Lunch At The Miracle Cafe

If I hadn’t stopped to chat with Jeffrey Casten as he loaded soybeans into his semi, or been drawn into the woodworking shop by the aroma of fresh sawdust, or taken time to wander the field behind the abandoned school, I might have been a little farther down the road. But three o’clock had come and gone, and I was hungry.

Dropping south from Osage City, traveling through country rich in scenery but poor in amenties, it occurred to me that lessons learned about keeping my gas tank full might also apply to my cooler. I’d grown accustomed to convenience stores every few miles in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Their absence in rural Kansas surprised me. I began to suspect I’d have to wait until Emporia to find a meal.

Then, I came to Reading. A tiny town, it seemed remarkably fresh and neat, as though a movie set of a midwestern town had been required, and Reading was the result.

Turning off the highway, I wandered past a grain elevator; a post office; a few scattered trucks. A pretty white Methodist church with a bright red metal roof shimmered in the afternoon light. Across from the church, a long, low building that could have passed for any small-town Texas barbeque joint drew my attention. When I saw its sign, I had to smile. I’d found The Miracle Cafe.

Things were so quiet I wasn’t sure the place was open, but I parked and went in anyway, reasoning that three in the afternoon hardly is peak time for a cafe. Apart from the woman behind the counter, the place was empty.

“You have a good name,” I said. “It seems like a miracle that I found you. I thought I’d have to go to Emporia to find something to eat.” “It’s a miracle you found me, for sure,” the woman said. “On a nomal day, I close at three so I can pick up my grandkids at school, but they’re having tests today, so I stuck around. The grill’s shut down, but I can make you a sandwich. How does chicken salad sound?”

It sounded just fine. While she pulled out a loaf of bread and the chicken salad, I looked around, and noticed a wall filled with angels. “They’re nice,” I said. “Are they your angels?” “They sure are,” she said, adding a little extra lettuce to my sandwich. “You want chips with this?” “No,” I said, “just the sandwich will do. But I’d love to know about your angels.”

The story of the angels actually began in 2001, after Reading’s only restaurant burned down. When the town’s citizens formed Reading Community Development, Inc. to encourage Reading’s economic growth, one of their first goals was to reestablish a restaurant.

Cynthia Price Wilson, a former Reading resident who moved back from Massachusetts, chose the oldest building in town as the restaurant’s new site.

Built in 1870, the house recalled Reading’s beginnings as a railroad town. A tract of land deeded to John McManus in 1867 later was divided, with portions being sold first to Seyfert, McManus & Company, of Brooklyn, New York, and then to the Reading (Pennsylvania) Iron Works. Reading Iron Works owned the land in 1870 when the Santa Fe railroad established a Reading Station between Osage City and Emporia, and the house which eventually would become the Miracle Cafe was built.

Once completed, no one could have confused the cafe with a cookie-cutter franchise. Townspeople had calculated, hammered, and painted. Vintage tables and chairs, tablecloths, kitchenware, and dishes were donated by neighbors. Cheryl Unruh, a delightful chronicler of Kansas’s “flyover people” writes: 

A man built the front counter. A woman made the curtains. When it was finished, the Miracle Cafe had a thank-you dinner for the people who helped bring the cafe to life. And they held a cake-and-coffee event for the community at large.
The Miracle Cafe opened in the oldest home of Reading, Kansas in June of 2007.
The Miracle Cafe, 2007 ~ Cheryl Unruh

Eventually, the color of the building changed, and so did the ownership. Reta Jackson, the woman who made my chicken salad sandwich, took over management of the small restaurant in early 2010.

The Miracle Cafe, 2010 ~ Exploring kansas back roads by bike

Unfortunately, the well-loved cafe’s life was about to be cut short. On May 21, 2011 — precisely seven years ago — an EF3 tornado devastated Reading. Don Chesmore, a maintenance supervisor at a senior center in Osage city, was killed; five others were seriously injured.

Over two hundred homes were damaged, and thirty-seven destroyed. The grain elevator, the post office, the senior center, and The Miracle Cafe were hardest hit.

The Miracle Cafe, May 22, 2011 ~ John Sleezer, Kansas City Star

The loss of the cafe resonated far beyond the city limits of Reading. It had become more than the hub of town life, packed every Friday night and every day at noon. It was a destination, even for people from Wichita, Emporia, and Great Bend. After the tornado, Willie Prescott, a Kansas State Representative from Osage City, said, “When I hear from people who aren’t from Reading, their first question is, ‘How is the cafe?'”

