Gloria Lafranchi, a devoted mother, unwavering friend and ubiquitous church and community presence known and loved for her famously warm and outgoing personality, died of a stroke on March 14. She was 57.
Lafranchi worked much of her adult life as an independent caregiver, traveling to her clients’ homes and offering assistance during their time of greatest need. By dedicating her own life to improving the lives of others, Lafranchi found satisfaction. “She had fun doing it. She liked to talk about the people she was taking care of,” said her son Ricco.
The same compassionate, joyful nature that built her reputation as a caregiver also enamored her to the West Marin community she called home for four decades.
“It was her personality,” said her sister, Mary Thompson. “She had a giant personality. She really sincerely cared about each person. She was just a happy person, inside and out.”
In a community known for its tight-knit relationships, Lafranchi counted perhaps dozens of friends. Her social prowess was never more evident than during her 50th birthday party. Held at a friend’s place in Nicasio, the celebration had everything: live music, food, drinks. And as many as 100 guests.
“I was amazed as to how many people she knew,” Thompson said. “I knew it, but it was still one of those [unbelievable] things.
At the celebration many of Lafranchi’s friends, Thompson said, realized for the first time the impressive breadth of the host’s social relations. “Each one would assume with good reason that they were her best friend,” Thompson said. “She had time for everyone. It still amazes me.”
Of her numerous roles, Lafranchi’s most treasured was easily that of mother. And she made sure that her son, now 30, and daughter Natalie, now 27, knew it.
“She cared about us kids,” Ricco said. “That was her main thing—she always told us that she cared about us more than anything.”
As a single parent, Ricco said, Lafranchi was both protective and extremely loving. She emphasized the importance of education as well as respect and proper manners. The words “please” and “thank you” were common in the Nicasio house where the kids grew up; junk food was not.
No matter what the situation—sad, happy, fun—Natalie said her mom was always there to support her kids with a love that was transparent and unconditional. “She was a one-of-a-kind mom,” Natalie said. “She would do anything for us.”
Gloria Nevarez was born September 29, 1954 in Durango, Mexico. When she was a little girl, she moved with her mother, Luz, and older sister, Irma, to Texas. Soon after the trio migrated again, this time to California, where Luz married a man named José Llamas. José and Luz had another daughter, Mary, and the family of five settled in Sunnyvale.
Growing up in California the girls went to the beach, played at home and regularly visited a nearby creek with their parents. They also went to church on Sundays, frequently walking the long distance from their home when José’s arthritis prevented him from driving.
“We had a simple life, yet it was a big one,” Thompson said. “There was lots of love and lots of family always coming over.”
Three years her junior, Mary mostly followed Gloria’s lead as they entertained themselves. The two played house and cowboys, played with the hula hoop. “We were never bored,” Thompson said.
At least once a year, the young family would return to Mexico to visit relatives.
In the little ranching town of El Encinal, outside Durango, Lafranchi’s cousin Rafael Herrera, who later moved to California himself, would be thrilled by the visits from Gloria and her family. The girls would bring presents, play with the local animals, and go hiking and climbing in the area’s mountainous countryside.
Gloria, in particular, never hesitated to play with her younger cousin Rafael. Six years older, she would poke him in the ribs or tug on his ears—anything to provoke a laugh or smile.
“She was a total nut when it came to playing around,” Herrera said. “She needed some company that could be as joyful as she was.”
Once, during a visit coinciding with the local festival honoring Semana Santa, the Catholic holy week, Gloria charmed her way into persuading the village’s usual pyrotechnics operator to let her set off one of the celebratory fireworks, something resembling a stick of dynamite. As part of the holy week the villagers were walking from one town to the next to accompany the traveling Virgin; when it was Gloria’s turn to set off the firework she used a softball-like pitch and inadvertently struck the ground with the hissing explosive. Instead of flying into the air, the firework headed straight towards the crowd, bursting with a loud bang.
“They almost forgot about the Virgin,” Rafael said. Luckily no one was hurt, and the incident was memorialized in the village as a hilarious accident from that “crazy kid from the States.” More than 40 years later, Rafael still chuckles about the near-miss. “She was just fun, fun, fun,” he said.
