R.I.P., Eva Michels

6 Aug

Eva Schonberg Michels died Saturday, August 3, 2013 of inoperable lung cancer, despite the usual radiation and chemotherapy. I do not know her exact age, but probably she was probably in her mid-seventies.

My friendship with Eva came about through dance. When my late, former husband was at sea, I took ballet class at the Academy of Ballet in the days when Guillermo del Oro was teaching Spanish dance and Carolyn Parks taught children. Eva was a student and soon became a member of Bay Area Ballet, if my memory for the organization’s name is correct. Del Oro renamed her Serrano because, as she said del Oro told her, “No dancer should be named Schonberg.” She also became Mrs. del Oro, if only briefly.

Physically, Eva was small, her face quite square, large expressive grey eyes,
a generous mouth and hair which she wore short as it greyed, a striking woman somewhere between pretty and distinctive, with a quick smile and laugh over irony and the absurd. satisfying to talk to, a pleasure to spend lunch and some
minutes with her in her home near Columbus Avenue.

My particular memory of Eva’s dancing were in two ballets, one by Marc Wilde, concerning contemporary youth and Eva was one of “the girls,” probably Wilde’s version of West Side Story. The other was called “The Cardinal’s Bracelet” and featured del Oro as the rapacious prelate, Eva as his mistress and Angene Feves as the young girl who becomes entangled with the red robed priest, is supplanted by Serrano, but cannot divest herself of the bracelet, i.e. she is somehow enslaved for the remainder of her life. All three were wonderfully dramatic and swept along the stage at the Marines Memorial Theater.

Eva taught for Alan Howard after he assumed direction of the Academy and may have danced in Pacific Ballet during its early history, but she left teaching ballet after a dispute with Howard over salary, going to work at what is now California Pacific. I lost touch with her for what was at least three decades, during which time she married again to Leon Michels, a physician she said still made house calls. She was widowed when we reconnected.

To backtrack, Eva was an only child, born in Berlin. With her mother, aunt and grandmother, she moved to Shanghai in 1939 to avoid Hitler’s roundup. The family spent the war years in Shanghai where Eva said “A Japanese soldier was posted at the end of each street, and you had to get a permit to go from one street to another.” She also remembered scouring movie magazines as a diversion. Jewish social agencies made it possible for the family of four women to emigrate to San Francisco at the end of World War II, and Eva ended her formal education at Lowell High School when it was still situated at Masonic and Hayes.

After she was widowed, Hanna Forester, who managed the Asian Art Museum’s slide collection for a number of years, persuaded her to volunteer for the Museum’s gift store when the Asian was still housed in Golden Gate Park. She was volunteering for Sudha Pennathur’s boutique during the Asian’s Tibet exhibit when we reconnected. It reopened a rich vein of memory.

After studying piano Eva stopped the practice to undertake sculpting in stone under the auspices of the City College of San Francisco’s studio facility at Fort Mason. She had already been attending for several years when we reconnected, and she continued until 2013’s spring semester, although she segued into ceramics when the stone sculpture class ceased with the teacher’s retirement. Her early stone pieces drew their forms from ballet, but gradually the figures were not just dancers, but interesting men and women, and she also ventured into the abstract. The stone sculptor teacher’s retirement spared Eva’s wrists and arms, which had taken punishment from working with the medium, but she had persisted because of the challenge and the pleasure she found with the results.

From her involvement in the art classes a Wednesday night pot luck dinner emerged, moving rather rapidly from weekly to alternate Wednesdays with anywhere from eight to ten individuals. Invited to join the group, I found it lively and an opportunity to prepare one of my favorite dishes or salads. The practice lasted about two years after I was included, terminating when Eva decided to remodel her kitchen, accomplishing it with her usual flair and elegance. Talk ranged from the qualities of stone purchased to class personalities, books and theater performances seen.

Next came New Year’s parties with a handsome spread, and for at least two years
catered by Stanley Eichelbaum, who became a tenant in her downstairs apartment. She laughed when she recounted how social Eichelbaum’s life had made her.

Eva loved shopping and was quite professional about it. Chasing a bargain was an art with her, particularly at Lohman’s where she was a regular, watching a particular garment discounted progressively until she felt it was sufficiently inexpensive to purchase. “It’s the challenge that I love of getting what I like for a bargain price.”

Eva also volunteered for a number of years for a shop on Sutter Street near Polk until the lease was lost and the shop activities ceased. To watch her wait on a customer during one of her volunteer hours was a lesson in subtle attention and salesmanship, for Eva had a way of engaging with a customer’s mood and interest. This volunteer salesmanship was as much a part of her routine as exercising at the Presidio YMCA or her Wednesday nights at San Francisco Ballet’s spring season. She frequently walked from shopping expeditions around Union Square and at Lohman’s home through the Stockton Street Tunnel and then along Columbus Avenue to climb the hill to her flat.

Interspersed there were trips to New York with a friend, a cruise to the
Mediterranean and last summer a riverboat cruise with her daughter-in-law.
She also supervised the remodeling of her flat’s two bathrooms.

In our last conversation, after she had her round of radiation, Eva laughed about purchasing wigs in anticipation of the chemo procedure. She mentioned her on and off days, gave me some specifics about the area of infection, but said she had been walking to North Beach and back, a round trip of perhaps twenty-four blocks.

We spoke of a lunch in a new place found before the diagnosis.The last week or two Eva crossed my mind and I reminded myself I would call when I had finished something or other. This morning Jocelyn Vollmar telephoned me with the news. Eva and I, alas, will not lunch together, that lovely, spirited, elegant woman.

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2 Responses to “R.I.P., Eva Michels”

  1. Scott Sachs October 23, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    I just read this and am in tears. I took her for lunch at the beginning of summer, told her that I would contact her after my seven day work weeks ended. By that time, it appears her struggle was over.

    I meet Eva and Stanley E at the opening night party of The Black Cat in North Beach, perhaps fifteen years ago. I knew no one. She came up to and befriended me. I fell in love that night.

    A sort of renaissance followed: leisurely brunches, sitting around her dining table, listening to stories of the early years, dining on the fabulous food prepared by Stanley and I, exciting parties at her home, surrounded by her art…her lovely art.

    I own a Small ceramic ballerina she sculpted and it sits in a lovely place where I see it each day.

    Was there ever a more gracious, lovely person? I think not. Even as her health declined, she lived with dignity and humor, desiring no pity and wanting to live life to the fullest. People wondered at her age. To me, she was ageless. I’m only 56 but, for as long as I live, I will cherish the memories. I love you.

    Eva Michaels: I’m sorry that I didn’t see you one more time. I’m grateful to have had you in my life.

    • woollywesterneye April 19, 2014 at 6:13 am #

      Thank you for this comment. I miss her — a thoroughly elegant woman, even though I didn’t see her much.

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