Reta Jackson at her Miracle Cafe, May 22, 2011 ~ John Sleezer, Kansas City Star

As the days passed, Reta salvaged what she could to help feed workers: bringing in bottled water and bread, and putting what meat she had in the freezer.

Eventually — no doubt after some shock and denial had worn off — she decided to demolish the building. Not long after, she began considering how to begin again.

The Miracle Cafe, ready for rebirth ~ photo by Kansastravel.org

That, of course, is where the angels — townspeople and volunteers from surrounding counties — came in. They’d already accomplished some significant tasks, including a clean-up of the town’s T-ball field. The team’s June 2nd game had been scheduled before the storm, and no one wanted it to be cancelled or postponed. So, they went to work: hauling away twisted sheet metal, cutting up limbs, and combing the grass for bits of debris that might harm a child. On game night, Coach J.T. Crawford put it well:

It’s a symbol of how the storm hasn’t got the last word. Tonight is for the kids. It’s their recovery, too. We’re going to rebuild and come back stronger than ever.

And so they did. The post office is back, and the bank. The churches have their roofs, the grain elevator gleams, and at The Miracle Cafe, a group of angels on the wall offer mute testimony to the dedication of a town that refused to die.

The Miracle Cafe, Redivivus ~ photo by Kansastravel.org

Reading’s story might be better known had the town’s destruction not taken place only a day before the massive EF-5 tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri. Still, it wasn’t media publicity The Miracle Cafe needed: it was dedicated, optimistic supporters, and the town provided those in abundance.

Some of those supporters put together the Reading Community Development, Inc. cookbook: a small collection of hometown recipes designed to raise funds for local projects.

Thumbing through it at the cash register, I noticed some differences from the fund-raising cookbooks I grew up with: better printing; a spiral binding; a more attractive cover; heart-healthy recipe substitutions.

Still, the recipes were familiar: many of them midwestern to the core. There was the ham loaf with pineapple slices and maraschino cherries. There was a recipe for dumplings-done-right: mixed in a bowl and dropped into hot broth, not rolled and cut like noodles. There were the butterhorns, the Jello salads, and the French Silk chocolate pie.

Best of all were traditional “recipes” that have filled cookbooks for generations: recipes for “friendship soup,” “husband preservation,” and “warming the kitchen.”  Looking at the names, the ages — from great-great-grandmothers to grade-school graduates — and the contributors’ histories, I felt strangely warmed, myself.

“Add one of those cookbooks to my tab, if you would.” Reta looked at me. “You want one?”

“Of course I do,” I said. “I want to remember your miracle.”

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

115 thoughts on “Lunch At The Miracle Cafe

  1. What a great story! When we traveled the back roads on our way out west we always loved going to local cafes like that. They all have good stories and warm people but this one is extra special.

    1. They often have the best food, too. That was some scrumptious chicken salad she served up. I was ready to indulge in a piece of the pie listed on the board, but she’d sold out. Next time, I’ll know to get there earlier.

      As for the people — with a deft question or two, you can learn things about a place and find interesting places to visit that you’d never find by asking Siri.

    1. The first responses in Reading remind me of what I saw in the first hours after Hurricane Ike passed through. I had to drive from Tyler to Nacogdoches the morning after, and was concerned about the roads. There wasn’t any need to be worried. Every bit of road was clear of debris: the men had been out with the chainsaws, and cleared it themselves.

      The impulse to help is deeply rooted, and it’s wonderful to see. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

    1. It’s a little hard to slow down on a freeway, harder to pull over, and almost impossible to see anything. For occasional point A to point B driving, I don’t mind it: especially at the beginning or end of a trip. Otherwise, I’ll be the lollygagger.

  2. Linda, the way you weave your way through the countryside is the same as the way you weave your stories together. One leads to the other. Now you’ve got me wanting to make a trip to see a Miracle… for a meal.

    1. That’s such an interesting comment, Gary. One thing does lead me to another, and it’s not always predictable: in travel or in writing. Now and then I remind myself of that wonderful line from the poem in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “Not all those who wander are lost…” I’m a wanderer, no question about that.

      I can’t imagine you’d ever exchange the mountains for the prairies, but you would enjoy The Miracle Cafe. On the other hand, there have to be more than enough such places on the Blue Ridge to keep you happy!

