Helen Millerick Larson, 93, matriarch of the Millerick Larson family, died peacefully on Sunday, June 24, surrounded by her large, loving family. In the brief but precipitous decline before her passing, Larson was buoyed by her four children, nine grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Born in Oakland in 1924, Helen bore witness to nearly a century of radical change in the American landscape, from Prohibition to the Great Depression to the advent of Civil Rights. Raised in Sonoma, she experienced those cultural evolutions from a unique vantage point.
The Sonoma of Helen’s childhood was profoundly different from the city today. In 1938, when she was 14, Sonoma claimed a population of just over 1,000, the Golden Gate Bridge was a year old and the Sebastiani Theatre was just four. When an unlicensed, underage Helen drove herself to grammar school in the family’s old junker, the polite reprimand from local law enforcement reflected the decorum of the day.
Her father died of tuberculosis when she was just 9 months old, and Helen forged a uniquely close bond with her mother. They shared a room throughout her childhood, and she was taught how to feed a passel of ranch hands 3 square meals daily. It was hard work, making much out of little, and Helen learned from her mother how to be thrifty and tenacious.
Helen Millerick married Robert Larson at age 26, and the couple lived in the central valley for a time. When Bob sold his veterinary practice in Tracy in 1960, they moved to Berkeley, a city they both loved for its culture and diversity. They established a second veterinary practice in El Cerrito, and when retired from it, moved to the family ranch in Schellville. On the Millerick ranch, farmed continuously since 1877, Bob and Helen planted some of the first chardonnay grapes in Sonoma’s Carneros district, presciently kicking off a phenomenon. They later founded Sonoma Creek Winery, the original iteration of what would become Larson Family Winery.
In retirement, Helen found a thousand ways to stay busy, including years spent cooking for Sonoma’s Meals on Wheels program. She showed up to make food for needy seniors, adding laughter and joy wherever she went.
“She was a wonderful asset,” said Sue Holman, co-director of the Meals on Wheels program. “She had a darling personality. And it’s ironic—but wonderful—that she went on to receive the service herself in the last six to eight months of her life.”
Helen was an avid gardener, a devotee of homegrown eats before an up-marketing genius rebranded them “farm-to-table.” The secret to her green thumb was old-fashioned H2O. She believed in the simple magic of keeping green things wet, drought be damned.
“In her later years, she would really drench the tomatoes,” said daughter Suzanne Larson, laughing.
“We had to put up signs saying ‘Don’t water unless it’s Tuesday or Friday,’” said daughter Mariellen Larson, adding, “they didn’t really work.”
Raised on the silty edges of Sonoma Creek, Helen had a lifelong affinity for that body of water. “We’d go out almost every day to check the creek,” Suzanne said. “How high was it, was it high tide, was it flooded at the ranch. She grew up alongside it, it was truly part of her.”
But Helen was most singularly defined by her big, happy family, who rallied around her solicitously at the end.