One day a white Ford Econoline van appeared, so old that its paint was matted, its enamel sheared away by time and smogwinds. The sound was unnerving when I scratched my stubby 1994 kid nails on its side to examine it, but I accepted it. It had a defunct refrigeration unit the size of a case of small water bottles on top and a huge sticker decal on one side. "Picnic Sandwiches" in a chubby typewriter font. Deli, Catering, Delivery. (626) something something something – something something something something.
I have no idea where my father procured this adorable hunk of junk, but I loved it. It was fantastically unreliable, breaking down with such tenacity that the guy at Lynn's Auto Body had a dedicated space cleared for it. My dad had that crooked mechanic's number on speed dial. I wonder now who he called first from the blue call boxes that dotted the sidelines of all of the highways where Picnic Sandwiches decided to stop to have lunch and a long nap – my mom or Lynn. "God damn thing is broken down." Sometimes it would be a message on the work voicemail machine which spoke to no one in particular, just into the ether.
I had this fear growing up that some semi or an LA driver not paying attention would take out my dad while he patiently made the call for help. During moments stuck in the gridlock of the Southland, I wonder how he didn't break down and give up. What would I do in the situation?
Would I believe in the American Dream and delight in my ownership of Picnic Sandwiches, a vestige of someone else's small business long gone, a beacon of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth? Does enterprise still mean this much or should I look for something else.
Picnic Sandwiches now rests on a farm, its rusty accoutrements melting more into the earth with each passing rain, wild yellow mustard cropping out of hitch holes and gaps between its shrinking parts. When I see it peeking out of the brush, I imagine it flying down the interstate, mid-air, sparks flying, with my dad at the wheel going hard at the gas, and backing up into loading docks next to monstrous 16-wheelers with conviction and grace. His mighty chariot, empty on the way home, lurching with dreams back to us.
Want to learn more about memoir? Follow Jeanna Kadlec's work through which she encourages narrative nonfiction writers to explore their inner wilderness through alternative forms, such as hybrid memoir. According to Jeanna, hybrid memoir has a rich b-story. In my case, it's a local social commentary on poverty, choice, agency, and economic opportunity, explored through the lens of the immigrant family business. Explore Jeanna's insightful courses here.
I stumbled upon this blog post by Jennifer Piette, owner of Narrative Food, in which she shares more about uprooting from Los Angeles to Deer Isle, Maine of all places. It's a fantasy for anyone who's ever broken down on a hot highway in Southern California. In other words, a lot of us. What I most enjoyed about this story was the folding in of her things into those unfamiliar left behind by previous inhabitants – a copper bowl, boards, a blueberry winnower, and much more.
Finally, some words shared by a friend from the epic Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer:
Perhaps the Skywoman story endures because we too are always falling. Our lives, both personal and collective, share her trajectory. Whether we jump or are pushed, or the edge of the known world just crumbles at our feet, we fall, spinning into someplace new and unexpected. Despite our fears of falling, the gifts of the world stand by to catch us.
One such gift being the good writing so abundant in our world.