      1. Linda, I’ve spent my lifetime exploring the side roads and the byways as I’ve passed through. So I feel a connection to your quote.
        And, truthfully, I don’t have your connection to the plains and after a lifetime spent on these coastal plains, I am drawn to the high places of this world. You’re right about the eating experiences in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We have quite a few favorites that we have to hit on every trip, but we’re always open to new experiences…

  3. I enjoyed reading the heartwarming story of the Miracle Cafe. Some of my best travel memories are from when I went off the beaten path, and found small local museums and restaurants.

    1. I’ve found that many of the smallest museums are a direct result of someone’s passionate interest. That “someone” usually is around to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about geodes, or barbed wire, or horseshoeing, but it can be entertaining and informative — and memorable.

      As for the small restaurants and cafes — well, what can I say? I never expected to find Vietnamese-Cajun fusion in Fulton, Texas, but it was memorable.

      1. I agree. Often major museums seem as if they follow a “formula,” but the little ones have things that can be very memorable and interesting.

  4. What a great story, Linda, and how well you’ve told it! I guess all of us in the Midwest remember Joplin, but I confess I hadn’t recalled Reading. I can blame some of that on the fact that Missouri is adjacent to Illinois, while Kansas isn’t, but that might be a cop-out. Suffice it to say, they’ve done a wonderful job rebuilding, and I’ll bet you’re going to enjoy that cookbook!

    1. Until I got to Reading, I didn’t know anything about their tornado, Debbie.

      I’m intrigued by how many tornadoes we don’t hear about. The Tornado History Project shows 4,052 tornadoes in Kansas between April.1950 and November, 2015, and it’s number four on the list behind Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida.

      Just last week, a tornado moved through the town of Pawnee Rock, destroyed trees on top of and around the Santa Fe Trail landmark, and peeled off the roof from the pavilion. I still don’t know if the memorial survived. Had it not been for a blog friend in Kansas, I never would have known about it. All we can do is pay attention to what we do know.

      It’s a shame Mom isn’t still around. She’d be ecstatic to see some of her old recipes in a brand new book.

  5. A marvellous story of people getting together and re-building what was demolished by tornados. Reading must have a good community of dedicated and caring people. It’s often the case that when tragedy strikes people rear up and overcome.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes it takes those extraordinary events to focus attention on what counts. I’ve seen it personally after hurricanes, floods, fires, and blizzards. I’ll pass on tornadoes and earthquakes, if I can, but people’s response is the same. Writing this has brought back Varnish John’s wonderful advice to me: the way to cope is to start where we can start, and do what we can do.

    1. I suppose physical events like a tornado have the dubious advantage of being so concrete, so obvious, that there’s no question what happened, or what needs to be done to recover.

      The larger social, cultural, and economic damage you hint at is no less real, but its effects are less easily recognized, and its causes debatable. Still, there are times when the old distinction between knowledge and will is relevant. We know what needs to be done. We just lack the will to tackle the job.

      There’s something about storms like Reading’s that clearly stirs people’s will. Figuring out what that is might be useful in unexpected ways.

      1. There are thousands of small towns in communities like Reading. They all have threads of history woven into them by the families, events, and gathering centers at their core. They are less resilient today as many younger people have chosen to leave for better opportunities. Some, like Reading, are able to put some pieces back together if a storm rips part of it. Good for them.

        1. I’m smiling because I just said the same thing to montucky — that there are thousands of places like this around the country. There’s an interesting statistic that says something about Reading, too. The 2010 Census reported a population of 231 in town. In 2014, three years post-storm, that number was 228. There has to be a story behind that.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? And there’s no question that we sometimes surprise ourselves by what we can accomplish. Even if there’s not a disaster involved, people committed to a cause can do wonderful things.

  6. What a wonderful story, Linda! It was timely for me because I needed to read a story like that.
    After reading it, my first thought was that we need many more places like that. That’s probably true, but then it occurred to me that there are most likely hundreds of places like that as well, but we need to find them, hear about them and tell about them too.

    1. That’s exactly right, Terry. The only thing I’d disagree with is your estimate. I’d say there probably are thousands of places like Reading, rather than hundreds. They rarely make the news, for a variety of reasons, but for the people involved, their stories of recovery and growth are just as important as the latest Kardashian news, or reports of politicians snarking at each other.

      That’s part of what makes telling stories like this so appealing. We do need to hear about the good from time to time. It still exists.

  7. Aah gee this is one of your best stories. I read every word- something that I don’t always do. I believe in angels even though I’m not a bible thumper or church goer. In this case the angels were living folks who cared about community and continuity and preservation- even if it happened to be a new building.

