I was born in Marshall, Missouri. Soon afterward, my family moved to Kansas City, and later, across the state. When my grandparents died, my parents decided to take up farming again on the old home place in Marshall.
Every trip we made to town included a stop at the Pioneer Café. Whether you stopped in to get a cup of coffee or to eat an entire meal, you could not get out of town without paying your exit fee there.
Originally, this landmark had been a ‘60s drive-in—the kind where the waitresses roller-skated out with your order. Somehow, girls on skates did not mix well with four-wheel drive trucks—agitated livestock in the beds—barreling into the parking lot. Watching their business rapidly go south, the owners converted the drive-in into a more typical small-town hangout.
This popular diner was located across the street from the stockyards, giving new meaning to the phrase “the smell of bacon.” You could always tell the out-of-towners who happened to stop in. They didn’t know about the unwritten dress code.
At the Pioneer Café, every local farmer wore a hat. Prominently displayed across the crown of each one was the kind of vehicle the farmer drove, his insurance carrier or the kind of fertilizer he had just bought.
If I had been a carnival sideshow psychic, I could have accurately told a farmer’s fortune by staring at his forehead. Not only did the men wear hats, but their wives and children did, too. It was the law: you had to have a hat.
When my mom passed away, my dad didn’t know what to do. One of the saddest pictures stored in my memory is the one of my petite wife standing beside Dad’s bulky figure, gently trying to teach him how to operate the washing machine.
I was worried about my dad. I lived 400 miles away, and I knew that I would need to make trips home more frequently. On my first visit, we had to go to town to do some banking. Of course, we could not leave without stopping at the Pioneer Café. As we walked in, one of the waitresses yelled, “Good Morning, Dad!”
My dad leaned over and told me, “That is my favorite waitress. She calls me ‘Dad.’” She reappeared with his cup of coffee and one word: “Same?”
My dad, a twinkle in his eyes, just nodded his head. The waitress ran to get his order. The door opened. Two men wearing hats waved at my dad on their way to a table. He said, “They are running late this morning. Usually, they come no later than 7:30.”
For the next hour and a half, people wearing hats came and went, all speaking to my dad. I realized something important. My dad had lost his wife, and his sons had moved away, but he had another loving family right there who recognized his existence every day.
That is what family is all about: having people who pay attention to you, who care how your day is going. I have known for a long time that families are important. I am just beginning to understand, though, that all of us need families beyond the people who share our last name.
Blessed are those who have multiple families, whether they find them in a Sunday School class, a neighborhood or a group of people who frequent the same café. Monday through Friday, until the day of his final hospitalization, you could find my dad sitting at the same table at the Pioneer Café, visiting with his… family.
I wrote this article in 2006, 16 years ago. Today is my 24th anniversary of writing these articles. Since I was asked to write only one, I have now written 1,200, give or take a few.
My family—a very close family—is my readers. You have blessed me more than you will ever know. I come to your churches, and you run up to me and tell me about your favorite article. I smile as you tell me the one you like best was the one about the monkey and the bicycle. I say, “Thank you,” but I have never written an article with a monkey and bicycle. But I love it that you think I did.
You have told me that I have helped you with raising your children and now your grandchildren. You have told me that while your wife was dying, she asked you to read this article to her each week, and it brought a smile to her face. You have told me that you cut these articles out and send them to your children and your friends.
So today, I wanted to write this note to say that you are my “Pioneer Café.” You are my family, and I love you.