“Why you got that bucket?” the little girl asks. She’s perched like a barn owl on a piece of driftwood along Lake Superior. She wears an oversized sweatshirt covering knees pulled up under a pointy chin, and her eyes are wide as she watches me pick my way along the shoreline.
“I’m collecting memories,” I say.
“Memories?” she echoes, cocking her head to the left. I draw almost parallel to where she sits, and she hops from the log and takes a tentative step in my direction, looking first at a woman reclining in a chair up the beach. “Can I see?”
I stop my amble along the edge of the water and ease the bucket down on the sand. Coaxing my hand to release the bucket’s handle is always the hardest part, my fingers rusty machinery.
“But they’re just rocks,” the little girl says as she gets close enough to see over the lip of the bucket.
“We should drive the Lake Superior shoreline from Michigan to Canada and back,” Maggie had said when the kids were young. “We could walk along the beach and collect stones—agates, basalt, Leland blue, quartz… What a great trip that would be!”
“Someday,” I’d agreed, back when “someday” seemed full of possibility and promise.
Once the kids had left for college, neither of us could find time to make the trip, although it never left my mind. I’d once looked up the length of the shoreline, discovering it to be over 1700 miles, leaving out the islands we’d never have time to include anyway. I’d even researched the Lake Superior Circle Tour, a mere 1300 miles the experts suggested a person tackle in ten days or so, not a monumental undertaking surely.
After our children both married and moved to Georgia and Oregon respectively, spreading our five grandchildren across the country, Maggie and I talked about what a great family reunion it would be to drive around the lake. Our kids were always too busy to take off the time to join us, but they encouraged us, saying, “That’s God’s country up there! You’ll love it!”
I tried to surprise Maggie one year by getting the grandkids together to take the trip with us. I priced out a rental RV and spent hours in front of that cursed computer, working out the details.
It hadn’t occurred to me the grandkids wouldn’t want to go.
While I’d been planning, they’d been growing up, and now they were more interested in video games and school sports, trips to the mall and time with their friends. Their parents apologized. “But you two should go!” they encouraged.
“You know,” Maggie said to me after we’d both retired and had more free time than we knew what to do with,“We never did make it around Lake Superior. Let’s do it this year.”
Again, I sat before the computer, finding a place on the Keweenaw Peninsula where we could stay in a lighthouse turned bed and breakfast and reserving tickets on a boat trip to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. When I had the trip planned as thoroughly as anything I’d ever done, I printed the itinerary and placed it in a folder, adding a bow I’d bought at the grocery store.
After dinner that night, with the table cleared and coffee before us, I told Maggie I had a surprise for her.
“Me first,” she said, reaching up to the counter to retrieve a folder she had left there. I smiled at our synchronicity. She slid the folder across to me one-handed. “Here,” she said, her lips pulled into a tight smile.
I opened the folder, but it took me too long to comprehend.
“Pancreatic cancer,” Maggie said. “I went in for pain in my back, and I came out with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. We’ll have to tell the kids soon,” she said and then stood, taking her coffee cup and mine to the sink.
I kneel down next to the bucket, forcing my knees to remember their job, and reach inside. The girl watches me. I push my hand around until I find what I’m looking for, a pockmarked bluish stone that I hold out to her.
Her eyes flick down toward the stone. She turns her head so she can see her mother before returning her glance to my outstretched hand. “What kind of stone is it?” she asks.
“This one isn’t really a stone at all.”
“Lemme see,” she says, taking it and running her fingers over its imperfections. “Feels like a stone to me,” she says, handing it back.
“That’s Leland Blue,” I tell her and she shrugs. “It’s slag, a byproduct of the iron ore industry on Lake Superior—sort of like blue glass turned by nature into stone.”
“You keep it,” I say, handing it back to her.
“What about that one?” she asks, pointing to an opaque stone I pull from the bucket for her.
“This one’s quartz.”
She takes it and runs her fingers over its smoothness. “It looks like a tear,” she says, “but a happy tear—like the kind my mama cries when I tell her I love her.” I smile at the child and fold her fingers over the stone.
“Add that one to your collection,” I tell her and reach back into the bucket. Pulling out a waxy rust-colored stone, I put it in her hand.
“That’s an agate,” I explain. “See that band of white?” I trace the line with my finger. “It’s good luck. Agates are formed from lava, and legend has it they provide strength and courage. Now, who couldn’t use a whole bucket of that, right?”
The girl smiles and palms her treasures before running toward her mother, bony elbows sticking out like delicate wings. Using the bucket for leverage, I stand. With some effort, I lift the bucket, and glancing toward Lake Superior, I carry on down the shoreline.
Amy Morris-Jones lives, works, and writes along the shore of Lake Michigan. Online English faculty by day, Amy spends her nights trying out new ways to describe snow, rust, and mosquito bites. She has a novel in revision and work appearing or forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, The Journal of Microliterature, and Imagine This! An Artprize Anthology.