Christmas morning, the family was gathered in the living room making quick work of the presents under the tree. French toast was going into second servings and mine was fresh in the pan, filling my mouth with anticipation. Then my wife noticed the old woman on the sidewalk outside our window.
She had been pushing a shopping cart up the hill we live on. At first, it was hard to ascertain what she was up to; the cart was empty, she seemed to be well put together, her head was wrapped in a clean scarf and she carried a purse that looked barely used. But she was clearly struggling with the incline. Still in my pajamas, I slipped on a pair of moccasins and stepped out to see how — and what — she was doing.
As far as I could tell, she was grateful for my sudden appearance. By the time I reached her, she was sitting on the roots of the camphor tree between our yard and the street. Her breathing was steady but labored. I gave her my arm and offered to help her finish the climb to the end of the street.
She quickly shooed away the shopping cart after she cupped her hand around my elbow. As she got her breath back, she shook her head and mumbled something I couldn’t understand, definitely not English. I asked her if she lived around here, if she was heading home, and she nodded, pointing her fingers vaguely up the hill and down to the right. But she could not give me an address or a phone number. If I asked for any number, she shook her head and tapped her temple in frustration.
She was nicely groomed, her red hair tucked under her scarf, a touch of lipstick neatly in place. Her wardrobe had an “Old World” air to it, the clothing of a thick knit and a sturdy cut. Her skirt revealed knee-high compression hose, with colorful ankle socks and sensible shoes.
Her tan purse looked almost new, and she carried it in a tight grip. Since she appeared to at least understand some of the things I said, I suggested that she check her ID for an address. For a moment I thought we would solve our little mystery, but as she unzipped her purse it was clear that the only thing inside was a scarf. She searched the pockets to no avail. More head shaking, more temple tapping. She was agitated and confused and adamant all at the same time,
By now, we had walked up the hill and around the corner, and she repeated a street name over and over — but it was not a street from our neighborhood. Another woman, out for a Christmas morning walk, crossed our path while I was trying to get the non-emergency number for the police to show up on my phone. We chatted for a moment and, though she could not speak it, she was able to identify our mystery woman’s language as Armenian.
The City of Glendale is only a few minutes away from our section of Los Angeles. There is a large population of Armenians living in Glendale. And a street with the same name she had been repeating. Fortunately, the City of Glendale also employs police officers who are fluent in Armenian, at least one of whom was compassionate enough to drive outside of his jurisdiction to help bring her home.
One of our neighbors has a Little Free Library and a small bench positioned next to the sidewalk in front of their house, so the neighbor woman who was out for her walk and I guided this mystery woman over to have a seat. She clearly needed to catch her breath still, but she was beginning to look less panicked and slightly more confident that things would be okay. A few minutes later, the squad car drove up and the Armenian-speaking officer helped her into the front seat.
I thanked the neighborhood walker for joining me in trying to help the old woman and waiting with me until the officer arrived. Then we said our obligatory holiday greetings and parted ways. Back in my house, I reheated my last piece of French toast, poured a fresh cup of coffee, and rejoined my family to open the rest of our presents.
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