Lafranchi’s early life was also marred by tragedy. When she was 17, her mother and four other family members were killed in a car crash in Mexico. Mary and José moved to Arizona, but the independent-minded Gloria, who had just graduated from high school, decided to move to West Marin, where a friend of hers lived.
Living on her own, the teen-aged Nevarez worked hard to establish her new life in the new community. “It was very difficult,” Thompson said. “Gloria found jobs wherever she could. Just whatever came up—she used to take care of people’s homes. She was always working.”
Only two years after the car crash, José died, and Gloria went to Arizona to bring her younger sister back to California. Throughout their lives the two stayed close: when Mary lived in Sacramento, during Gloria’s visits the two would walk downtown or hike along the American River; in recent years, when Mary had moved to Portland, Oregon, the two sisters enjoyed frequent trips to Multnomah Falls or the Timberline Lodge.
Even when they were far apart, Thompson, who has been struggling with ill health, always knew her sister would be available if she needed her. “If I had a broken arm, she was there. If I was sick, she’d be there. She was very nurturing to me, which I appreciate.”
About a year ago, when Thompson was extremely sick, her sister gave her a rosary for protection. She said it was blessed. “She put it around my neck and said, ‘This will keep you safe,’” Thompson said. “I didn’t appreciate it as much then. I appreciate it more now.”
As a young woman in West Marin, Gloria eventually met and fell in love with Randy Lafranchi. The couple married in the early 1980’s and established their life together in Nicasio. Gloria gave birth to Ricco in 1981 and Natalie three years later; the marriage would eventually end in divorce in the late 90’s.
Throughout her life Lafranchi never lost the deep Catholic faith with which she had grown up. She attended mass regularly, usually at St. Mary’s in Nicasio, and learned how to teach catechism. She put her social skills to work as a tireless fundraiser and volunteer; at Christmas she employed her well-known artistic ability to provide colorful decorations.
“She’d hate to miss,” Thompson said. “Even when she’d come visit me in Sacramento and Oregon, she’d find the church. The first thing we’d look for, wherever we moved, was, ‘Where is the church for Gloria?’”
Nor did Lafranchi ever lose her contagious sense of fun and love of the outdoors. Growing up, Natalie said, her mom would take her and her brother on laughter-filled trips to see the local elk or to the beach. “It was just fun to laugh with her,” her daughter said. “She was always the loudest one.”
On Mother’s Day, the three would have a barbecue on Heart’s Desire Beach, where they cooked chili dogs. “That was her choice,” Natalie said. “She just loved chili dogs. That’s all she wanted for Mother’s Day.”
The last year and a half of her life Lafranchi lived with her son in Ignacio, outside Novato. Ricco said his mom had recently developed a passion for black and white photography. She also loved music and bargain shopping: at a recent garage sale, Gloria found a great deal on a Jimmy Hendrix portrait. For each season—Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving—she would fill the home with festive decorations, and occasionally friends would stop over for a barbecue or to swim in the pool.
From his mom, Ricco said both he and his sister inherited their politeness and friendliness. They also love kids, as she did, and embody her sense of warmth and caring, even if the two kids aren’t quite as social as their famously affable mom was.
Lafranchi’s memorial service was held March 23 at the Sacred Heart Church in Olema. Perhaps not surprisingly, the event was well-attended, with more than 100 friends and family members showing up to commemorate Gloria’s life.
Ricco said he always knew his mom was a special woman, that through her warmth and friendliness she was loved in the community. But now he knows even better. “After this happened,” he said, “I came to realize it even more and how many people’s lives she really did touch.”
Gloria Lafranchi is survived by her son Ricco and daughter Natalie, both of Novato; her sister Mary Thompson and her husband Kent, of Portland, Oregon; her niece, Inger Mendoza, and her daughter Maggie, of New Mexico; and her nephew Joaquin Mendoza, his wife Barbara, and their children Jackson and Eva, of Sunnyvale. She was preceded in death by her sister, Irma Ortega, and her mother, Luz Llamas, both of Sunnyvale.