By Michael Gos
“It’s Burn-it, durn it! Can’t you learn it?”
That’s what locals tell you if you put the emphasis on the wrong syllable when pronouncing the name of their town. Like most places, this town of fewer than 6,000 people has a tremendous amount of pride.
We had spent the day at Inks Lake State Park and decided that since we were this close, we’d take the opportunity to have dinner at a restaurant I had heard about, The Maxican. Rumor had it the food was excellent, but there was more to it. I was promised a “unique dining experience” but given no further information.
It was not an easy place to find. First Siri sent me 18 miles north of town into a heavily forested area. When she told me I had arrived, there was not a building for miles around. I told her in no uncertain terms what I thought of her talent for giving directions and then I shut her off. I popped a U-turn and headed back toward town.
We eventually found the street address I had written down, but it turned out to be a new Chinese restaurant. Apparently The Maxican had moved a couple of years earlier. Finally, on the verge of giving up, we decided to give it one last shot. We went online to the restaurant’s website to get a phone number. One call later, with a new set of directions in hand, we found the place—just a bit south of town on Highway 281. I guess you could say it was hidden in plain sight.
The young lady who had given us the directions over the phone met us at the door and told us she was glad we were able to find her. Then she escorted us to our table. It was a large building with a concrete floor and a rough decor—not all that different from a hundred other Mexican or barbeque restaurants we had been to all over Texas.
An elderly lady came up to our table and introduced herself as Jeanette. “But folks around here just call me Mamaw.” And then she proceeded to give me a back rub. Right there in the restaurant! I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but I have to admit, after a few moments, I really started to enjoy it. It felt great after a day on the trails. Before she was done, I felt right at home—as if I was a regular there.
When she finished, we got to talking and she told me her son owned the restaurant and was the chef. She herself had only one role, giving back rubs. She said she was 85 years old and had been doing this for as long as she could remember.
That got me to thinking. I learned long ago that people in small towns are more laid back, relaxed and friendly than city people, but a lot of the people who come to her restaurant are from out of town, many from cities making the drive between the Dallas/Fort Worth area and Austin or San Antonio. But regulars and total strangers alike got the same special treatment; everyone who came in the door got a back rub. I wondered if she understood how litigious some city people are and the risks she was taking by touching strangers. But one thing was clear, if she thought about those things, she just didn’t care. She was too busy being who she is, just Mamaw.
One of my earliest memories was of a philosophical puzzle. As a toddler, my mother would take me to visit her best friend who also had a boy my age. George and I played together long before we could talk and I guess I just took him for granted. But then, one day, I remember looking at him and thinking, “How can you be real, and yet be something other than me?”
Okay, I know it makes no sense. All my life I had seen my mother, my father, relatives and total strangers. Yet I never questioned their existence. Why him? Why now? I have no answer to that, but I do know that on that day, when I was less than four years old, I began to deal with the concept of “the other,” that is, the existence of someone or something out there that is not me. I started to understand that there was a world out there beyond my skin. And I think that was a turning point for me.
Throughout my childhood years I puzzled at the differences between people I saw. Why did some do well in school while others were pretty pathetic? Why were some sweet while others were thugs that took pleasure in hurting other kids? Why were some shy and others loud? And why could the whole world run faster than me?
Today I still find myself intrigued with people, especially with their lives. I find that some people are open books, others will get that way if you give them time, and still others you will never be able to crack. I find people in small towns are much more likely to talk to you than people in big cities, and I have some ideas about why that is. But no matter where they are, they fascinate me.
I started wandering Texas because it is such a beautiful place. Standing on the South Rim looking down at the mountains below is absolutely magnificent. The view from the top of Enchanted Rock is truly spectacular, especially on a hot summer day when the wind up there is strong enough to evaporate the sweat almost before it forms. Playing in the water at South Padre, showering under Gorman Falls or swimming in the icy Guadalupe River on a 100-degree day are all truly amazing experiences. But more and more, I find myself going to small towns rather than to the wild places. As much as I love the spectacular beauty of nature’s best works, as I grow older (and I hope smarter), I am even more attracted to places where people are. It is the lives of the people I find most fascinating—and most rewarding.
The food at The Maxican is outstanding, but I understand now that the reason people come from all over Texas to eat there is because of Mamaw. We all want to experience someone like her. I’m guessing most of us secretly wish we could be a lot more like her—with the confidence to be exactly who we are with no apologies. She reaches out and touches, literally, everyone who comes into her life. We live in a world where role models are rare, almost an anachronism. But if there are any still left around today, she has to be at the top of the list.
In the larger scheme of things, dinner in Burnet that day may have been just an inconsequential speck in a lifetime, but I can’t help but feel my life is richer for having made the trip, and especially for having the chance to experience Mamaw.