As I crossed the White River Bridge driving my U-Haul into the twilight of the setting December sun, a chill of anxiety began to rise within me. Am I really here? Back in Indiana? Ft. Sackville was fifteen miles north on Highway 41. Yet my chest felt it had already arrived; the weight of those years before my move to Miami Beach, my restrained life in pastoral Middle America began to creep in and constrict my breath. I thought about our restaurant, Daniels’ Family Buffet, everything it had survived. How my Dad said it had all begun with a handshake.
In 1951 a man’s handshake was his word, a contract, especially between friends and neighbors. Collin, my grandpa, shook Lo Campbell’s hand and it was a deal. With the handshake came the birth of the Daniels as restaurateurs. I imagined my grandpa eager to get home and announce to my grandma Dixie and the children – my Dad then nine – that their lives were about to change. That they’d be staying in Ft. Sackville.
I thought about my grandma, her reaction. I envisioned the cold, November day –I’ve experienced them. I know how my grandpa spoke to her. Growing up, I listened to their conversations in the restaurant, often at night after closing. Perhaps she had been packing boxes. For an eternity it might have seemed. Boxes salvaged from her sister and brother-in-law’s store, Wollard’s Grocery, where my grandfather worked as a butcher since returning from the War. Even though she and my grandpa lived simply, their house on Ridge Road rented, it must have been a task to pack their few possessions: toys, clothes, dishes, photographs, her mother’s china and table linens, Collin’s navy uniform. She must have wondered how so little could take up so much space? Their lives had always been in Ft. Sackville, now they were leaving everything they had known, her parents, sisters, and moving west to find a better job, a better life. We don’t know anyone in San Diego. What was Collin thinking, I’m sure she thought. Thank goodness for the children, at least C.J. and Charlene will be with me.
My Dad and his eleven year old sister Charlene must have been a great help to Dixie the last several weeks while my grandpa worked double shifts for extra money. Although, my Dad says he was upset that they’d sold his bicycle. “We’ll buy you a new one in California,” my grandpa promised. “They have much faster ones there.” I’m sure my grandma couldn’t imagine her life without them –the children. She had said the moment Charlene drew her first breath she’d been an independent spirit, demanding, stubborn. She was all Daniels. C.J., however, needed coddling. He was more tag along. Dixie’s mother had said he would follow his big sister off a cliff; he had their Roberts blood in him, Dixie’s neediness; even though Dad had her spunk he needed someone to watch over him, to love him. I know my grandma felt blessed to have been given the task.
Dixie was restless, wanting to get the move over, settle, get the children back into a routine, enrolled in school. Christmas break was less than a month and a half away so beginning the new year in San Diego could be the opportunity she and Collin had been looking for. Children need routine. Charlene would have no problem settling in but C.J. might need a little prodding. I’m sure my grandma could have used a break too. Something new.
“My living room looked like Wollard’s storeroom,” she recounted one evening after closing. How in the world will we ever move all these boxes, she had thought.
That November night in ‘51, she’d said Collin arrived home just in time for supper. It was the second to the last in the Ft. Sackville house. That’s how she thought of it. He bounced through the kitchen door – when happy his step was more bounce than walk – and sat in his usual seat at the kitchen table, his smirk pronounced –a look later made popular by a young rock and roll boy from Memphis on Ed Sullivan. Charlene and C.J. were sitting across from each other waiting for their dad to dig in. Once he did it signaled they could start.
“Collin,” Dixie said, “I can see by the look on your face you got something up your sleeve.”
“How’d you like to stay here near your sisters?” His eyebrows matched his smirk.
“I don’t understand?” she said, passing the mashed potatoes to C.J.
“We’re staying! We’re staying in Ft. Sackville!” Collin announced. The children and my grandma stared at him.
“Collin, what do you mean? You’re going to get these children wound up; I’ve had a long day. I’m looking forward to getting them fed, bathed, and in bed. I want quiet time, a cup of coffee, the paper, if I haven’t packed that too.”
“I bought a restaurant!” he said. “I bought The Café from Lo Campbell. You know, his wife Susie’s place on Fairground Avenue. I talked to him this afternoon, I bought it. We shook on it. I’m signing the contract tomorrow. I’m going to pay for it with the weekly receipts.
“You’re out of your tree!” my grandma replied, in total disbelief. “Did Campbell ask you or did you ask him?”
“I had lunch in there today; he just started talking about how the place was too much for Susie to run. With them owning and running the IGA she didn’t need to work. Plus they were thinking of selling it all and moving to Ocala. There’s a motel down there for sale. Tired of the Indiana winters he said. That’s why we were moving, right? To find a better job? Well, I found one, here!”
Dixie sat at the table looking past my grandpa toward the barren kitchen walls, the windows with no curtains. He’d found a job, she thought, after I’d convinced myself we were doing the right thing. My husband bought a restaurant. What in the hell are we going do with a restaurant?
“Well,” she said, “are you keeping the name?”
“Nope. I already thought of that. It’s going to be Daniels’ Diner! What do you think?”
Our lives will never be the same.
She remembered her older sister Dottie. The steamy, very public affair with married Joe Wollard. She’d been his cashier. My grandma recalled the community uproar. And how Joe had divorced his first wife then married Dottie. How her sister could no longer work the checkout line because customers had refused to buy groceries from ‘the other woman’. Owning a family business meant having the community involved in your everyday life. I’m certain my grandma didn’t want customers involved in her family’s affairs.
Restoring her focus on Collin from across the kitchen table she gave the only honest reply she could, “I think you can help me put this house back in order, that’s what I think!”
I understood her. I too, felt responsible for putting things back in order. Now it was about my family. Eleven years had passed since I left Ft. Sackville for a new life. Dad was dying. Mom was consumed with his care. The responsibility fell upon me to manage the restaurant, again. I just wasn’t sure how I would keep the community out of my family’s affairs, out of my life, while doing so.
Driving my U-Haul along the southern straightaway of Highway 41 where the road splits the farmland prairie, I began to see Ft. Sackville. Framed by the windshield my hometown’s orange sodium-vapor streetlights flickered in the distance. As I grew closer, in the gloaming, outlines of the county’s four gothic courthouse towers blended with Christian cathedrals –their shadowed steeples topped with the crucifix cut the twilight. Alone in the truck’s cab I muttered aloud, “What the fuck am I doing?”