18 June 2007

1751) Essay: My Lamajoon Lady

In the span of our lifetimes, people come and go. . . They enter and exit our lives. We sometimes bump into them quite by accident and somehow, they become valued and cherished friends. Go figure. I have often wondered if these are accidental or chance meetings, or a result of fate, kismet, or the design of destiny. For now, I am quite satisfied to think of them simply as magical moments where lives intersect and connect. Who really cares how or why we might find each other across a crowded room? Or in the instance I am about to describe, in a tiny, almost anonymous bakery right off Ashlan Avenue and Freeway 41 in Fresno. This story is about a special friend I have found. I know her only as "My lamajoon lady."

She works tirelessly behind the counter and behind the one-way glass window of my favorite lamajoon kitchen, The Bread Basket. She kneads the dough, works the register, stocks the shelves, and waits on customers. She bakes from dawn until dusk. "Harrd Vork," she once confessed to me under her breath with her thick Armenian accent.

I imagine that we live worlds apart, even though we both reside in Fresno. Each morning, as my alarm sounds, I have the luxury of sipping my coffee and leisurely reading the newspaper. From what little she has shared, she is already busy at work, in the storefront kitchen, well into her 12-hour workday. Her uniform is a stain-soaked apron. Mine, by contrast, is a tailored suit that includes heels and matching handbag. We are different as day and night, and yet, from the moment I first met her, I sensed a special bond, a sisterhood that has, over time, become a quiet, unspoken friendship thicker than the dough that is made in the back room of her modest bakery. Our eyes lock immediately each time I scurry in for my usual order -- a dozen lamajoon (the spicy variety), two pounds of seeded string cheese, and of course, fresh lahvosh bread. There is rarely time for anything more than small talk. I am rushing through my lunch-hour errands. She has other customers waiting.

And so, we go our separate ways, knowing almost nothing about one another. But my sixth sense, that Armenian intuition, those cultural vibrations can't help but believe that we have thoughts in common -- about life's journey, its uncertainties, the untold trials and tribulations, and other personal struggles. Neither of us asks too many questions. There is no time for inquisition. The simplicity of a smile and a warm handshake as she hands me my purchase is sufficient for now.

The sweat drips visibly off of her weary forehead. In the moment of that observation, I make a mental note that our connection most certainly must transcend this weekly lamajoon transaction. It feels centuries old, probably embedded deep within us through our heritage. We are both Armenian women. The lines on our face are evidence of dreams. And disappointments. I can see that she remains hopeful. Driven. And determined. So am I. But we are too busy to discuss this now. What a shame, since there is a small wooden table in the bakery that would be a perfect retreat -- a momentary time out for us to drink coffee and make conversation. Maybe another day.

Eventually, I think we both got curious. It was time for the exchange to move beyond the purchase of lamajoon. I stalled my usual exit. The small talk lingered. I remember it felt like an oven in the store; I must have acknowledged the heat and offered sympathy for her working conditions. She conceded that it came with the territory. I confessed that I loved the heat of our summers. And then, almost in unison -- we each offered a morsel of detail about our personal life -- our birthdates. We were both born on the third of July.

Funny how a small coincidence can cement an unexplainable connection that both of us had been feeling for months. The floodgates opened. We shared pieces of our lives. We spoke of love, loss, of life's hardships. Our whispered exchange felt like the true confessions between high school girls. And then one of us gently hinted that we might treat ourselves to a glass of wine, a cup of Turkish coffee, or something to celebrate our friendship on the occasion of our upcoming birthdays. Had the counter been a few inches shorter -- we might have embraced at that very moment. But instead, she bagged up my purchases, and returned to her back room. Her 12-hour day was only half done. My lunch hour was almost over and it was time for me to return to my air-conditioned office.

Next month, I will arrive on the day of our birthdays. I suspect she will bake me something special. I will present her with this story about two Armenian women. A bond born from lamajoon. A shared birthday. And friendship.

by Armen D. Bacon
June 3, 2007
reporter.am

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