    Linda, I must say you find some of the most interesting places and can create a story out of just about any experience. The small town sounds idyllic even if it’s in the flat land of Kansas.

    1. “Community, and continuity and preservation” — that says it all, doesn’t it? It’s interesting that Biblical angels weren’t sweet little cherubs or magicians. They often were messengers, with jobs to do, which makes the comparison pretty darned good. In Mom’s latter years, we sometimes made use of an in-home care group called Visiting Angels when I was out of town, and their name fit, too.

      A dear friend, now gone, had a tagline on her blog that said, “Everything is storyable.” It’s always reminded me of the famous quotation from poet Sylvia Plath: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

      As for flat Kansas? Not so true — except in the western/southwestern part of the state. They don’t call them the Flint Hills for nothing!

      1. I forgot about the Flint Hills which are beautiful in the photos that I’ve seen.

        Linda, I loved your answer. I might just one day work again, on the story of my son’s border collie.

    1. Thanks, Dana. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s a fine story, for sure: touching and inspiring, all at once.

      And now I have to know: are you rolled-and-cut dumplings, or biscuit-type drop dumplings? When I moved to Texas, I was astonished that their chicken and dumplings were an Iowan’s chicken and noodles. It’s interesting how things vary across the country.

          1. It is indeed. I just talked to Reta, and sent it off to her. That’s what makes stories like this even better: closing the circle and sending them back to their starting point.

        1. That’s right. And they end up light and fluffy on the inside, too — at least they do if you have the broth hot enough. There’s nothing worse than a gummy dumpling.

            1. And you’re so right, that is the key to cooking fluffy dumplings… They must be kept at a constant simmer, so don’t peek! (Or use a glass lid, like I do; )

  8. Great story, I love that you wander, and find these gems. Those people with their resilience, work ethic, and sense of community are a wonderful confirmation of the heart that is our country.
    I believe in angels, they live among us…

    1. In the end, it comes down to heart, doesn’t it? They may call it the Heartland because it’s in the middle of the country, but it also could be seen as the heart-land because it just keeps pumping those values out into a society that needs them to survive — whether it knows it or not.

  9. Tornadoes; that’s something I don’t miss! We once lived in a mini ‘tornado alley’ near Yazoo City, Mississippi. The weather radio alarm would announce unstable weather in Louisiana heading toward Redwood/Vicksburg Mississippi, and the next stop would be Dixie Farms where we lived. It seemed that most storms thundered through in the wee hours of the night….

    The kindness of the community and the resurrection of the Miracle Cafe are the stories that illustrate what makes our country great. I especially enjoyed seeing the mix of chairs in the new restaurant!

    1. Thanks to Dorothy and the Wizard, people tend to think of Kansas as the only “tornado alley” in the country, but it certainly isn’t. We have our share here, and a good number of storms that generate in northeastern Texas do cross Louisiana and land in your old stomping grounds. One thing’s certain. Given a choice between a hurricane and a tornado, I’d take the hurricane. At least you can move away from those things. Of course, neither is better.

      Leave it to you to notice the chairs! They’re a beautiful symbol of the community that brought the place to life. Different chairs mean different contributors — different angels, if you will.

  10. Small town cafes are a lot like small town kitchens, places for people to gather and socialize. Such places are more than menus and food. They are central clearing houses for the town. Small towns under a certain size become over time like extended families. I’m not surprised the people of the town went to such great lengths to get the Miracle Cafe back together. They understood its value.

    1. Exactly. We have Skipper’s, a little place with a history of its own: ownership and name changes, hurricane survival, continued support from locals even as the developers with an eye to tourist dollars moved in.

      One fellow I know used to go there for breakfast at 5 a.m. every day before work. Now that he’s retired, he goes there for breakfast at 5 a.m. every day. As you say, it’s more than the menus and food.

  11. What a great story! My house was built in 1840. I can’t imagine the sadness of losing the oldest home in the town! It was great to read of the kindness and love that is still flourishing in a small town community. They stand together to rebuild and support each other! Thanks for sharing!

    1. You’re right. The loss of the town’s cafe would have been hard enough, but losing that historical home only added to the pain. It was awful to drive through Galveston after Hurricane Ike and see the damage to so many of the Victorian homes. But time passes, and the same kind of commitment has worked wonders. Galveston’s different now, but better in some ways — thanks in good part to the same sort of kindness and love that helped Reading to recover.

