I knew Mom would never use some of the college money to pay for Aunt Judith’s memorial, but I couldn’t help it. When people are being arbitrary I get blurty. Even if I had more self-control, it’s not like I had friends I could go vent to about her. When Mom reached for the stack of Aunt Judith’s sweaters that I’d put behind me, I pulled Judith’s favorite one from the top. It was a brick-colored cardigan with a bulky zipper she could never stop fiddling with. It was her “old-man” sweater. She wore it last Christmas when I nagged her into sharing a joint with me. That was also the night she told me the legend of the gold.
Aunt Judith and I were on dish duty, and we’d just finished cleaning up after dinner. “Poverty Island?” I asked Aunt Judith. “Ironic name for a place with sunken treasure.”
“Well, that’s where it is,” she’d said with conviction.
I gathered Gigi’s not-so-secret stash from the cookie jar, sat down at the table with Aunt Judith, and waited for her to show me how to roll a joint. She smiled and sighed at the same time. “Your mom is going to scold me if she finds out.”
I gave her the one eyebrow. “Come on. You’re my cool auntie.” I patted the seat next to me.
She grabbed the Ziploc baggie and sat down. “I’m your only auntie.”
“How did you even get involved with this treasure?”
She pushed her fuzzy curls behind her ears the same way Gigi always did. “Your mom and I saw it on an old TV show when we were teenagers. Unsolved Mysteries.”
Even though it had been over twenty years since she’d gone looking for it, Aunt Judith acted like it was yesterday. She smiled as she crumbled the weed into a line down the length of the thin rolling paper, getting that look people have when a favorite song is playing, and they have to sing along no matter what you do or say.
Delicately working to twist the edges of the light slippery paper around the weed, she set her story alight. “The legend goes like this: During the Civil War, Napoleon sent a ship with five chests of gold to help fund the Confederacy. It left from the city of Escanaba, in Michigan, but was chased around Poverty Island by some Frenchmen trying to steal their king’s gold. It was eventually pushed overboard.”
She unrolled the lumpy joint and started over. “Years and years later, another ship, the Captain Lawrence, sailed to Poverty Island and searched the waters for three years. A young boy, the son of the Poverty Island Lighthouse keeper, would sit near the shore, watching the boat lower the heavy diving bell and drag it back up.”
“Shush.” Happy with how the weed was packed and rolled, she licked and sealed the long edge of the paper. “One day, the boy saw the crew haul it up as usual, but this time they erupted into a crazy celebration, drinking and dancing and going bananas. But it didn’t last long. In a cruel twist of fate, Mother Nature conjured a storm over Lake Michigan so fierce the Captain Lawrence was sunk and the gold was never again found.”
She stayed rapt in the story for a moment, then said, “And not for a lack of trying.” She twisted the paper on one end of the joint.
I couldn’t help myself. “There’s no way that’s true.”
“What? Oh, Aven. That hurts my heart.” She laughed and feigned chest pains. “Skeptic. Just like your mother.”
“You really still believe it?”
“Absolutely.” She lit the joint, took a hit, and passed it to me.
I smiled. “You’re crazy.” I put it to my lips with equal parts excitement and nervousness, breathed in and stored away this secret. It was that moment that I knew I wanted that kind of life where you could believe in sunken treasure and give a rat’s ass about what people thought of you for it.
Not only that. She made me feel like I was worth spending time with. She was the kind of free spirit you watch from afar, wishing she’d invite you along but knowing if she did, you’d spend the whole time wondering if your were cool enough. That night I was. And I’d determined that after college—I promised Mom I’d go—I would find a way to live like Aunt Judith: happy and free.
I wished I could tell this story at the memorial, minus the part about getting high. At least if I told this story, I could say she died doing what she loved. Then whenever Mom said “recklessness” or “stupidity,” I could say, “Yeah, but if you died today, could I say you died doing what you love? Are you willing to die for healthy teeth?” No one loves being a dentist, do they? Maybe, but Mom doesn’t. Or she just doesn’t value contentment.
When it came time to actually go to the memorial, I realized telling a story for the sole purpose of telling Mom off would really make me a dick. So, while Stanley and I were in the back of Gigi’s van, his big head in my lap, shedding on Aunt Judith’s old man sweater, I still didn’t know what I was going to say. I scratched Stanley’s head, wishing I could say something interesting and wonderful off the cuff, in true Judith style.