There was a need for escape from dire news of ongoing events still unraveling at the nation's capital and a token of grandfatherly duty that overcame me midday Saturday. So I swung through Bella Vista, picked up my three granddaughters of primary school to sixth-grade ages, and headed north for lunch in Missouri.
Just as father to my own children decades ago, I try to make travels with Papa fun with some expansiveness. I think their mother and grandmother, both deceased, would approve.
There's a restaurant in the Tipton Ford community south of Joplin tucked under a rocky cliff. I whet the girls' appetites with the promise of eating inside a cave. Upon arrival, Under the Cliff Restaurant was busy. The front porch, substituting as a waiting area, was enclosed in isinglass curtains. While waiting, I noticed other patrons come and go. Very few were wearing or even holding covid masks. This began to wear on me, so I went inside and noticed there was precious little spacing between the tables and none of the wait staff were wearing masks. My discomfort grew. I merely told the hostess our plans had changed and we left.
I didn't feel great about myself judging others like that. After all, such attitudes toward mid-America folks helped get Donald Trump elected and landed us in the very mess we're in. But it did appear we had alit into a nest of Trumpsters and plague-deniers. There was risk enough just taking this field trip in the first place. No need to tempt fate further in a grotto as tight inside as a regional jet, but with no aircraft filtration system or flight attendants enforcing mask compliance.
As we continued on to Joplin proper, an elementary-school level discussion ensued about people who disagreed with generally accepted rules of infection prevention, refusing to wear masks and turning it into politics.
"You mean, Papa, like those people who broke into the Capitol in Washington who weren't wearing masks?" the eldest queried.
"In a way, yes, sweetheart," I answered.
We arrived at the Red Onion, a downtown bistro across the street from the venerable Joplin Globe newspaper. The girls' mother, my daughter Emily, had worked there as a hostess while attending Joplin High School. Our family lived in southwest Joplin at the most recent turn of the century.
Back then the bistro promoted itself as "casual urban dining in downtown Joplin." And it sponsored a classical music program on the local college radio station. So I was hoping there was still a touch of urbanity in the place. Maybe patrons wouldn't fear masks and vaccines.
Otherwise the girls and I would be headed to Taco Bell drive-through on Range Line Road.
Indeed customers coming, going and waiting were masked, as were staff members. Tables inside were safely spaced but not immediately available. We returned safely to my car to wait our call.
In due time, we were ushered in and found ourselves directly behind the hostess station where my daughter had worked, separated only by a brass rail and short curtain. Here was a family memory and a teachable moment. The girls couldn't resist peaking through the curtain to see where Mommy held the menus years ago.
Familiar tastes remain on the menu. The younger two opted for kid portions of bowtie pasta Alfredo. The eldest took the vegan Tomato Rustica, a dish both Mommy and Grandma had routinely enjoyed.
When I excused myself to the restroom, I passed two tables with apparent Northwest Arkansas connections; a young woman sported a Bentonville High School golf team shirt and a man wore an Arkansas Naturals T-shirt. Maybe others find a jaunt north to a "real" city, even one as frayed around the edges as Joplin, a welcome break from our booming market strewn along a concrete ribbon like Dallas-Fort Worth suburban sprawl but for foothills and fall foliage.
After sharing a familiar dessert -- St. Louis raspberry cheesecake imported from the other end of Interstate 44 -- we headed south, passing by the former family home. I pointed out the dormer bedroom window where Mommy slept as a teen.
Back in Bella Vista the girls hopped out with restaurant leftovers and chocolate goodies from the Candy House, another downtown Joplin spot worth a stop. A chorus of "Thank you, Papa!" rewarded my efforts.
For one afternoon, the grandchildren could remember Mommy in a different light and Papa could be assuaged briefly from events as faraway as Washington, D.C. and as nearby as Gravette.
Well worth the trip.