I found the faded photo in an clothbound copy of The Golden Road by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Aunt Nina is sitting on a camp chair, her lips slightly parted, as if she’s going to say something, perhaps about what she sees across the lake, or maybe to reprimand me for snapping her photo. A teacup is balanced on her knee, and she’s holding a pair of binoculars.
I hear her voice.
“Rosemarie?” A gentle tap on the screen door. “Ready to go?”
I scribble the answer to the last long division question in my math notebook and tuck away a map of India. “I’ll be ready in a minute, Aunt Nina.” I clamber up the stairs to stuff clothes in a backpack.
“Don’t forget a rain slicker.” Aunt Nina always says the same thing. I disregard the recommendation, preferring instead to fill the bag with crayons, sketchbook, jars, and books. The advice was more for my mother’s benefit anyway.
I toss the bag in Aunt Nina’s red Rambler station wagon, and we are off, stopping first at the gas station, so an attendant can pump in three dollars’ worth of gas, more than enough to carry us on an adventure and back. Aunt Nina checks the oil herself, because even though the uniformed attendant looks sharp, Aunt Nina doesn’t trust him to do right with her vehicle.
“Where are we going, Aunt Nina?”
“Wherever the road takes us.”
The lake is the best, with its smooth stones and whispering waves, the honeycombed pieces of driftwood, and the forest that presses the shoreline. An icy spring runs into it, making it less popular with swimmers and campers, but not so for Aunt Nina, who thinks bathing in glacial water is good discipline and a tonic for the spirit. A bit fey, is Aunt Nina.
“Set out the chairs. Fetch dry tinder.” I think Aunt Nina has developed a strict regime because she lives alone. Or was it the other way around? Which was borne of the other?
I ponder the circular question as I unload the station wagon. Soon, a fire is roaring, and I know as soon as the fire dies a little, she’ll bury potatoes in the ashes and bake biscuits in a skillet. Already, she has a kettle boiling for tea. She hands me a steaming teacup, and I stir in sugar. The tea tastes smoky, exotic and tangy.
“The binoculars, Rosemarie.” Aunt Nina points to an eagle, gliding effortlessly on an air current, almost motionless, suspended. The moment became suspended.
“Exquisite,” she exclaims. I set my tea cup on a stone and fetch my sketchbook. My attempts are fledgling, primitive, but Aunt Nina applauds each stroke. She knows something of sketching, as she does about almost anything -- eagles, campfires, and car oil -- and I revel in her praise.
“The potatoes are ready.” I can hear the faint whistling and popping sounds announcing their doneness and smell their mealy warmth. Aunt Nina drags them out of the ashes with a stick, then stabs them with a fork. The outside is crispy, charred, the inside flaky and creamy white. Melted butter runs down our chins.
We wash up, and I drag out the ground sheet, quilts, and pillows. Aunt Nina refuses to use a tent or bedrolls because they’re too confining. She can’t touch the sky.
“The book, Rosemarie.” There’s a stash of books in the Rambler, but I know the one she wants. The constellation guide.
“Remember the story of the dragon, Rosemarie?” Aunt Nina asks after we’re tucked under the quilts in our flannel pajamas and woolen socks.
“The dragon that gnaws at the roots of the sacred tree, Ygdrasil, that covers the world?” I sketch a wild dragon in the twilight, Draco devouring a tree.
“The Norse version. Tell me more.” We talk into the darkness of stars and mysteries and eternity. It rains, and we move to the Rambler and nestle in the quilts to read The Golden Road by candlelight. A breeze sifts through a slightly opened window and ruffles Aunt Nina’s hair. I lean into her as she reads, “a shadow of change was over it.” It is fitting.
By Christmas, Aunt Nina is dead of an infection. I have no chance to say goodbye, but she wouldn’t have wanted it, since it’s such a “hopeless sort of word,” anyway.
The book still smells of smoke. I slip the photo back inside.
Quotes - Lucy Maud Montgomery. The Golden Road, 1913.
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