The wind whipped icy fingers that cut through the knitted scarf I had wrapped around my neck before plunging headlong out of my mother’s house more than a half hour before. If I stayed out here much longer, stamping from foot to foot, I might just freeze to death before I could even begin the grand adventure about which Mother’s caustic comments had sent me flying out the door in the first place.
I let out a puff of indignant breath, watching it billow and dissipate in front of me. She wasn’t going to check on me. She was going to rock in her favorite chair in the parlor, working on the cross-stitch she planned to donate to her church’s auction for some mission in Africa, carrying on as if nothing untoward had happened at all.
She could support other women’s daughters traipsing off to the far reaches of the earth as long as God’s name was attached to it, but let her own daughter propose a little trip to Central America as part of her anthropological studies, and it would seem the very heavens were destined to fall in.
“What on earth are you doing out here, Melissa?” my Aunt Gertie’s voice, sharp like a knife, split through the cold and my thoughts, making me jump despite myself.
“You don’t want to know,” I pouted, hating that I sounded like some petulant child and doing my best to keep my teeth from chattering.
“I certainly don’t want to know out here in this freezing weather,” she shot back. ”Come back inside this house before you catch your death, and then you can vent until your lips are blue, if they aren’t blue already.”
She turned back into the house without giving me a second glance, and I followed her before I could think myself into a stubborn stance that could only end in frostbite. Gertie was in the kitchen, pouring tea from the thick, brown pot she had purchased thirty years ago on her one trip to England. She silently poured a second cup as I stomped my feet and tentatively felt the tip of my nose. I wiggled it once I was sure it wouldn’t break like an icicle.
“It’s not this cold in Belize,” I muttered, watching Gertie splash a dab of milk in both cups.
She held up her hand without looking up. ”I know you prefer your tea plain, but you need it. You could be Rudolph the Reindeer, don’t you know.” She gestured at the chair across from her. ”Sit. Drink.”
I obeyed robotically, feeling the smooth liquid warm my belly and slide to my toes, which tingled annoyingly. ”All I want, Aunt Gertie, is to spend the semester abroad. It’s the most popular course in the department, and they only have the one slot left.”
Gertie poured more tea into her cup, giving me one of her famous, side-long glances. “And you’ve got the money to pay for this popular course, I suppose?”
I sank into my chair. Leave it to Gertie to cut to the heart of the matter. ”Isn’t that what my college fund is for?” I spluttered finally.
Gertie raised a perfectly coiffed eyebrow. ”So, you earned the money that’s in that fund?”
This would be a losing argument. I’d already had it with Mother, who likewise refused to count all my hours of studying for the top grades I had been bringing home since kindergarten as ‘work.’ ”I might as well be back out in the garden,” I exclaimed.
“To the gathering stone,” Gertie agreed, nodding absently. Her dark eyes looked into a distance I couldn’t see. She snapped back to the table quickly. ”You may as well settle in your mind that you won’t be going anywhere except to the campus up the street until you are a woman full grown, with your own means of taking care of yourself. If you hadn’t noticed, the budget in this house isn’t . . .,” she stopped herself.
I grimaced. My father had been dead for almost a decade, but between Mother and Gertie, it might have been yesterday. ”Is it any wonder I want to experience more of the world?” I asked, thinking more of my desire to be away from the sorrow, to have a day where I did not have to be reminded as if I could forget that I was fatherless.
“Just because your father’s days were cut short doesn’t mean that you have a short life to live,” Gertie comforted, patting my hand with her boney fingers. ”You will have plenty of time to travel once you have graduated.”
I ran my palm around the curve of the brown teapot. ”That’s easy enough for you to say. At least you’ve seen a little of the world.”
Gertie stood up suddenly and began gathering the tea things, her back turned to me. She coughed and switched the water on in the sink with more force than was necessary. ”Seeing the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” she said in her cutting voice again. ”But, as I said, you’ll find out for yourself soon enough.”
Mother showed her face in the kitchen doorway then. ”Have you talked some sense into her, Gert?” she asked.
“I’m sitting right here,” I said. ”Why don’t you ask me?”
When she turned to me, her blonde hair streaked with gray, her eyes looked more tired than usual. For the first time in my life, I had the feeling that I had somehow failed her. I was almost ready to give up my dream then. Almost.
“I can see what you are thinking,” Mother blurted, pulling a chair from the table and having a seat. ”I am not trying to make you feel guilty or even trying to keep you from growing up. We don’t have the money, Melissa, and that’s the bottom line.”
“But if I could get the money?” I asked, feeling the first glimmer of hope.
“Then you could apply it to the second mortgage we’ve taken out on the house to keep up with our expenses.” Mother spat.
Aunt Gertie sat back down again, and we three sat looking at each other, the silence in the room so deafening that even the ticking of the clock over the kitchen sink came to me as if through a thick wall. I could forget about Belize, about the Mayan ruins in the jungle and the weekends on the beach with handsome Mike Spears in swimming trunks.
“What did you mean by a gathering stone in the garden, Aunt Gertie?” I finally asked, unable to look at my mother any longer.
Gertie just kept herself from jumping out of her own skin. ”I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
Mother shot Gertie a withering look. ”What have you been telling her?”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Gertie shot back, “as you well know.”
