out of words

When my brother and I were kids, my dad would occasionally drag us down to the gulf coast of Florida to spend a few days of our summer vacation with relatives. These visits were awful. We hated Florida, with its flat, interminably boring stretches of highway, its unbearable humidity, its beaches crammed with condos full of the walking dead. Our grandmother was a miserable woman, spiteful and manipulative, so vicious to our mother that eventually she just stopped coming along. With one or two exceptions, our uncles and cousins were an equally nasty lot.

My mom had no living relations other than a couple of nephews in Brooklyn, so that was pretty much it for us. Those sojourns down south were our family reunions. Dreaded and dreadful. My parents divorced when I was ten, and by the time I was twelve, my brother had started down a road of crime that landed him in juvie - and then jail - almost constantly. The last time I saw my parents and brother in the same room was 1985.

The point of all this? Family is not my favorite f word. Family is not a thing I have known, for the better part of twenty years. Family is a feeling I had forgotten.

Then I went to Lake Burton.

I'm prone to sentimentality. I know this. I'm better about it than I used to be. I stop myself from infusing meaning unnecessarily into situations and relationships, from saddling them with undue pressure to fill some need in myself. I'm not a magical thinker. I hate magical thinking. But it was really, really hard not to feel like the time I spent in Georgia was the universe giving me something I missed out on, as a kid. It was really hard not to feel like a kid there. I'd send pictures to Mason, texting him excitedly about boating and swimming and zip lining, about my new friends and how welcome I felt in his uncle's home. I feel like my daughter's at summer camp, he'd joke. I'm so happy you're having a good time. I was afraid you'd be bored. 

Are you kidding? I'm having the time of my life. 

Mealtimes were when I felt it the most. A table set with flowers from the garden and wine from the cellar. Playfulness and good humor. The way I imagined it was supposed to be. Towards the end of my stay I made a game of steering the conversation to the subject of Mason's dad. I'd prompt Bill or Hannah as subtly as I could, then surreptitiously hit record on my phone so later I could compile and send Mason these remembrances of his father.

Hannah and Bill would talk about their sons, too, bringing them to life with boyhood anecdotes about hunting or fishing - and later, their adult misadventures. The things that made them who they were, beloved and difficult. The things that make them missed today.

What I'm having trouble expressing, what I've written into and then revised out of the above paragraphs half a dozen times is how, for the week I was at Lake Burton, I was made to feel like a member of this family. I'm not sure it's something I can easily explain, because it came through it little moments. Small kindnesses, gestures, exchanges. But I wrote some of them down, so I wouldn't forget.

My hosts got used to me slinking out of the house and down to the water at all hours, trying to see the lake from every cast of light. My afternoon walks began with much greater ambition than they ended with, though. Deflated by the heat I'd be home within the hour, sticky and thirsty. Mornings and early evenings proved much better for exploration. At the time I was afraid of being perceived rude, running out of the house all the time, but Bill later said it was nice that I kept myself busy, not needing to be entertained every minute. Indeed, the lake was entertainment enough. I'd plant myself on the roof of the boathouse, or the edge of an abandoned dock, and just sit. Watch and listen and think and breathe.

Despite it being high season, the lake was surprisingly quiet. Birdsong and insect buzzing occasionally interrupted by the shouts of children splashing somewhere down the shore. I took short videos of the lake's surface, or the waves lapping the docks, or the breeze in the trees overhead. I sent these to Terence and friends back home, timing them to arrive at rush hour downtown. Should you be having a stressful day, may I present tonight's episode of Lake TV...

We went into town a few times, for meals and drinks and to see the community. Bill was especially excited to show me The Laurel Bar, where he's had a wild night or two cutting it up with strangers as only an 87 year-old can. It's a cozy little spot. Wood-paneled walls, chandeliers blazing overhead, and deep sofas for lounging near the live music.

