I wonder what it would have been like to read Lucia Berlin in the 1970’s, as my family was driving through the western United States on various extended vacations — two parents and five kids stuffed into a green Buick station wagon, me in the “wayback,” protected from my older siblings by walls of luggage and an enormous red igloo cooler. The Starcraft popup camper in tow, we ranged from San Antonio, Flagstaff, Yellowstone, to Sequoia National Park.
Memories: A hot parking lot, drinking RC Cola outside a laundromat in El Paso while Mom washes the clothes; getting a new pair of cowboy boots (I remember the smell of that leather) which I then wore everyday with my favorite purple shorts; butterflies lighting on my hand in San Juan Capistrano; skipping stones over streams we stopped on the side of the road to explore.
Lucia’s stories are the photos we didn’t take.
Reading Lucia Berlin’s short stories today is like diving right back into those memories, but without the emotional sepia-tint of the faded photos. Instead, a bone-scraping authenticity and a stolid acceptance of pain, family, and position expand our collective nostalgia. Berlin reveals the lives of every waitress that served my family dinner in greasy spoons from Albuquerque to Fresno, of the young overwhelmed working woman sitting alone with her toddler in the booth across from us, and of the wizened, skinny old Native American man with a pony tail and a bottle on the lawn chair outside his motel room.
In her day, Berlin sold few copies of her books and. although she garnered some critical recognition, her talents were vastly under-appreciated. Perhaps her portraits were too harsh for the soft-focus of the times. Even through the foggy lens of five decades, her still glass-shard sharp descriptions carve out real lives of beauty and sorrow.