I stood up and pulled my coat back on, wanting, no needing, to get away from them, from my life. ”You said it was in the garden,” I said. ”What does it look like?”
Mother stood up then. ”It doesn’t look like anything because there is nothing there.”
“Then why would Aunt Gertie say something about it and then get all dreamy-eyed?” I shot back, my sympathy for our financial troubles evaporating again.
Mother sighed from her toes. ”The gathering stone,” she said, “isn’t in our garden, Melissa. It was in the garden where Gertie and I were girls. Take off your coat.”
I shrugged. ”I’ll go to the museum then. It’s free today, and there’s an exhibit on shrunken heads I’d like to see.”
“Don’t be gruesome, Melissa, just because you are disappointed,” Mother ordered.
“Life is disappointment, Mother,” I said, just keeping myself from wincing at the drama in my own words, but I had gone too far to stop myself now. ”Can’t you understand how I might want to escape the disappointment, just for a little while? Just for one semester? Aunt Gertie did it!”
Gertie came up behind me and ripped off my coat suddenly. ”Sit down, Melissa,” she said in her sharpest voice yet. It startled me so, I did exactly as she asked.
“I don’t know what made me mention the gathering stone today, dear,” she began in a softer tone. ”Perhaps all this talk about travel is what did it. Your mother and I took our first travels at the gathering stone, you see. It was a huge chunk of rock, a boulder to our young selves that we could climb upon and pretend. That rock was a raft on the Amazon, an airplane soaring over the Atlantic, our wedding altars.”
“So, you called it the gathering stone because?” I said.
She shrugged, remaining silent. Mother answered. ”Because our dreams were gathered there, I suppose. Now, let’s pick out a good movie and make some popcorn. I’m in the mood for a comedy.”
I glanced between the two of them. ”There’s more to this than you’re letting on,” I said. ”If you think I’m just going to forget something as mysterious sounding as this, you’re crazy. What was the gathering stone, really? Did you meet your boyfriends there or sneak out at midnight to light candles and chant like the Ya-Ya Sisterhood?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mother scoffed. ”We were young children without Xboxes or computer games. We had to use our imaginations. That’s all it was. Now, let’s go to the living room and relax.”
I was all ready to grab my coat again and head to the museum, or the Starbucks in the Student Union. I had at least five dollars in my left pocket and a bit of a gift at getting the boys from my classes to buy my lattes for me. Sitting down with my Mother and Aunt for two hours watching a movie, being forced to stew in the juices of my latest disappointment was just too much to bear.
“Don’t go,” Aunt Gertie’s voice stopped me. It was a pleading voice, not the sharp one that had greeted me an hour before. ”There’s really something you should know, Melissa.”
“If you open your mouth, Mother, to tell her to be quiet, I’ll scream until I faint,” I promised.
“Very mature,” Mother responded, but she stayed silent otherwise.
“What do you want to tell me, Aunt Gertie?”
“I’ve never been to England,” she blurted.
I blinked. Hard. Three times. ”What?”
“The teapot,” Gertie said, swallowing. ”The teapot is from England, Melissa, but that’s not where I got it.”
“Why would you tell me it was?” I asked, feeling sad and outraged all at once.
“Did I?” Gertie asked, her voice rising to a strange pitch. ”You’re sure I didn’t just talk about England so much that you assumed I had been there? I’ve read an awful lot about it, you know. I spent many an evening at the gathering stone reading about it.”
“So, why did you never go? What would be holding you back?”
Gertie smiled a sad smile, a face that showed me more than anything the depth of my own ignorance. It had not been an easy life for all of us, but Gertie had always been the tag-a-long, the tall, awkward sister to Mother’s attractive curves and curls, all angles and hard lines. Mother had lost her husband, but Gertie’s only wedding altar had been the stone in her parents’ garden.
And now I knew she had never been anywhere, she who had toted the brown teapot from church social to bridal shower for decades, explaining the fine points of high tea and knitting teapot cozies as if she had not only visited the United Kingdom but become one of its citizens for a season.
“You’re trying to shock me into forgetting about Belize,” I said. ”Forget about it. You already made your point with the second mortgage threat. I know I might as well tuck that idea under your gathering stone and move on.”
Gertie laughed, a bubbling sound that seemed to come from her very core. ”Well, it worked, didn’t it?”
“Now, can we watch the movie,” Mother asked in her most bored voice.
The two sisters walked out arm in arm, discussing what title they wanted to slide into the DVD player. I stayed in the chair a few moments, staring at the teapot and trying to imagine younger versions of my mother and aunt on a huge stone in their parent’s back garden.
Finally, I decided it wouldn’t matter if Gertie had made it to England in reality or only through her own imagination. Somehow, her stories were so real that they might as well have been.
Now, if there were only a gathering stone in our own garden, even just a small one I could carry in my pocket, well then, maybe, I could dream myself into a college course of a lifetime.
Or I could check out a book at the library.
I threw some popcorn in the microwave, slipped off my sneakers, and rubbed the now cool crockery that had been the symbol of Gertie’s independence for the length of my lifetime. It was cold comfort, but it was the closest thing to England I was likely to get in a wintertime of Sundays tucked into the cupboard that served as our computer station, “Pinning” fantastic pictures to my board titled “Where the Gathering Stone Stayed.”