buzzard mountain lodge

The best thing about hanging out with 80-somethings is their gift of perspective. Name a problem in your life - they've been through it. Think of the things you're anxious about on a daily basis. Money? Marriage? Children? Health? Chances are they've been there, done that. And if you're fortunate enough to be in the company of wise and warmhearted 80-somethings, you can probably get some good advice about those things. You only have to ask and listen and learn.

(The second best thing about hanging out with 80-somethings is that they DGAF about blogging or selfies or social media, and can carry on a conversation without interrupting it every five minutes to look at smart phone...but that's an axe to grind for another day.)

I'm in the company of three 80-somethings this week, since one of Hannah's three sisters is here visiting as well. Norma is another of Mason's aunts, and I've met her before at her home in Visalia. It was she who invited me to join Mason for Thanksgiving back in 2012, after my dad died; she's the reason I ever met Bill in the first place.

So that's Hannah and Bill, their son Kim, and Hannah's sister Norma. Plus two dogs and, it is suspected, a significant if dwindling population of seasonal fleas. Me being the easily-overstimulated, somewhat shy, homesick wuss that I occasionally am - that means lots of breaks.

I take these breaks in my room, or on the porch, or mostly, venturing around the lake. I know Bill's end of it by heart now, and the homes and driveways that run alongside. Everything's exactly the same except decked in the gorgeous golds and reds and oranges of fall foliage. I'm trying to take different pictures than on my last visit but it's hard not to shoot the familiar sights I wander past. I text Bill's friend and neighbor Woody a photo of his hammock, which is littered with dead leaves. Want me to rake your hammock for you? 

Please do and enjoy the view until I get there. Take a nap for me. He's coming today (their lakehouse is he and his wife's second home) and word is Bill has blackmailed him into taking us out on the pontoon. I refuse to go unless we're accompanied by Woody's labradoodle Zoe and at least one bottle of wine, but something tells me these requirements won't pose a problem.

And I expect we'll have the water nearly to ourselves. There's been barely any boat traffic since I've got here. It's cold out there and it's really just the few perennial residents around these days, anyway. Which means I don't see a soul on my walks. Which makes my ridiculous selfie sessions much less embarrassing.

I lucked out with the weather. Clear blue skies the first day, and nearly eighty degrees. The sunshine set the trees alive with light, making them even more vibrant than I'd imagined. In the afternoon the wind picked up, and I was able to get some slow-motion video of leaves raining down one at a time. The second day was cloudy and chilly, so I had an excuse to wear my favorite parka. (And overcast skies always make for more forgiving portraits.) Bill jokes that his area of Lake Burton is the ghetto section, but he doesn't realize how ideal it is for photography. At one end there's a hair pin turn with a cluster of trees forming the perfect canopy overhead; at the other, by the marina, there's a narrow, quiet drive flush with color. Plus there aren't massive houses on huge plots blocking views of the water. "All those big estates have fancy names," he say. "Land's End and The Wilds and stuff like that. So I've decided I'm gonna call my house Buzzard Mountain Lodge."

My schedule is basically charge phone, explore, return to the house, hang out and talk/eat while my phone charges, then head back out for more exploring.

Hannah does her makeup at the kitchen table while I drink coffee and try (with futility) to get a cell phone signal so I can catch up on Instagram. "You're making me look bad," I complain. No makeup for this lazy visitor. I barely manage khakis and a nice sweater for dinner. "Well," she jokes, applying the same brand of mascara I use, "I don't want to scare the neighbors."

From the minute I emerge in the morning until I shuffle to bed Hannah plies me with everything she can think to. I am shown and re-shown stores of fruit, cereal, crackers. Assured I'm welcome to anything, anytime. Today she took me to a pantry off the dining room, and opened a low cabinet. "Looky here," she said. "Any kinda tea you want." She pulled out a few tins to read me their labels. Leafed through a box of assorted single-serve teas, naming them off. Pried the lid off some ginger peach for me to smell before she made a pitcher of it. It smelled like the night cream I wore years ago.

They all worry I don't eat enough, which is silly since I'm stuffing my face right in front of them. (LA keeps me healthy enough; when I'm on vacation all bets are off.) But I substitute coffee for breakfast, which is a most worrisome crime in their eyes. Most important meal of the day, everyone born before 1950 knows that. Plus I'm considered dead skinny by the older generation's standards. Though who hasn't had a grandparent fret over their thinness? I don't mind it. It feels like a kind of love.

Bill is like me: sensitive about his cooking. He watches to see how enthusiastically it is consumed; I do the same. And in me he's found the ultimate fan. I have genuinely loved every goddamn thing he's made. He's got a great taste for seasoning and a light touch on the burner. We're both meat lovers, too. When I wax effusive he grins gratefully. "Boy I tell you what," he teases. "These twisted sisters, they don't appreciate me one bit. No one ever compliments my hard work in the kitchen." The twisted sisters titter and Bill winks at me over the Bordeaux. They've been tittering over him for the better part of sixty years; of all the Back when I was ____ stories, I love the courtship ones best of all. Apparently when they were all in their twenties, he started inviting himself over for Sunday dinner, which turned into Friday dinners as well...then coming for meals almost every night. "I had to," he objects. "All my money went to pay my liquor bill." Another wink.

On Thursday he smoked ribs and I nearly made myself sick gorging on them. Homemade barbecue sauce, too, that he was afraid I wouldn't like. Honey and mustard and whiskey and other goodness whisked in a tall mason jar. Today I sat and watched him make a special loaf of gluten-free bread for his sister in law. Sift, measure, stir, pour into simple tin pans. Concentrating but relaxed; a ritual he respects and enjoys. I could watch it every day. When the loaf he makes for everyone else comes out too sour, he's quick to warn us. "You're gonna need a lotta butter," he says, as I reach for a slice.

"No way, I'm dipping it in the au gratin sauce." From scratch, not a box. Cheese and cream and milk and butter and boiled potatoes. Two heaping helpings. Yeah, I'm eating plenty.

Ziggy and Joey eat plenty, too, the scamps. You've never seen such spoiled little dogs. Tonight Hannah asked if she could clear my dessert dish. Vanilla ice cream with fresh raspberries and slivered almonds. "If you're finished I'm gonna give the rest to the dogs," she says.

"It's got Kahlua on it!"

"Oh that's okay," she laughs. "I don't mind if they get a little drunk."

They deserve it. Sweetest dogs ever. Joey the Papillon keeps guard outside my door at night and Ziggy, the cocker mix (Bill calls him a "Crapsalot"), greets me on the stairs when I come home. He also supervises my midnight snacking, sitting beside me as I nosh on the saltines and ginger snaps in the dark kitchen. Hannah, knowing my tendency to raid the fridge at ungodly hours, has left these out for me on the counter, along with peanut butter and cocoa.

The only thing sweeter, in fact, than the two little dogs is Bill's affection for them. They vie for his attention and his lap all day long, and he is unsparing with both. When we go for a leaf-peeping drive down to the end of the lake, Ziggy rides along in the backseat. His smile suggests he knows how lucky he is, to be here in this peaceful paradise.

I certainly do.