Rae is back.
The Rappahannock icon who created a welcoming combination of community center and restaurant at Nature’s Foods, Mountainside Market and Rae’s Place has returned from a five-year sojourn in Florida — and, appropriately, her arrival is just in time to deliver her trademark sandwiches and soups to River District Arts for RAAC’s annual Artists of Rappahannock Studio and Gallery Tour this weekend.
She’ll also unveil a new side of her creativity — unique and intriguing necklaces, earrings, bracelets, pins hairclips and keepsakes.
Forty years ago, Rae Gaedke literally followed a vision to Rappahannock after seeing the county in a dream. For more than three decades, from the tiny natural foods store in Washington that was her first enterprise, through the restaurants that followed, her businesses morphed into community hubs, centers where the locals caught up on gossip, news and the latest musical and social happenings.
Weekdays after school, kids from Castleton to Nethers took the Washington bus to Rae’s, where they parked their bikes, and she watched over the pack of youngsters, handing out snacks and drinks, until they were collected by their parents. Weekends, tourists out for a day in the country could feel like they’d touched the “real” Rappahannock, rubbing elbows at Rae’s with the born-heres and come-heres.
One magnet was the food — inventive and original sandwiches and soups every day, and a leisurely brunch on Sunday so sumptuous that the Sunday Times could be finished before that last cup of coffee was downed. Monthly dinners featured guest chefs who introduced sushi and other exotics. Saturday was “club” night, light fare with flair and a stage for Rappahannock’s musicians, a place to congregate and celebrate.
But the stronger magnet was Rae herself, smiling, cheery, bouncy, full of energy, beaming a welcome to everyone.
It wasn’t always easy. She was a working mom with four children. She dealt with divorce, a week’s notice that a long-time lease wouldn’t be renewed, multiple moves and business reorganizations, recession’s onslaught just when she’d expanded and a house fire that destroyed her home.
Then, five years ago, before Rae could muster resources for another start, her mother’s failing health drew her to Florida. Rae’s 92-year-old mom could no longer manage alone, but she wasn’t ready for a nursing home, so her daughter became an all-day every-day caregiver. On the bright side, stranded in the middle of Sun City, Rae had time and opportunity to explore a new creative venture.
She had grown up in a rock-hound family that spent vacations searching the deserts for semi-precious stones. One family trip to Mexico was so phenomenally successful, she recalled, that the station wagon packed with stones had six flat tires on the drive home. “It was clear that Dad would have preferred leaving his daughters behind rather than giving up his finds,” Rae joked.
Her father, Ray Gaedke, was a commercial artist by profession. (“I was the third of three daughters, so I was Rae Jr.” ) In his free time, he crafted lapidary pieces while his wife made costume jewelry. Almost a half-century later, the garage was still crammed with trunks full of rocks. So Rae, the chef and restaurateur, became Rae, the artisan, as she explored a heritage of talent and treasure. She dismantled vintage pieces, repurposed settings, incorporated stones, added fascinating forms from old hardware and the innards of technology and reinvented ordinary boxes into keepsakes.
Her work sold well at the one Florida craft fair close enough for a day trip, and she placed pieces on consignment in local stores. During the five-year sojourn south, she amassed an array of her new artistry but she didn’t have the freedom to make sales and a name for herself on the artisan circuit. Besides, her heart was back in the Blue Ridge, nearer to her children and grandchildren in Sperryville, Charlottesville, Richmond and Ohio. So this past summer, when her mother’s declining health dictated a move to a nursing home, Rae packed up the jewelry and returned to the mountains of Virginia.
“Rappahannock is home,” she said. With the same boundless enthusiasm and optimism that carried her here in the first place, she hit the ground running, signing on immediately as a volunteer at the Rappahannock Food Pantry — “Gets my vote as the county’s best new thing!” — and picking up again as a purveyor of delectable eatables.
She’s also reserved space at River District Arts for a Christmas show, which will feature a broader collection of her decorative designs. “I’ll always love cooking and I’ll always enjoy feeding hungry people, whether working as a personal chef in private homes or making soups at Headmaster’s Pub, but I feel like it’s time for my creative side to blossom.
“I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best not to plan everything,” Rae said. “I have faith that my life will follow the right path. And I choose to allow for surprises!”
But one thing is certain, she concluded. “I’m here to stay. I always knew I would be back. A big part of my soul never left.”