The bucolic journey, which started as a rare time of togetherness for my Texan husband and me, turned into a tension-filled, stressed out drive when we took a wrong turn at Kerrville.
“Did you read the directions?” I asked.
“I know exactly where it is,” he offered, “don’t worry.”
Attending this retreat was a minor miracle in itself. We’d gotten a babysitter for the weekend, and were going to spend three uninterrupted days with other artists, writers, and musicians in an idyllic, distant corner of Texas. And we would be together, alone. Amazing.
When we pulled over at a friendly-looking restaurant so I could ask for directions (note: I was asking, not my husband), we were nearly to Bandera. The wrong way on the road that didn’t turn into 71 like we’d thought. It was getting dark.
The GPS on the iPhone found a windy little road through hills that felt like mountains, with hairpin turns that demanded we slow down to 10 mph. We were seven hours into a drive that should’ve taken five.
I was frustrated, tired and hungry, and noting all this, I thought to myself in a rare moment of optimism, Maybe there’s a reason we’re lost and late. Maybe something good will come of it.
We called the lodge’s front desk at least four times before we got deeper into the canyon and lost phone service. I tried not to sound like the neurotic New Yorker that I am, and the woman on the other end of the line kindly and patiently described the unusual route from the main highway. I could overhear the excited greetings of the other guests meeting up before dinner. I was anxious to get there.
When we finally made our way to the river road, I began to relax. We gingerly dipped the wheels of our small SUV in the shallow water, and following the directions of several hand-carved signs, (“Yes, you drive IN the river!”) wound our way down to the lodge. It glowed a warm welcome. We opened the sunroof and all the windows as we drove; the sky was a silver dome with pinpricks of black between the stars. The night air was clean and cool and clear.
We stumbled, mesmerized, to the front desk and immediately met Edwinna, the woman from the phone calls. Well into her 80s and exuding vitality, she welcomed us with hugs and kisses (we’d never met her before this moment), and asked if we were hungry. Our grumbling stomachs gave us away.
“Well I’m just glad you kids made it; I was so worried!” she said, smiled slyly, and stuck her hands on her hips in mock irritation.
Kids? I thought, confused.
I paused, then exhaled deeply, silently vowing not to resist. I’ve often misunderstood familiarity for kindness in Texas, and been stung when I expected sweetness. But I decided that this time I would simply go with the flow and hope for the best. We followed Edwinna into the lodge’s kitchen where she gently nudged us toward the beautiful table she had laid. Hot, fresh bread, and cold iced tea. Fresh cut flowers in a handmade vase. I sniffled, hot tears blurring my contact lenses; I was exhausted and emotionally raw from a long journey. Not just from the comedic foray through the Texas Hill Country, but from far too many years of intense work without stopping. Growing up, hospitable kindness was not the currency of my busy, broken family. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was six, and I never met my father’s mother. My own mother was a single parent for most of my life and worked, a lot. So I work, a lot. I don’t pause. Work is what I know how to do.
I considered asking Edwinna to adopt me. Though I’m a grown woman and a mother myself, and had known her for only five minutes, it seemed like a great idea at the time and still does. In a flash, I could see our life together — I would finally learn to cook; I could cry on her shoulder; she would teach me to crochet. As I dreamt she chatted cheerfully, making us feel less guilty for keeping her awake until after 10:00 pm.
“Oh, I don’t go up to bed until late!” she cooed in her sing-song soprano, winking at me.
Though I thought she was just being polite, I also somehow knew she was telling the truth. Staying up late, caring for road- weary strangers, heating up food, and making small talk all seemed like the exact thing she had been looking forward to all day. Like the exact thing she was made to do. She served us and hovered, making sure everything was just right. My husband and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. When she left the room for a moment, I whispered, “Is she real?” I thought it was altogether possible that Edwinna was an angel, some sort of divine messenger armed with an arsenal of mystical, life-changing carbohydrates.
Before leaving us with a Tupperware full of homemade cookies, Edwinna innocently asked if we’d like to try the Russian sweet bread.
“Is that what it’s called?” I asked, as she looked pointedly at me with a slice of fragrant bread cradled in a napkin in her outstretched hand.
“Russian sweet bread?” She asked again. I gulped, trying not to choke on my iced tea.
Edwinna didn’t know this, but I am Russian, or at least half Russian. It’s the artist half, the writer half. The half that insisted, after years of neglect, that I make this trip. The half that demanded, beginning with this weekend, that I begin the long arduous journey back to it, to myself, before it’s too late. Before it slipped away, between appointments and haircuts, dance recitals and Sunday dinners, river rocks and canyon roads.
Edwinna also didn’t know that there would be no way I’d hear “Russian sweet bread” coming from a tiny, elderly woman, in a remote canyon in the middle of the night, and not shiver with a chill of recognition.
She said “Russian sweet bread” and I heard:
“This is for you, not the other 40 people at the lodge this weekend, not even for your husband, but just for you. This kindness, this love, this food, is just for you.”
I knew it was a good thing. I knew it was divine. I knew I’d been lost, literally, and now was found. And full. Yum.