    1. I’ve been dawdling over this piece for some reason, but when I realized that yesterday was the anniversary of the tornado, it seemed only appropriate to move it to the front of the story-line. It is a cause for smiles and good cheer, and a reminder that the world isn’t entirely filled with the gloom-and-doom that some enjoy promoting.

  12. As ever, you’re good at getting stories out of people. That’s a talent.

    I see we passed within a few miles of Reading on Interstate 35 last month when we drove to Kansas City. Last year we had lunch in Joplin but didn’t see any leftover destruction from its tornado. People must have done a thorough cleaning up.

    I can’t resist saying that you thought you wouldn’t find any emporia till you got to Emporia.

    1. I’ve come to believe that every person and every place has a story locked inside. The trick is finding the key. In this case, it was in plain sight, hanging on the wall in the form of sixty little angels. Of course, the name of the place read like a story title, so that didn’t hurt.

      The last time Mom and I drove to Kansas City, we stayed in a motel on Range Line Road, right in the path of that tornado. By the time I passed through the area again, there had been recovery, but construction still was taking place. I’m glad to hear things have improved even more.

      There are times when emporia can lead to euphoria, even when the landscape’s bereft of euphorbia.

    1. It’s a fact that even in big cities and along the interstates, there are good people and interesting histories. But they’re harder to find, partly because of the pace of life. Slowing down a little is the trick. If you can add looking around, all the better.

  13. This is such a nice heartwarming story to start the week on.
    Don’t know if I’ll ever be driving K.C. to Wichita, but periodically we always get off the interstates, wherever we go, and drive on the blue highways for a while, and stop in places like this. I’m not much for ham loaf or jello salads, but the story of the community coming together is great – – I’ll just have to time my future so I’m in that part of Kansas on a Tuesday and hungry for fried chicken.
    You managed to pack a lot of telling details in an economical but engaging story, I admire this one a lot. Except…it’s only 9am and I keep thinking about fried chicken now!

    1. I suspect you’ve read William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, the book that gave us that wonderful metaphor. Chase County, his focus in the book, is snuggled right next to Lyon County, which is the home of Reading.

      I still enjoy ham loaf (minus the pineapple and cherries, please) but the salads are mostly pleasant, nostalgic memories these days. Suffice it to say a 1950s “salad luncheon” could be something to behold. Fried chicken? I’ll meet you for lunch. Fried catfish would do, too. For that, get off I-35 south of KC, at the Cassoday exit. The gas station grill there is reputed to have some of the best fried fish in the state.

      As far as “economical but engaging” goes, this was an interesting one to write simply because it was such a good example of less-is-more. I struggled with it all weekend, until I realized that two images and 183 words didn’t belong. Once I pulled them out, all was well. The experience reminded me of a favorite line from Dillard’s The Writing Life:

      “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.”

  14. The greatest miracle of all is that this is symbolic of “miracle” stories that are commonplace in every small town in America. People take care of people. People love their neighbors. Noone ever turns their back on a need. That’s just what you DO in a small town. Thanks, Linda, for the story.

    1. Precisely. If I could choose among all the places I’ve lived to go back to now, it would be the small town.

      One of life’s little ironies is that small towns aren’t filled with people who are identical to one another. Some of the quirkiest, most difficult, most irascible, and downright cussed people I’ve known have lived in small towns, and there never was a question that they’d be accepted and helped when in need, too. Small town stories can be some of the best — especially those that I’d never write!

    1. And that legacy, that history, is the heart of story: we were here; we were there; this happened; this is what we did. That’s what went on for centuries as people gathered around campfires, or in parlors, or on front porches: they told the stories that passed on memories and history.

      I suspect that’s part of my disaffection with our screen-obsessed age. The same devices they sell to us by marketing the idea of interconnectedness also are tearing us apart: helping in significant ways to destoy human connectedness, and the legacies we’ve shared. But I have hope. A restaurant in town has posted a cute, but pointed sign that says, “Put down that danged phone, and talk to one another while you’re here!”

    1. One of the things living in hurricane country has taught me is that recovery takes time. Not only are we surrounded by communities who’ve recovered, there are uncounted places in the world where recovery still is taking place — unseen and unreported. They may not look as lovely as Reading, but they’re just as inspiring. Finding their stories is just as delightful.

    1. It is. Originally the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad mainline extended from Pottsville to Reading to Philadelphia. Reading, Kansas, was named after Reading, Pennsylvania, so there’s your connection. Even though the Reading Railroad line never made it there, it was still a railroad town.

