday, too, and about an hour after Lois left her side, she stopped breathing.

When she slept through her hair appointment, we should have known.

Helen Richwine, born January 27, 1925, died peacefully on August 9, 2012. She had a full life. She left a lot of love behind. She will be missed.

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