Armen Bacon: Friendship ties our strong suit

FresnoFebruary 28, 2014 

A diva's 90th birthday. The celebration of a granddaughter's first lost tooth. Chinese takeout with my mother. The wedding of my sister's daughter. Dinner with a niece leaving for culinary school. My grandson's first piano recital. A glass of chardonnay with a dear friend. A husband's milestone birthday. My village of stories.

It seems like only yesterday the blank pages of 2014 stared right at me, granting speculation and a bit of whimsy on how best to spend days in this new year. Like many friends and colleagues, by that last week in December, my skin crawled — sagging, bagging, my entire self teetering on the verge of collapse. I eagerly handwrote a long list of sanity-restoring resolutions, hopeful to create a new and improved rhythm of life — one with unregulated timeframes, the absence of rigid and unruly agendas and above all, breathing space.

We all know the adage — slow down, smell the roses. Sadly, the only time we listen is after someone close to us loses their sense of smell and keels over, suffering a massive "something or other." In my case, I imagined it would be easy, given my recent retirement status. Days free, noon hours uncluttered, nights relaxed without curfew, I planned to come and go as I pleased, absent the alarm clock and endless to-do lists.

But life gets in the way, showing up on its own terms — sometimes bringing surprise and delight, and other times, just showing up — plopping herself down in front of us, double daring us to ignore her.

Three months in and our calendars are jam-packed. If you are a native with roots planted in the Valley, life gets complicated in the blink of an eye. We are a people whose paths constantly collide and intersect. We run into each other at the grocery store, converse in the produce aisle, discover issues and challenges in common and before we know it, are morphing the moment into lunch plans or an impromptu meeting of the minds. We share doctors, hair-dressers, baby-sitters and Bed Bath and Beyond coupons.

Our calendar commitments underscore the multitude of people we know and love and our insatiable human need to forge bonds and renew relationships. Dare I say, this is the Fresno "X" factor, in full bloom as the weather warms and days grow longer? It's actually pretty beautiful when you think about it. Maybe even our strong suit.

My out-of-town counterparts seem less engaged, less harried and minus the ties to people, places or community. They live with greater anonymity, less conspicuously. Here — everyone knows everyone else. Dots constantly connect, creating a breathtaking constellation that yes, occasionally invades privacy, but in the end — conjures a sense of family. You meet someone and learn they are related to your best friend, or maybe they know your parents, your boss. Or your doctor is their brother or sister. If you talk for more than five minutes, you discover the association. As much as people banter about Fresno, many, I suspect are envious of our unwavering unity as a small, big city.

Which brings me back to my friend, the diva. When the invitation came to attend her 90th celebration, I instantly cleared my calendar to say "yes." In case you're curious, the diva was Dorothy Renzi, one of Fresno's finest, a vocal virtuoso, a woman of extraordinary gifts and to her friends, "just a love." When she passed away unexpectedly last month, many of us surmised she was ready to be reunited with her husband, Clem. For decades, the legendary duo set this town on fire — one with sculpting hands and the other with song and soprano voice. We've never been the same since.

As I approached her residence the afternoon of her party, cars stacked up along the street. Men and women carrying flowers, food, even musical instruments converged upon the front door. Witnessing the massive exchanges of love, whispers of gratitude, sweet memories laced with tears, reminded me why I love this place we call home.

It is here we build extended family and sprout new seedlings. Our children's children are heir to this legacy of wonder. Almost daily we meet people who make us better, who leave permanent marks tattooed on our hearts. In a world where lines constantly blur, where life is hard no matter who you might be, it's good to know we can cross the street and meet up with a neighbor or friend willing to embrace our journey, lend a hand, or in the diva's case, sing a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday."


Armen Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland — an intimate portrait of love, loss and unlikely friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a new collection of essays titled, "My Name is Armen — a life in column inches." Email: Twitter @ArmenBacon.

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