Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Country Milestone

A few miles’ drive out in the country beyond my home is a farm stand. Not your usual shack that peddles fresh veggies, this place is a farm stand with attitude. I’ve loved coming out this way for years—decades, in fact. It hasn’t been only because of the selection of fresh produce, but mainly because the store’s proprietors took pride in their offerings. That pride showed not only in the way the food was displayed but also in the friendly more-than-a-customer atmosphere.

The owners were descendants of an Italian immigrant family—not unusual in the surrounding farming communities around here. And, like many Italian families I’ve known from New York to San Francisco, they were not bashful about letting their Italian shine through. In the case of this farm stand, that heritage made itself known in everything from the fresh basil picked-for-you this morning, to the accordion music playing through the sound system. Little fun touches—like the ugly-face art on misshapen peaches, or the collection of vegetable art preserved in Ball jars—added to the ambience.

Above all, the “mama” of the establishment presided in her inimitable way. At least, she maintained her presence for most of the sixty-plus years the store has been in business. Toward the later years, her health kept her from being there for the demanding schedule such ventures require—and then, a while later, she wasn’t there any more. Her health had required her to seek a more restful lifestyle.

But the farm stand continued serving its customers, a community that grew to include travelers on their way from the Bay Area to the many weekend hideaways in the Sierras. This place became their special midway stop, their little treat—especially as the business grew and added a bakery and, ever mindful of an opportunity to hearken back to their Italian roots while meeting a summertime traveler’s needs, a gelateria. Of course, the local customers appreciated the additions, too. I’ve always been a regular, driving out that way at least once a week—for the vegetables, of course.

Since I’ve been out of town, it wasn’t until yesterday that I was able to get back into my shopping routine. This being the peak of summer, that meant a trip to the farm stand.

Pulling into the parking lot, I noticed a sign out in front that hadn’t been there. It read: “Thanks for the memories, Mom.”

It didn’t take much to figure out what must have happened in the weeks that I was away. I confirmed my suspicions with the girl attending the counter in the bakery, then continued my shopping in a daze. Though my mind tells me the end is inevitable for all of us, how sad it is for those remaining when it comes.

My mind lost its way while I browsed counters full of fresh-picked fruit, thinking: yes, she certainly did leave memories. This entire operation was a legacy this woman and her hardworking husband had left. True, it was still in existence, thanks to the willingness of her son and his wife to take up his parents’ vision. But its creation was owing to the mom and dad who first took the initiative to risk their new idea, and put the diligence and personality into building a one-of-a-kind venture.

With all that I had been through in my travels in the last couple weeks—sorting through pictures of nameless relatives long gone—I couldn’t help wonder what memories this family would be sifting through. Would that extended family sit around the kitchen table as we did and pass around the pictures, reminisce, and get some relief from their grief by the soft touch of happier remembrances? What would they remember?

The scenes I was reminded of, from my recent visit with family, became echoes of what I hope for this family as they move through this process of remembrance. What a rich heritage is left to nurture them when they are ready to ease away from the initial pain of loss.

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