Woody came with us, and we three had a grand time telling tall tales over the cocktails. I learned about Woody's background in the shipping business, about the tornado that destroyed his first home on the lake, about his love of cooking and wine (I remember the two of us got unreasonably excited about how much we agree that most vegetables need only salt, pepper, and olive oil to be happy).

After a second round of drinks, Bill took stock of the scene, looking for mischief to get into. But the bar crowd was thin that night, and we decided to start trouble of our own back at the house. Bill produced three bottles of port, and we sat on the porch, sipping and laughing in the dark until late. I couldn't get over the fact that just feet from where we sat was the lake, deep and black, silent and still. The port was magnificent, a chocolate-cherry delight that clung to the inside of dessert glasses so tiny they'd barely fit a man's thumb. We passed the heavy, squat bottles across a red and white check vinyl tablecloth and I realized they'd probably been purchased years if not decades before. Saved for nights just like these.

On my way home from zip-lining I stopped in a farmer's market for supplies to make dinner - a hearty vegetable chowder I'd been making often enough back at home to be comfortable whipping it up in someone else's kitchen. Bill's a bit of a gourmet so I was keen to impress him with at least one meal before I left. It was Hannah's enthusiastic response that made my day, though. Meant the world when later she asked for the recipe.

The peaches at the market, though. Peaches for days and days.

One day there was a storm, and I spent several minutes edging along the railing of the porch, taking video of the rain pelting the lake. Positioning and repositioning my phone, trying to keep it dry but get the best angle. Bill looked up from his newspaper, laughing at my antics. I didn't know how to explain to him how intoxicating it all was to me, that I didn't want to forget a single sound or smell. After the storm subsided I grabbed an umbrella and walked around the corner to where the road recedes into a private drive, a place where the mountain comes down to meet the lake. The trees shed fat drops of water on my head, and the air tasted thick, like wet earth.

I thought of the years I spent living in the desert, hating the dry, scorching heat - a heat that withers and twists, forcing everything that grows into gnarled and dangerous shapes. I tipped my head back and looked at the canopy of green high above me, shimmering with rain and sunlight peeking through saturated branches. I remembered our yard in Michigan. And it was as if in this moment the dry years were pushed a little bit tighter together. Made a little less important, a little less powerful. Like they'd taken less from me than I remembered.

Bill has two dogs: a sweetheart of a labradoodle named Ziggy and a chubby, fiery little Papillon named Joey. They've got run of the house and a few different doggy doors that let them into the yard downstairs - from which they occasionally sneak to wander across the road and climb down to the boathouse. In the mornings Joey would plant himself at the edge of the porch, taking first watch, raising the alarm whenever anyone approached. Like the other Papillons I've known, he's ball crazy and terribly jealous. Hannah spoiled these little guys like nobody's business. They only had to sit and beg near the treat jar for her to indulge them several times a day. You know how there are dogs that act like pets, and dogs that act like kids? Yeah. Anyway, it was so nice to have something furry to cuddle on when I was missing Chaucer.

For every family story I was told, I was shown a dozen pictures to go with it. Framed photos filled every side table, and the shelves of several cabinets. Hannah or Bill would jump up to grab one of these. Here we go. This is Kerry right here, and his girlfriend. Several generations of history, of love and memories. At times I felt like a biographer, listening and seeing the story of this family unfolded for me in bits and pieces. Nothing secret, though it felt just as special as one.

Eventually Bill brought me downstairs, where he pulled out a carton containing a treasure of loose snapshots and memorabilia. He rifled through it, passing the more interesting photos to me, letting me piece together who and what and when. A wedding party: puffy-sleeved taffeta, hairspray, frosted lips. A portrait: graceful woman in a buttoned-up blouse smiling knowingly down the years between us. Mason's teenaged dad, leaning cockily against the hood of a roadster. This I take a picture of, texting it to him. I've always loved that picture, he says back. He looks like such a badass. I don't answer what I'm thinking, which is that they look identical, if not in feature then at least in attitude.

