February 11, 2002

HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY, MARY MCKENZIE! Befitting the importance of the event, Mary’s daughters Doris Cretan of Sunol, Barbara Anderson of Clayton and Norma Yaglijian of Oakland, along with Doris’ husband, Irv, gave Mary a very special birthday party. The fete was held on December 16, the day after Mary’s birthday, and over 135 friends and relatives attended the party at St. Vartan Armenian Church Hall in Oakland.

Mary came to America 95 years ago and settled in Fresno before moving to Oakland, where she has spent most of her life since. Mary and her husband, Albert Panosian, raised Barbara, Norma, and Doris, as well as Paul, a nephew the family adopted when he was eight and orphaned in war torn Armenia. Doris says of Paul, who passed away two years ago, “He was an instant older brother and the family clown. I really miss him.”

Mary and Albert worked together in his restaurant business – he had one in Oakland and another in Sacramento – until he passed away in 1932, after which Mary continued to run Commercial Cafeteria in Oakland. “Her restaurant became a home away from home for many,” Doris said. “There was a hotel next door and the bachelors who lived there ate three meals a day at Mom’s.” After she gave up the restaurant, Mary transferred her cooking talents to St. Vartan, where she cooked and supervised countless meals.

Contrary to the Scottish ring of the guest of honor’s name, the family is Armenian – Mary’s Armenian name is Zarohi, and the McKenzie comes from her late husband, Donald, to whom she was married from 1935 until his death in 1970. As did all her family members, Donald benefited from Mary’s skill in the kitchen, finding little home-baked pies in his lunch each day.

Doris describes her mom as a “natural gourmet cook,” and to honor her talent and years in the restaurant business, Mary’s grandchildren served at her party wearing aprons emblazoned with “Mary’s Cafeteria.” The guests were treated to classic Armenian dishes prepared by Ed Godoshian, family friend and owner of Father Nature’s Shed in Danville. They also kicked up their heels in Armenian dances to music played on traditional instruments.

Mary’s birthday was noted in letters from the White House and the Governor’s Mansion, as well as in a glowing tribute by Father Mesrob, the priest at St. Vartan. One of Mary’s closest friends, Lucy Mirigian, 95, shared some amusing stories of their many shared adventures.

It is certainly not possible to sum up a century of life in a few words, but Doris and her sisters did their best when designing a custom candy wrapper for the chocolate bars given out as party favors. Bearing a color picture of Mary, the wrapper lists as “nutritional facts”: “1 lovely lady, 3 children, 9 grandchildren, 8 great-grandchildren.”

There is also a “recipe” on the back, which instructs, “Combine 100 years of wisdom with a generous portion of fun and laughter. Mix in an energetic attitude and lots of love. Add special time for family and friends. Toss in a competitive card player and a gourmet cook. Mix together. Yield: One great lady with a heart of gold.”

From all accounts, Mary thoroughly enjoyed her celebration. She was especially pleased to see so many of her neighbors – she moved into a retirement home in Castro Valley five years ago – and relatives who traveled from Arizona for the event. And if you were thinking her cooking days might be over, Mary’s was in Sunol over the weekend at Doris and Irv’s, cooking up a batch of monti – little meat-filled pasta canoes in broth – and this writer has been promised a taste. Congratulations to an inspiring lady, and best wishes for many more birthdays to come.

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