The road divided; I bore left. And that changed everything.
I had spent two weeks with my amazing mother-in-law in Michigan while she went through a time of illness. It was time to head home to Connecticut; I was loading the car. While I ferried bags, my mother-in-law took a spanakopita from the freezer and carefully wrapped it. She reached down the newspaper from its shelf and taped that. She unfolded a heavy paper bag and carefully closed it around the package. She put it in a plastic bag, after, so the seat would not get soggy as the pita defrosted. While I finished the last of my coffee, she smoothed out the plastic.
When I last had been in Michigan, it was the height of summer. But this time I got to see something my husband had told me about, the beauty of Ann Arbor in autumn. I’m from New England, and I thought that I knew leaves. But these were different trees, different colors, a different sky — beauty in another palette. My late father-in-law was an architect, and the condo they lived in was not a hastily subdivided former one family house, as the condos in the Boston of my youth had been. This was a well planned building, with a flow to it. Light and air swept through each room. The earth tones brought unity while the artwork on the walls, much by relatives, kept it from being monotonous. The landscaping is tasteful, well maintained, and not cookie cutter.
Illness had kept us indoors, but connection with nature is essential.
My foretaste of refreshment of spirit from the woods came from the view from kitchen window.
“That tree!” I said.
My mother-in-law knew which one I meant. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Completely symmetrical.” It was some sort of maple or sumac, next to an oak that we could only partially see.
The tree was green with a tinge of red on the side farthest from us. The oak leaves had all turned gold.
When my mother-in-law went into the hospital, the red spread slowly across the tree, left to right. The yellow, green and red of the two trees gave me something different to think about in the days she was gone. When she came home, the oak was almost bare, while the maple was engulfed in red.
It was time for me to depart with the foliage.
My mother-in-law and I embraced, she kissed my cheek, and handed me the heavy package, spanakopita wrapped in foil, newspaper, paper, and plastic, to share with her son when I got home. She told me how to defrost and heat it, and showed me the printed instructions, besides. I thanked her.
“I don’t care what time it is,” she said, “call me every two hours to let me know where you are and again when you finally get home.”
And I left.
I took I-94 East and eventually called her from the parking lot of a McDonalds near I-80 to say I was in Ohio. A station in Toledo was having an All Seventies Weekend, and I car-danced until the signal faded. But there was still a lot of Ohio before me.
I had packed a snack from Meijer’s grocery store, a package that contained a hard boiled egg, pea pods, cheese cubes, and some kind of trail mix. I had a bag of honey crisp apples that I ate slowly, to savor them, and to save some for my husband. The road split, I bore left, and the coffee kicked in. I wanted to stop at the rest area, but it was only available from the right lane of the temporarily divided road. I groaned at the sign “Next Rest Area Thirty Miles.” A sign at the next exit suggested there was food and gas to be had. So I left the road.
I set my GPS for the nearest McDonald’s, 1.5 miles from the exit. I drove slowly through what looked to be a prosperous town full of many treats for tourists — gift shops, restaurants, quaint businesses. But no McDonald’s.
My need became more pressing, and as I debated which shop might have a rest room, I saw a sign that read “Visitors’ Center Ahead.” Visitors Center usually means there will be a rest room. So I drove.
And I drove.
And I drove.
The drive was beautiful, increasingly so as I got further and further from the highway.
The rest area was not some prefab construction with brochures and a coffee machine. The parking lot was unpaved and full, and the buildings around it reminded me of my own town’s Boothe Park, only much larger. I had inadvertently come across Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Goodness. Goodness and mercy.
After addressing the most pressing needs, I began to wander the grounds. An art show (photographs, drawings and paintings) with the theme “Change, End of Season” took up most of a barn-like building, and if I had the money and the wall space, I would have brought home several pieces.
I could first smell and then see the water. The sun shone on damp leaves, fallen in their changing colors, and all around was color and light. Families were gathered, conversing and hiking.
I went outside and walked down a trail toward Brandywine Falls, explored more commodious wooden buildings, and crossed the road to find the gift shop with hiking gear, tee shirts, guide books, coffee and ice cream. Everything one needed was there.
We find what we need, often, when we’re looking for something else. I wanted McDonald’s. I found refreshment of spirit.
I also bought what I needed for refreshment of body, and was ready to tackle the rest of the journey.
I decided to drive straight home, rather than stopping or meandering. My husband was waiting for me. My spirit was refreshed. And I had a spanakopita defrosting in my back seat.
I buckled my seatbelt, called my mother-in-law, and shifted gear.