Lakeside Retreat: Novelist Susan Rebecca White’s highs and lows on a mountain lake in the Smokies

”On that night, under that starlit sky, the sound of the water lapping against the dock, I felt a prescient sense of peace.”

Illustration by Oli Winward

My in-laws own a rambling gray house in Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, a tiny community seven miles south of Highlands. The house overlooks a sloping lawn, dotted with hydrangea bushes, that leads to a small lake. You can take a fishing boat with an electric motor out on it, but I like to explore by kayak. That way, everything slows down, quiets. There is the light reflecting off the water. There is the ridge of mountains, an undulation of tree-topped rocks. There is the lap-lap rhythm of the paddle. There is the quiet when you stop, in the middle of all that water, allowing the kayak to bob and float.

Six years ago, during a weekend at the lake with my husband, I walked alone to the dock after supper. I was twelve weeks pregnant, and the sky was full of stars. As I lay down on the dock and looked up, it felt as if the starry night were a blanket I could pull over me, for comfort, which I needed. A recent test had revealed that I was infected with the Toxoplasma parasite. If the infection reached the fetus, it could be devastating. Further testing was scheduled. It would be another two weeks before the doctor confirmed that the baby was okay, but on that night, under that starlit sky, the sound of the water lapping against the dock, I felt a prescient sense of peace.

These days, I often take my five-year old son, Gus, to the lake for weekends. We stop along the way at Osage Farms in Rabun Gap, Georgia, to purchase peaches, tomatoes, corn, and lady peas, along with a quart of pulled pork from Tomlin’s Little Red BBQ Shack next door. My husband comes when he can, and when he does, my in-laws babysit so that we can have a date night at Fortify Kitchen & Bar in nearby Clayton, where the gazpacho rivals the iconic cold soup I first fell in love with in Seville, Spain, and the fried green tomatoes are as good as any I’ve gobbled from the cast-iron skillets of friends in Atlanta. But often it is just my son, my in-laws, and me.

My son calls his grandfather “Dir.” This is a mispronunciation of “Sir,” which is the name my father-in-law chose to be called by his first set of grandchildren, my niece and nephew, now in college. That he chose “Sir” tells you a lot about him—his sense of self and his sense of humor. That he cheerfully adapted to “Dir” tells you more.

Every morning at the lake, Gus wakes up asking, “Where’s Dir?” If, God forbid, Dir has driven off somewhere (often to buy his grandson a treat from the Dollar General down the way), Gus repeats this litany every few minutes until he returns. And why wouldn’t my son be searching for his granddad? Dir is so much fun. Here is the “to-do” list that was waiting for Gus the last time we arrived at the mountain house: FISH / ZIPLINE / TREE HOUSE / BOW & ARROW/ TRACTOR RIDE / WRESTLE / FLASHLIGHT WALK / BOAT RIDE.

My son chose to go on a boat ride first. Once we were far enough from the dock, Dir let him take hold of the tiller, and Gus turned us in circles until I cried, “Enough!” After Dir retook command of the motor, we made our way lazily around the lake’s periphery, the sun-dappled water sparkling. There I sat with two people I love dearly, content and afloat.

Susan Rebecca White is the author of four novels: Bound South, A Soft Place to Land, A Place at the Table, and We Are All Good People Here, published in August. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at Hollins University, White has taught creative writing at Hollins, Emory University, SCAD, and Mercer University, where she was the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Chair of English Writer-in-Residence. An Atlanta native, she lives in the city with her husband and son.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.