After replacing the mangled tire with the spare “donut,” Mom and Aunt Claire had an argument about which road to take. Aunt Claire wanted to keep going straight, but Mom wanted to take a detour to a place called “Rest and Be Thankful,” where Great Auntie Fiona used to take them to when they were kids. She said that the pendulum had answered “Yes” when she asked it if the detour would bring us “good fortune.”
“Are you bonkers? It’ll add at least an hour to our trip,” Aunt Claire cried.
“Um…don’t we need to get a real tire soon? Those donut tires are just for emergencies.” Ever since I was tall enough to reach the clutch, Dad had drilled the basics of road safety into my brain.
“Doughnuts? What’s she talking about?” Aunt Claire jerked her head in my direction.”
“The spare tire, Claire,” Mom explained. “That’s what they call it in America.”
“Pffff! We don’t have time for all that. We need to get a move on.”
“I thought we were sightseeing,” I said. “Why are we in such a hurry?”
As usual, they ignored my question.
“All I know is, we don’t want to go against fortune. We need to stop at Rest and Be Thankful.” Mom folded her arms. I guessed that was the sign that nothing Aunt Claire said would make any difference because she groaned and turned left at the next intersection onto “Old Military Road.” She must have seen me staring at the sign.
“The soldiers who built the old road called the place we’re going to Rest and Be Thankful because the climb was so steep that they were thankful to have a place to stop and rest afterward,” Aunt Claire said.
“Is it? I didn’t know that?” Mom wove her hair into a long braid with her broad-knuckled fingers. I have Dad’s slim fingers, thankfully.
“Just because you did a year of art college doesn’t mean you’re the genius of the family!” Aunt Claire jerked the steering wheel as she maneuvered around a sharp bend in the two-lane road.
“Did you go to college, Aunt Claire?”
She huffed. “I did nursing for a while, but … it wasn’t really for me.”
“Mavis didn’t like it,” Mom sneered.
“Mavis? Ewan’s mom? What does she have to do with it?”
“Exactly!” I felt glad that Mom agreed with me but also a little sorry for Aunt Claire, who sank down into her seat.
“It didn’t work out, that’s all,” she said. No one spoke for a while. We rounded a bend, and the trees opened up to reveal a beautiful valley.
“Wow!” I rolled the window down, enjoying the feel of wind brushing against my face after being in the stuffy, burnt-rubber-dead-cat smelling car for what felt like hours.
Aunt Claire parked at a small overlook, and we got out and stretched. Grassy hills with purple flowers spread before us, and a little stream trickled through the middle. The wind pushed clouds across the sky, and the valley grew dark, then light, as if giant fingers played across the sun.
“Just breathe in that air!” Mom closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I copied her, breathing until my nostrils stung with the chill. I smelled grass, damp and mossy, and the icy water in the stream (which I imagined tasted like peppermint). When I opened my eyes, the view looked brighter, as if someone had poured cold water over everything, washing away the dust and old faded colors.
“I wish I lived here,” I said. “Then I could see this view every day!”
Mom stood with her face to the sun, her eyes still eyes closed. Aunt Claire sat on the grass, still wearing her sunglasses, legs tucked under her. She plucked a blade of grass and chewed on it like I’ve seen Granddad do. He lives on a farm in Mebane that his family used to own. Granddad still plants tobacco. He lets the leaves grow bigger and bigger until Dad gets tired of looking at the overgrown field and hauls out the tractor. Then Dad and I help Granddad hang the tobacco leaves in the barn and hose them down to get rid of all the bugs and dirt.
The leaves dry in the barn for about two weeks, and then Granddad sticks the leaves in the old pottery kiln Grannny made back when she was still alive. He bakes them for days and days – I don’t even know how long – and then he sells the tobacco at the farmer’s market and to old-timers who live near him and make their own cigarettes. Sometimes, a lady from Asheville buys the leaves to make dolls and wreaths out of them. He’s pretty busy, my Granddad.