  15. I love this story about The Miracle Cafe. A true miracle. On a different note, as you found out is the case in Kansas, so it is in many parts of Norway. One should not only make sure to fill up the gas tank when travelling around.

    1. I suspect there are as many similarities as differences between Reading and the communities you’ve photographed in Cuba. When disaster struck, Reading might have had more external resources available to them, but their instinctive kindness, determination, and generosity no doubt helped them move through the difficulties.

      Travel does teach its own lessons, doesn’t it? That’s part of the fun. The farther we go, and the longer we travel, the more resourceful we become.

      On an entirely different note, I thought of you this week when I found an amusing search term on my WordPress dashboard. Not many specific terms show up any more, but I thought you’d get a kick out of this one: “ten thousand swedes ran into the weeds chased by one norwegian.’ I grew up hearing that one, even though I was part of the ten thousand!

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I’m happy you stopped by, and glad you enjoyed it. Stories like this are filled with encouragement and hope, I think. Be encouraged! ~ Linda

      1. Yes! Thank you! I will seek to be encouraged! Places like this, that pull together, are just wonderful! Thank you again Linda! (Also, I shared this post on FB and one of my friends there esp said she loved it too!)

  16. I remember that tornado and Reading. But then, it’s not far from Kansas City. And I remember the stories of people coming together to clean and rebuild. I’m glad to know they managed. Thank you!

    1. Manage, they did, Janet. I enjoyed learning that The Miracle Cafe has become a destination — much like Ad Astra in Strong City. Of course you know that the Kansas state slogan is Ad Astra Per Aspera. Reading certainly has exemplified that.

    1. Rethy, I do appreciate your kind words. I’m so pleased that we can share our quite different worlds, as well as sharing some common interests — like Miss Emily. Some stories seem especially worth telling, and this was one. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  17. This is such a heartwarming story, Linda, especially on a grim day for us in the UK after last night’s terrorist attack in Manchester. However, the goodness of people was very much in evidence amid the brutality, carnage and fear…taxi drivers taking people home for free, people showing up with water and other supplies, beds for the night and care for unaccompanied children provided.

    There are always angels, and there always will be…

    1. It was a terrible event, Anne, and a sharp reminder that not every disaster is a result of natural forces.
      When I heard what happened, I clicked over to Twitter, and noticed immediately the offers of transportion and shelter you mention, as well as the appeals for help in finding friends and family. Just as Reading represents all of the unknown towns that have engaged in their own forms of recovery, every one of those offering help in Manchester represent unknown others who did the same.

      Angels, indeed — we’re blessed to have them.

  18. I love that you simply happened on this story–then, as you do so well, explored where that serendipity took you. I wish there were a way to replicate and expand the shared sense of community you describe here on a larger scale. The world would, I think, become a much less troubled place. It’s easier, I suppose, to build community concretely, neighbor-to-neighbor, than to make the leap of imagination to envision a community that includes a lot of people we don’t know and will never meet. Your story makes this place and its people, what they struggled through, and how they supported one another, come alive. That’s perhaps part of what can help us all to make those leaps of imagination.

    1. I don’t think this kind of community can be built in the abstract. The notion reminds me of the old saying: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” On the other hand, experiences of this kind of community might well make people less inclined toward peak obnoxiousness — or worse.

      One phenomenon I’m seeing all around me is becoming so common now it can’t be denied. Traffic around here is becoming more civilized. People aren’t blocking intersections as often, and they’re far more likely to allow people to merge. I haven’t been tailgated in a long time: except on Friday afternoons, when people eager to get away from work and on to something more enjoyable surely can be excused their eagerness. And here’s the thing — if I allow someone to merge in front of me, it more often happens that the person behind me does the same. Maybe that’s the trick: doing unto others as we wish others would do unto everyone else.

      In any event, this is a beautiful story. My hope is that telling the beautiful stories has value, too.

      1. I think stories like the one you tell so beautifully in your post, and also in your comment, make the case for community better than a ream of arguments will ever do.

  19. Every town has a story, or more! Good on you for digging it out. It is so hopeful to hear how people pull together in these small towns. I suppose some of the same happens in cities, but when a whole community works for common cause, something special is happening.

    1. I think the emphasis probably should be on that “or more.” Contrary to popular opinion, small towns aren’t at all boring, and they aren’t even as homogeneous as they’re portrayed. There’s often a lot of tolerance there, precisely because, as I heard someone once say, “We’re all we’ve got.”