The lake is a series of whispered invitations. Narrow decks stretching out over the water. Stone-paved trails leading off into the woods. My fear of poison ivy and trespassing keep me mostly on the road though once in a while I venture off.

Is this your dock? I call to a man unloading groceries on his driveway.

Sure is, he nods.

Mind if I walk out on it, take a few pictures?

Walk on it, sit on it, dance on it, sleep on it. Whatever you want.

On Friday I drove out to Clemson, South Carolina, to meet some old friends of my dad's for lunch. It was an intensely emotional meeting that deserves its own post, if I can get around to it.

At any rate, I got back to Lake Burton that evening feeling deeply unsettled. I parked the car and tried to shake off the day before I went upstairs where Bill was baking, alone in the quiet house. He took one look at my face and knew I was upset. But I said something lighthearted, shrugging it off, and announced I was going for a quick walk before dinner. When I got back half an hour later Bill was waiting at the kitchen table for me, with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Sit, he said. He looked me squarely in the eye and asked what happened in the gentlest, most fatherly way possible. And then he listened - just listened, until I was done.

Later that night I FaceTimed with Terence, sitting on the boathouse, far enough away from the house that no one could hear me cry. But my tears that night weren't sad; they were grateful. I tried to explain how parts of me were being put back into place, right side up this time, by my time at the lake, and with Bill. That the kindness and solicitousness he showed me as a matter of course - because he is a kind and loving person - were repairing things in me that I'd long since given up on repairing myself.

On the way back to Nashville, I stopped at every pull-off and scenic overpass I'd had to hurry by on my way in. I'd given myself plenty of extra time to explore, and I took advantage of it.

Did you know green beans have pink and orange and yellow cousins? I didn't.

Cluster of mailboxes at the end of a long private drive. The isolation of such an existence fills me with wonder and envy. How often do they come into town? How often do they visit Atlanta, or some other big city? How often do they even want to? What fills their lives and homes and land and minds, that they don't need the bustle and noise and chaos that I do?

Shared-use floating docks, for those who don't have boathouses of their own:

The view from the room I stayed in; I wish you could hear it, too. The rhythmic, swampy noises of morning birds. Carpenter bees sneaking stealthily into a nest under the eaves. Thrumming boat motors starting up at the nearby marina.

A hammock on the front edge of Woody's property. I'd passed it on my walks a few times and finally set off after breakfast one day to get a picture of it. Do you think he'd mind if I lay in it? I asked Bill. Oh heavens no, not at all.

I wasn't there for a minute, futzing around with my Joby, when Woody himself drove down from his house in a golf cart. Bill had called him when I left, given a head's up that I was walking his way. Said I'd set out to see to the park about a mile down the road. Woody offered me a ride on his golf cart, so I wouldn't have to trek in the heavy midday heat. He waited patiently while I ran around the tiny park, taking pictures of the historical plaques to read later on my own, then drove me back home.

Unforgettably peaceful.

For dinner one night, Bill, Hannah and I drove to an Italian restaurant a few towns over. The drive was a nightmarish twist of switchbacks and narrow mountain roads, and I felt carsick almost immediately. Poor Bill felt terrible, and kept cursing himself for forgetting I don't fare well in the passenger seat. No no, I'm fine... I insisted, when the road opened up and I could see the horizon again. He assured me we were almost there, so I assured him I didn't need to take over driving. I hung my head out the window and took huge, gulping breaths of the sweet Georgia air.

By the time we got to restaurant Bill was furious at himself for putting me through such a rough ride, and I teased him by pretending to puke the second we got out of the car. He laughed, and I was perfectly fine within minutes. And I was really touched by his consideration. I love and miss my dad like crazy, I'd give almost anything to take one more road trip with him - but oh man, did he not give a damn about my tendency to get carsick. Not in the slightest. Sometimes I even think he had a sadistic streak about it.

The restaurant was a disaster of tinned tomato sauce and overcooked pasta served by an indifferent waitress. I don't even remember what I ordered. It was one of the nicest meals of my year so far.

And with that, I am once again out of words.