I didn’t tell Mom any of this; she looked too thoughtful on the hillside, her braid bobbing in the wind. I thought about what my life would be if we’d stayed in Scotland instead of moving to North Carolina when I was three. Would we live in a tiny flat like Mom, or would Dad have bought something bigger with its own yard? Did they even have private yards over here?
One thing was for sure – I’d have to wear a school uniform.
Aunt Claire groaned. “I’m knackered! Let’s get a bacon roll and a cup of tea.”
“What’s a bacon roll?” I ran to keep up as she marched toward a van parked at the side of the overlook. I hadn’t noticed before, but it was actually a tiny cafe out here in the middle of nowhere!
Mom strolled behind us. “Your Great Auntie Fiona used to take us here on Sundays in her old banger.”
“What’s an old banger?”
“It’s an old car. The rust had worn through the floor, and the car got puddles when it rained.”
“Why didn’t she buy a new one?”
“We’re not rich like you Americans!” Aunt Claire snapped.
I frowned. “We’re not rich.” Dad has an old truck, too, but he’d get it fixed if holes started to wear in the floor.
We reached the tea van, and Mom started digging in her bag. “Oh, I need to stop by a bank. I’ve no cash.”
Aunt Claire folded her arms but didn’t say anything.
“I have some money,” I piped up.
“No, I’ll pay,” Aunt Claire said, holding up a hand. “Liz can pay me back later. She’s due.”
We sat on the grass eating bacon rolls (Delicious! Rolls are like floury hamburger buns but with more flavor, and Scottish bacon is juicy and thick like Canadian ham.)
“Ewan was born here,” Aunt Claire said, her mouth full of food.
“Really?” Mom leaned forward to look at her sister. I sat in the middle, stuffing my face; I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Even though we’d left Edinburgh super-early, the flat tire and tea stops had slowed us down, and it was nearly lunchtime.
“Aye, Mavis was eight months pregnant when she and Eddie drove up here for a picnic. That was before they were married, and before Eddie drank himself to death, obviously.”
I glanced at my aunt. People didn’t say stuff like “drank themselves to death” in front of me in North Carolina. Dad was careful about what I watched on TV (which is aggravating when all my friends are allowed to watch “Saturday Night Live,” and I’m not!). He doesn’t even want me to watch “The People’s Court” when I’m home sick.
“They hit a bump, and her water broke,” Aunt Claire continued. I winced, hoping she wasn’t going to go in to a lot of details about fluids and umbilical cords. In health class, the teacher showed us a movie about the beauty of childbirth. I missed the actual “beauty” part because my eyes had been closed the whole time.
“So, Eddie parked here, bought two cups of tea and a bacon roll from the van, and by that time Ewan had made his grand entrance.”
“Good grief!” Mom slapped her forehead. “He was eating a bacon roll while Mavis was giving birth?”
“Sort of tells you the kind of person he was…”
“I can see why Mavis is the way she is,” Mom said. “That must’ve been quite traumatic.”
Aunt Claire brushed crumbs off her jeans and stood up. “We’d better start movin’, folks,” she said in a fake American accent, winking at me.
“Is that supposed to be American?”
She laughed – the first time I’d heard her laugh – and patted me on the back.
On the way back to the car, we stopped to listen to a bagpiper who’d appeared a few feet away from the tea van. His face swelled as he blew into the pipes and squinted against the wind.
“That’s ‘Flower of Scotland’.” Mom threw a pound coin into the cap by the piper’s foot.
“I thought you didn’t have any cash,” Aunt Claire cried.
Mom hurried toward the car, apparently not hearing her sister. “Time waits for no man!”
“Hmmph!” Aunt Claire stomped toward the car, her good mood trampled like the muddy ground under our feet. A few minutes down the road, Aunt Claire’s cellphone began to buzz. Mom and I held our breaths as she wedged the cell phone between her chin and shoulder and tried to steer and shift gears at the same time. The car wobbled over to the wrong side of the road for a few seconds. I closed my eyes.
“Mavis? I have no idea where he is. Don’t phone me again.” Aunt Claire threw the phone behind her; it bounced off my seat and landed on the floor.
“What did she want?” I asked, curious.
“None of your business!” Mum and Aunt Claire barked at the same time. Jeez!