in which I withhold all my awesome lake pics for one more boring wordy post

Breakfast at Lake Burton is a casual affair. Coffee and conversation, mainly. Toast sometimes, sliced thin, from bread Bill bakes himself. Fished by Hannah, with a chuckle and a butter knife, out of the temperamental Cuisinart I'd replace if I thought they wouldn't scold the purchase. Bill bakes a loaf or two every other day, often giving the prettier one away to neighbors. Sourdough and rye, though he's still perfecting his sourdough recipe. Still trying to master those elusive San Francisco air bubbles.

Bill occasionally indulges in a slice of country ham, thick and salty, doctor's prohibitions be damned. Perhaps as a diversionary tactic, he teases me about how much sugar I put in my coffee, a cup of which Kim, he and Hannah's son, sets aside for me every morning. (Halfway through the week I notice that though the cabinet is also full of ordinary mugs, Kim always selects one of the elegant, delicate teacups for me.)

Hannah, eighty-seven like her husband, comes upstairs each morning having dressed with more care than I take most days, and freshly made up. She brings sliced strawberries to the table, or grapes, or cherries. Until I catch on to her timing and do it myself, she then sneaks into the room where I sleep to make my bed. Sometimes she joins Bill and I on the screened-in porch, an extension they built themselves on their home of almost twenty-five years. She tells stories about growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, with three sisters and a brother. About courtship and love in the fifties. About her job at the phone company - land line phones, that is - before she quit to raise four boys. On hotter mornings she and Kim eat inside, and if the sliding glass door is open I can hear them discussing the news, or family, or any of the dozens of subjects on which Kim possesses an encyclopedic knowledge. Current events, culture, local history, politics; you name it, he can teach you something about it.

Bill and I spend this time getting to know one another more. We start on familiar ground: Mason. My oldest friend, his nephew by marriage. We gossip with affection about his welfare, his health, his social and romantic life. Mason is the reason I'm here, having introduced me to his uncle a few years back over my first "orphan" Thanksgiving. Bill and I clicked like clockwork, and have stayed in touch ever since. This visit to his home in Georgia is the result of over two years of him urging me to come and me gently demurring. I want to, believe me! I just can't justify it right now... But then: Bonnarroo, right around the corner in Tennessee. I couldn't not come, when I was already only a state away.

We move from Mason on to other topics. Religion - our dislike of it, and the atheist writers and philosophers we admire for tackling it. Los Angeles - our respective experiences of it, mine as a thirty-something and his as teenager. Relationships - their challenges, the trivial concerns of modern dating vs. the lessons of a six decades-long marriage. He laughs at my funny anecdotes of life with Terence and Chaucer, and I pay close attention to how he and Hannah interact, trying to grok the secret to their happiness (spoiler alert: no secret, just a deep mutual respect warming their every exchange).

I treasure these talks. They are the moments Bill most reminds me of my dad, wearing the keen, bright-eyed look of an engaged listener. He asks about my upbringing, probing gently about my childhood, my parents, my brother. His curiosity is matched only by his consideration and tact; he wants to know what's made me me, but he doesn't wish to press any bruises.

For his part, he shares openly and willingly, even the painful bits. The loss of three sons. Three. I knew this about him, it was one of the first things Mason had told me, but I didn't know the details. And while those details aren't mine for sharing here, I will say that considering what he, Hannah, and Kim have gone through...well, a week in their company was enough to shame me out of self pity for the rest of my life. What are you gonna do, Bill says simply, when I shake my head, stumbling through the only condolences I can think to offer.

What you do, if you're a T----. anyway, is move on, head high and heart strong. You mourn the loss but celebrate the life. Over the week I spend in their house, he and Hannah share enough family lore with me, show me enough photographs of their sons - and their sons' wives and children, all of whom they are still close with - that by the end of my visit I could sketch the T----. family tree, if asked. And I'll leave knowing not only who those people are, but why they loved one another.

But I never feel like an outsider.

Quite the opposite, in fact. I am treated with such warmth and inclusion that, frankly, it makes my own family vacations seem miserable by comparison. The word that keeps coming to mind, despite my efforts to push it back down, is "do-over". After a while I give in and accept it. This is like a do-over, of all those trips to stay with uncles and aunts and a grandmother who never really liked me, relatives who never made me feel like I belonged. This is what family is supposed to feel like. 

Kim, Mason's oldest cousin, is kinder to me than any of my own cousins ever was. The second morning of my stay, he gifts me a dream catcher. An elegant net of beads and feathers to hang in my temporary quarters, or just bring back home. I don't know where he got it, it may have been something he picked up years before and just held onto - but for whatever reason, he bestows it on me. He also gives me a magazine on photography (which from my endless snapping he's gathered I enjoy), in case the time change causes me insomnia. Another day he presents me with a local guidebook and thoughtful suggestions for day trips. Worried I'm not eating enough, he pushes bananas and apples at me.

I'm eating plenty, though. Am I ever. Shrimp and grits. Roast duck. Lamb lollipops and squab, which Bill dresses with herbs from his own garden. Yellow zucchini. Things I've rarely - or never - touched before. I'm drinking plenty, too. The first bottle gets uncorked around four, about the time I start pestering the cooks with offers to help (which are always rejected). Rose or white, followed by Bordeaux at dinner and Chambord on the rocks for dessert...or just Kahlua over ice cream. One night Bill and I and neighbor Woody even conduct a port tasting on the porch.

Neighbor Woody. I've been dying to tell you about neighbor Woody.

The first thing you notice is his cheerfulness, the sort of relaxed happiness that comes from years of good decision making - or at least being at peace with those years and those decisions. He wears thick bifocals, and has a way of tilting his head and smiling as he listens that suggests whatever you're saying is the best news he's heard all week. He's a staunchly conservative Republican. He's also one of the most likable people I've ever met. How's that for something straight out of the elliequent/r/paradoxes ERROR 404 NOT FOUND file?

Woody is Bill's best buddy, his partner in crime and his aide-de-camp. I found myself fascinated and inspired by their friendship, which persists despite fundamentally different world views and a nearly thirty year generation gap. I loved listening to them tell its story.

Woody actually got to Lake Burton first. He and his wife, both Georgia natives, visited Clayton on vacation. Saw the lake, fell in love with it. Pledged to someday have a second home there. Worked their asses off. Accomplished that goal. Bought a modest house at the more affordable end of the lake. Small, bare bones. No running water. That is, until Bill moved in next door, into a similarly modest house. Bill had a well. Bill invited Woody to tap that well. So began their 20+ year companionship. Together they watched Lake Burton grow. They saw the shore's original lake houses torn down, the land sold for a profit many times over that of its original worth. They witnessed the lake's revival - a huge infusion of wealth in the form of rebuilt vacation homes, left vacant most of the year. Indeed, there is an unavoidable sense of residents pitted against renters, in Lake Burton. Summer visitors and other part-timers come in droves. Drunk boating. Rich kids cramming the lake with speedboats, wave runners, water skis. They're loud and spoiled, and one gets the sense the year-rounds tolerate them with amusement if not exactly appreciation.

Yikes, now I've gotten off track.

Would you believe this is just an introduction? I haven't even taken you down to the water yet...