LONG BEACH — They threw a party for Barbara Eselun the other day.
It was her 90th birthday, and friends and family pulled her off her job in the kitchen of the Long Beach Bakery to let her know she is something special.
"Stinkers!" she exclaimed, feigning surprise and irritation that they would dare honor the woman who had founded their bakery 56 years ago and had taken just one vacation since.
She hugged her son and grandchildren and co-workers, some of whom she had known all their lives.
Then a jester in white coat and top hat delivered a singing telegram and, gazing into her eyes, said in a mock French accent, "How do you say beautiful?"
"How do you say stinks?" she replied.
Then, begging playfully, she said, "Don't do this to me. Keep it up and I'll have a heart attack and die."
The jester placed a red pointed party hat on her head, and she plunked her finger into her mouth and posed with a pouty frown.
"You are so pleasant," he said brightly.
"That's because you don't know me," she snapped.
The entertainer and the old woman bumped hips two or three times. Then the smiling jester pointed to a mechanical monkey on his shoulder and said, "He is my brother."
"He looks just like you," she said.
Barbara Eselun's performance had fit her billing.
Friends had described her almost as a caricature: Feisty, strong, smart and independent--a one-time Lithuanian waif who caught a freighter to Los Angeles where she met a professional wrestler, whom she married, and opened the bakery on Anaheim Street in 1929.
"Did she tell you how she used to peel over 100 pounds of potatoes a day by hand?" asked Robert Miller, who now runs the wholesale bakery along with his father and Barbara Eselun's son Albert, of Long Beach.
They told of her taste for beer and the stash she keeps in the trunk of the '77 Buick she drives to work each day; how she scolds co-workers who don't move as quickly as she would like.
"She's just as feisty as ever," said Mickey Martin, 29. "She comes in here and pulls these racks around like they're nothing."
"She's quick," said Miller. "She lines the pans for all of the muffins we sell, and we sell several thousand a week."
Eselun announced her retirement in 1948 but never stayed away, they explained, and now she works three hours a day, six days a week.
She is amazing, they insisted. And they had wanted to let her know it with a celebration.
"It was just a fantastic party," Eselun said Wednesday from her apartment at Leisure World in Seal Beach.
But it was also a retirement party of sorts and she did not much care for that, she said, a trace of her native country still in her voice.
"I was nobody really where I was brought up, and I used to think, 'I'm going to build a home of my own.' The Long Beach Bakery has been my home for the last 56 years, and I don't know what I'm going to do without it. I've given my notice, and I'm going to quit next Friday.
"I hate to do it, but I have to. It's been hard for me to get to the car to come here. When I leave the bakery I can hardly walk.
"If you ask me about (having a) long life, the only thing I'd put my finger on for sure is keeping busy, but there comes a time when you can no longer do that, and that time is now."
This one was a good birthday, "but don't wish me another one," she said with a big laugh and without a trace of sadness.
Leaning forward toward a guest, she elaborated carefully: "It's so hard to say the things that I want you to understand . . . so my story will not sound too silly.
"I have a wonderful family. I love their company," she said. "And if I was to choose a life to live over again, I would choose the one I lived. I appreciate living, but I've had enough of it. It's wonderful doing things I've been doing, but I've been doing them an awful long time. Can you understand that?"
Then, breaking away from the moment, she shows the visitor around her small apartment. She points with pride to her "masterpiece," a large weaving with intricate design hung on the wall. Other weavings cover other walls. Two are backdrops for photographs of her two great-granddaughters.
Black-and-white photos of her son, Albert, in a World War II Army uniform and daughter, Mary, at age 17 are mounted together and displayed prominently.
"Just to look after them was the happiest time of my life," she said. "The birth of my daughter was the happiest day. She was first, before Albert. And I just knew the world was not good enough for her."
Trip to Europe
It was to celebrate Mary's graduation from the University of California in 1939 that Eselun took her only vacation from the bakery. She sailed to Europe with her daughter, who eventually earned a doctorate in psychology.
"Mary used to say, 'Mother, it's a sin to be as happy as you are.' But when she died (in 1961) that ended, and it's never going to come back. But I can't say I'm unhappy. That's not so either."