Story and photos by Murray Schneider
They came to the Sunnyside, to Dorothy W. Erskine Park.
They came to remember Jane Bresnick, who died seven years ago, at 45, after a prolonged struggle with breast cancer.
They came to remember her on her Yahrzeit, the annual Jewish remembrance of a loved one or a friend.
Ann Kim came from the Inner Richmond. Kelsey Crowe came from Bernal Heights. Denise Garone came from the Mission. Christine Carswell came from Noe Valley.
“We came to honor Jane on her Yahrzeit,” said Ann Kim, who lives on Second Avenue. “What better way to memorialize her.”
On March 26 the women convened at Mangels Avenue and Baden Street, meeting at a neighborhood postage-stamp park named after Dorothy W. Erskine, an early San Francisco environmentalist.
They donned gardening clothes and pulled on work gloves supplied by San Francisco Recreation and Park’s Natural Areas Program.
Some had been at Dorothy W. Erskine for prior Saturday work parties, part of a Bay Area Young Survivors partnership with with Rec and Park. They’d planted habitat friendly California native shrubs on the southern slope. As a result, the hillside is now blanketed with California sage, sticky monkey flower, morning glory, hummingbird sage and buckwheat.
The four women are familiar with BAYS, a cancer support group of some 400 individuals who have combated the disease and who have seen 35 of their sisterhood succumb to it since 2004.
They had a simple task: pull weeds. Oxalis specifically – a fast growing interloper that left to it own devices form an invasive monoculture, capable of smothering the hummock of bushes and plants that now dot the south side of the hill.
Christopher Campbell, a twenty-year veteran of Rec and Park, greeted the women, including their grade school-aged children.
Shelly Arnold, another NAP gardener, stood beside Campbell.
“BAYS and neighbors are following up earlier plantings,” Campbell explained. “We’re going after the Oxalis.”
He leaned over and demonstrated, uprooting the weed that had gone to flower, holding it up. It was yellow, deceptively pretty. Miniscule but inimical shamrock-shaped leaves carpeted the earth, not yet in flower, each ripe for excavatioShelly Arnold pointed to several tubs filled with water and several empty pop up bags.
“We’ll put what we remove in the bags and sacrifice everything up the hill,” she instructed the volunteers. “About fifteen minutes before we stop, we’ll water the plants.”
The group now made up of a dozen or so divided up. Some walked up the incline, others moved closer to the street.
Ella, a neighborly cat, joined one group. Friendly, she brushed against the legs of several of the women as they fingered the weed, which was easy to pull since the recent rains had left the soil moist.
Dorothy W. Erskine Park offers a dichotomy. The south side, where the volunteers now worked, is surrounded by bungalows. It is bright, sunny and inviting; the north side, the Martha Hill side, the side that hovers above Stillings Avenue and Martha Avenue is dim and dark and a bit off putting. From there, Mount Davidson looms, its cross, ready to receive Easter worshippers, cloaked by a plantation of eucalyptus trees.
Up slope, Ann Kim and Denise Garone kneeled. Kim served as a BAYS office holder; Garone followed Jane Bresnick to San Francisco, several months before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Bresnick and Garone attended high school together in Westchester, New York.
With fistfuls of Oxalis in hand, they leaned back and remembered Bresnick, who had taught at Jefferson Elementary School in the Sunset District.
“Jane loved to garden,” said Kim, making her pilgrimage to Dorothy W. Erskine all the more meaningful. “She planted a little garden outside her classroom.”
“She lived in the Mission,” continued Kim about Bresnick, who’d earned her teaching credential at USF, “but she was a world traveler and a great photographer. She was petit and on one of her trips she fell down. Her backpack was bigger than she was.”
“She loved modern dance,” recalled Garone, whose father came to the City during the Second World War and never tired of telling his daughter of its appeal.
“While BAYS membership is primarily local, we have members in Sacramento, Palo Alto, San Jose and Napa,” said Kim, an attorney for PG&E. “We usually don’t turn anyone away.”
“BAYS started in 2004 to support women under 40 diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Kim. “Our mission is simple — to become a supportive community for women. The key word is community.”
“If you go to a medical conference,” continued Kim, “you might hear that breast cancer for women this age is rare. But it isn’t. It’s often hard to find a young person to escort a patient to chemo, so BAYS members often accompany patients to the hospital.”
With her family on the East Coast, such was the situation with Jane Bresnick. BAYS women kept her company while she underwent therapy.
“We sat at her bedside upon her admission to the ICU,” said Kim. “We held her hand until her family could arrive. After Jane passed one of the nurses told us she’d never witnessed such a demonstration of friendship.”
Kelsey Crowe joined them. Ella padded up, circling Crowe.
BAYS is interested in placing a memorial garden at Dorothy W. Erskine. Tasteful plaques. A bench or two. A contemplative place where survivors can reflect and remember. San Francisco Recreation and Park is receptive, hopeful that the project will move forward. Planning is still in its nascent stages, which would include a BAYS fundraising effort. Design has not been settled. Disability access could be an issue. The steep path leading to the proposed site corkscrews around the tiny park, half way between the north and south side and overlooks Bosworth Street. While a landscape architect has been retained, budgetary scenarios are still in the preliminary stage. And with no definite timeline, of course, obligatory stakeholder meetings will need scheduling.
“At the moment, we simply want to show the Sunnyside community that we come here periodically and beautify the park,” said Kelsey Crowe.
BAYS is patient.
In the meantime, after another morning in the Sunnyside sunshine, its members, their friends and their Rec and Park cohorts relaxed, enjoying City provided snacks and water, exchanging stories, sharing memories.
“It’s a lovely day,” offered Ann Kim.
After a while Christopher Campbell backed his truck up, and he and Shelly Arnold stored their tools. The volunteers made ready to depart. The children found their parents. Ella inched closer to her house.
Kelsey Crowe moved toward Ann Kim and, almost inaudibly, said:
“Thanks for bringing Jane’s spirit here.”
Rec and Park and BAYS have scheduled May 28, September 9, November 19 and December 17 for their next Dorothy Erskine Park work parties. Volunteers are welcome. For more information about BAYS go to www.baysnet.org.