      I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the tendency to split people into smaller and smaller identity/interest groups. I’ve learned that, among botanists, there are “lumpers” and “splitters.” When it comes to human community, lumping can lead to prejudice and misjudgment, but too much splitting can fragment a sense of community — or real communities, for all that. If nothing else, a disaster certainly helps people set aside their categories.

  20. I am way too in love with this post. It just touches me in every way — how a community pulls together, how the cafe honors its heritage, its miracle. It IS a little miracle that it still exists.

    Most of all, I love how you find places and don’t just have a sandwich but learn the story — then go home and learn even more. You make your travel experiences so very rich in this way and I just love it. The fact that you tell the story better than anyone is the cherry on top!

    1. One of the lessons from Hurricane Ike was just how long recovery takes. The cleanup is one thing, and the rebuilding is another — but there still are stages beyond that that have to be completed. And, there’s the issue of restoration vs. replication that has to be faced. The Miracle Cafe’s new building doesn’t look anything like the old house, just as Galveston’s palm trees don’t look anything like the old oaks that were lost. But a new setting sometimes lets old jewels shine even more brightly.

      Everyone travels in their own way and for their own purposes — no question about that. And there’s no one right way to travel. But I can’t imagine traveling and not meeting people, even for the briefest encounters. You never know what new path will open up.

  21. I admire how you build many of your stories from random stopping spots or occurrences, to historical research, to the people involved, to the things and foods and stories that many of us can connect with – all with an underlying theme that is often a basic human value. This one is no exception, and I enjoyed each layer of it very much. I kept scrolling back to Reta’s devastated face in that photo, and I’m glad your story and hers ended on a high note!

    1. That’s quite a photo, isn’t it? Juxtaposing any person with a pile of after-the-storm damage stirs emotion — I remember so many of those after Ike — but seeing it long after the fact, when it becomes a reminder of what can be accomplished, is often more powerful.

      It’s interesting, too, how writing about these random occurrences extends the trip, so to speak. I get to experience my travels twice: one in real time, and once in retrospect. I won’t say the retrospective view is better, but it’s different, and always satisfying. Besides, whenever I begin to envy others’ ability to travel the world, I can come back and read my own stories, and remember that this the world, too.

  22. What a story. That house was beautiful but when it hits, it hits, and the storm presented an opportunity for people to do good work. And look how it has spread out from there – all the way to here!
    I second Lex’s comments above.

    1. Thanks for seconding Lex’s comments. I suspect you understand what I said to her about traveling twice. Your current post about the border is one of those retrospective posts that may not have such a satisfying conclusion, but it certainly helps to make some sense of a different sort of disaster.

      You’re right about “when it hits, it hits.” Accepting the reality of what’s happened is a necessary first step to getting on with things. I still remember facing a tipped over refrigerator in the middle of a rapidly molding kitchen, with flood waters, mud, and blood from thawing meat all mixed together. My first, visceral response was to turn around and walk away. It was understandable, but I had to get past that.

      People sometimes assume that the blue roof tarps that linger for months and months after hurricanes are a result of contested insurance claims, or other complexities. Now and then, I think they might be a sign of people who just haven’t been able to face the reality of what’s befallen them.

  23. After meandering through Kansas ourselves, and stopping at small luncheonettes, many of them the only open businesses in abandoned towns, we were amazed at the spunk and resiliency of the owners.

    I remember one in Stafford, Kansas, which had finished jigsaw puzzles glued all over the walls. Had I been looking for a story that day, instead of a sandwich and coffee, I might have been rewarded as you were with the Miracle Cafe in Reading!

    1. I haven’t come across “luncheonette” in years. Of course, the luncheonette has faded away, a victim of drive-throughs and franchises. When I read the word, I saw the black and white tile floors, and maybe a dozen stools, and the blenders used to make the malts arrayed across that mirrored wall. Wonderful.

      The great thing is that story and sandwich aren’t necessarily opposed. In fact, I’m greatly amused by the thought of going into any cafe — one with angels on the wall, or one with puzzles — and saying, “I’ll have the grilled pimento cheese, with a side of story, please.”

      1. I am away from my computer, and thus cannot provide you the link, but if you type Lonely Highway 50 into my search bar, you will see the luncheonette in Kansas to which I refer.

        1. It’s all there! The black and white floor, the counter and stools, the malt-making machines. I’d thought you might be referring to the Emma Chase in Cottonwood Falls – no longer there, alas.

