The One Holiday My Mom Won't Let Me Miss
Words by Annie F. Downs
Photos courtesy of Annie F. Downs
It’s hard to talk about the places you grew up—at least it is for me. I can spin a rose-colored glasses memory, like writing a sappy country song, but it never could be totally true (though we do actually sit on porches in rocking chairs and eat boiled peanuts straight from the paper bag). I don’t know if it is because I was a kid then and an adult now, or if the world has actually gotten bigger and smaller and harder, but when I look back, life felt simpler then. Especially in the holiday season, when we paint things so sentimentally, I long for the simplicity and truth of what was.
It almost feels so far away that it wasn’t real. (Am I getting old?) Except when I go to Lake Burton. When I am there, I am re-connected to places and moments that shaped me, that remind me that simple is good and real and worth giving thanks over.
I still hear them if I close my eyes and get quiet. We slept on homemade twin beds on a screened-in porch. Our heads up against the screen side, the sun was never the first thing that woke me up. It was always the sound of boats gliding by our lake house First a quiet hum, then a loud buzz as it passed in front of the dock, then the sound of water from the wake of the boat lapping the bank. To this day, it is my favorite alarm clock.
When I turned 5, thirtyish years ago, we held my birthday party there, after the Fourth of July fireworks. A few summers later, we baked our first homemade blackberry cobbler after Aunt Carol walked with me and my little sisters down the dirt road to pick them from the wild blackberry bushes she had spotted.
We camped out in the backyard once. But both my sister and I threw up in the tent before the night was over, so we never did it again.
We spent our first Thanksgiving at Lake Burton when I was a freshman in high school. Feeling absolutely robbed of my social time with friends, I begrudgingly packed my bags and got in the minivan. What I didn’t know, and couldn’t know before I saw it myself, was how the fall at the lake would grab ahold of my heart.
And it still does. There’s just nothing like riding on a pontoon boat or sliding down the waterfall at Sliding Rock (creative name, I know) or eating chicken and dumplings at the old LaPrade’s. (That restaurant burning down was one of the sadder leaving-my-childhood-behind moments of my life.) But just like growing up, just like looking back nostalgically but knowing it all is tinted and today is maybe better than I give it credit, fall has caught up to summer and current reality has also become something to treasure.
Now we spend Thanksgiving there every year, at the house we’ve known for almost forty years. The one just around the hairpin turn, where the driveway dips down and the gravel road slopes uphill. Where there isn’t quite enough parking space for the family cars but somehow we get them all into the driveway. There aren’t quite enough beds anymore either, but we manage to make that work as well.
I’ve fallen in love with that November drive from Nashville. It’s a solid five hours, and about two thirds of the way through, I totally lose cell service for about ten winding mountain road miles and can be only with my thoughts. I want to get to the house before dark, when I can see the mountains coming over the ridges, when the leaves have already changed and fallen off—except those incredibly yellow ones.
I pass the blackberry bush, or the spot where it used to be. It’s overgrown now, covered in kudzu, but I often wonder if I drove by on just the right summer day if I could snag a few plump ones from right in the center of the mess of green. I roll down my windows, even if it’s cold, as I turn onto the gravel road, so I can hear my tires crunch the ground as I scan the lake for any evening boaters brave enough to face the almost-winter wind. And then the house comes into view, warm yellow light through the windows and a patchwork of cars outside. I can’t even squeeze into a parking spot before my dad is out the door and ready to carry my luggage. Everyone else is gathered around some simple charcuterie dinner and glasses of wine, talking about Thanksgiving plans for the next day—who will make what and when and with what bowls and utensils, and stove versus oven versus grill, all versus the clock, counting down to the randomly-chosen time for our holiday meal.
Football is on the television, socks are on my feet, and the family is sitting all around. And with the roof above us and the lake beside us, for a few minutes, all is well.
This is the beauty of Lake Burton. It makes space for your thoughts and your heart. It makes all things well, no matter the color of leaves on the trees or whether it is the smell of cinnamon rolls or the sound of boats stirring you from sleep. Everything changes, but the water is always there, Charlie’s Mountain is always in view, and maybe that is all the simplicity and truth I need.