          I made it to Garden City, too, but I came in from the north, from Oakley.

          Cimarron looks like a fine place: certainly different, and more comfortable, than the grasslands of the same name. I covet that stove.

  24. This is another example of what I love so much about your essays. You remind us how good people really are and that the community closeness we often associate with a past less complicated time is not dead and gone. And, that with each other’s support we will survive and continue. With the barrage of negative news assailing our perceptions hour after hour, it is good to be reminded and get our perspective back.

    1. One of the best reasons not to allow negative news to assail us hour after hour is so we might hear something positive now and then.

      I don’t know if it still makes the rounds — probably not, in these days of the 24/7 news cycle — but it used to be the joke around Houston that the evening news could be counted on for one murder, two car wrecks, a convenience store robbery, and a puppy or kitten to balance things out. Formulaic is the word that comes to mind.

      Today, we hear about those same things — and far worse — but the media keep hyping and scare mongering to keep us viewing and clicking. It’s not healthy. I want to know what’s happening as much as anyone, but now and then I prefer to turn it all off and head out to see what’s going on in a world where real people still are living real lives.

      Remember when Eric Berne wrote Games People Play? One he described was called “Ain’t It Awful.” There are a lot of people playing that game these days — in fact, I was surprised to find an article about it here. I wonder if anyone’s still teaching that book today?

  25. What a lovely lovely story of your Miracle encounter, down to the timing for that very last sandwich of the day. Community resilience makes all the difference.

    1. It was a lovely experience. In the months since, it’s occurred to me that we often think about ways that a sense of community encourages resilience, but it might also be true that the level of resilience shown by a community after a disaster is a pretty good indicator of the cohesion they’ve developed. Some communities do crack, crumble, and die in such circumstances. Reading did just the opposite.

  26. What a great story and an appropriate name for Rita Jackson’s cafe. It’s always inspiring when people persevere and overcome their circumstances together. There’s nothing like a common cause and hardship to spur people to action.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? Whether it’s a broken leg or a broken community, some life events demand action: autopilot just won’t do the trick. And it is inspiring to see it happen — even after the fact.

  27. Lovely! I am in the Rotary in my town and everyone contributes to local, national and international projects. How wonderful that they have so many angels in a small town….

    1. Isn’t it a great story? There is so much goodness in the world, and it expresses itself in a multitude of ways. While you’re doing your sort of rescues, other rescues are taking place every day. In this instance, it just happened to be a town that was being rescued — and thank goodness for it!

      I hope your day was great, and that all is well in your little corner of the world.

  28. That was a blessed encounter! Another story that encourages me in my road-tripping — and I’m headed out on one next week. Thank you, Linda, for your inspiring example in being ready and willing to receive gifts of people and places and the history that they make together.

    1. Blessed, indeed. And I’m so glad you’re heading out again. Wherever there are people, or places, there are stories: which is to say, stories are lurking everywhere.

      Curiosity and receptivity are important keys, along with a willingness to keep our eyes and ears open. Most of my best stories haven’t developed because of any planning on my part, that’s for sure. In fact, too much planning necessarily limits what we’ll experience. On the other hand, knowing the sorts of experiences we enjoy is important. I’d never plan to spend my money and time on a Disney cruise or in a casino, but a solitary road trip is pretty close to my idea of heaven. Thank goodness we have choices!

  29. What a wonderful post about Reading. How sad that so much was lost to the tornado, but the perseverance of those people is amazing. Such a small town, makes recovering a bit more difficult. There are so many good people (like Reta’s angels).
    Wylie “load up” we’re headed to the newer Miracle Cafe. Wished I could of seen the original home of the Miracle Cafe.
    I know I’ve said this before…….I ❤️ your blog!

    1. That was a bad time for a lot of people and towns. I’d never heard of Reading, because Joplin took up all the news space after the next day,but in a way, that makes Reading’s story even more inspirational.
      When you get to Reading, tell Reta you read about it here. I called her and told her about the post, so she knows about it. I suspect it will tickle her to know that her story is spreading.

      It does look like that old house was a beauty, but you and Wylie will have a fine time at the new one.

    1. The local ones are almost always the best. My mother and I did land in one called Grandma’s Kitchen once, and even before we ordered, we left. It didn’t look like — or smell like — the kitchen of any grandma we knew. But almost always, that’s where the best food, the best coffee, the best pie, and the best conversation can be found.

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