When Tommy was 13, his parents sent him across the country to his Aunt Binnie’s for the summer. She lived by the Pacific Ocean.
“They probably don’t have basketball courts our there,” he whined on the eve of his trip.
“You can play at a school near her cabin,” replied his father. Tommy responded that it was probably a playground with eight-foot high baskets, but his father had already turned his back on him.
His aunt met him at the terminal gate the next evening. Tommy launched into a series of questions about where to play basketball.
“Now, now,” she said, “There will be plenty of time for basketball. You’re going to be right by the ocean and a short boat ride away from a secret island.”
“Why is it secret?”
“You can only see it a few times a week—most of the time it is covered in fog. And I’ve never seen anyone on it. “
Tommy figured his aunt was trying to entertain him. But he didn’t believe in Santa Claus and other storybook nonsense– she was going to have to do better.
The next day he walked with his aunt to a tiny beach.
“Oh my gosh, there it is,” she said, pointing across the water to the tops of trees poking through the fog. “We’re in luck.” She directed him to the end of the beach where two-person kayak was tied to a giant cypress tree.
“Aren’t you afraid someone will steal your boat?” asked Tommy.
“Not around here. Besides it’s usually too foggy to go in the ocean.”
A few minutes later Tommy was in the kayak at the edge of the water with his aunt standing next to him.
“I’m going to give you some lessons before we go to the island. First, we’re going to learn how to get out of the kayak if it turns over.”
Any thoughts of basketball were gone. He was captivated by his aunt who seemed to know so much about things he’d never considered.
After imparting the proper maneuvers for getting out of the kayak when it rolls over, his aunt pushed it over so that Tommy was upside down in the water. As she had instructed, he held his breath and let his body go limp. He swam away from the kayak and headed for the surface. He emerged shaking with cold, but happy he’d done the escape correctly.
That evening Aunt Binnie drove him to the school gym where she challenged him to a game of horse. She had a smooth two-handed set shot. When he made a one-handed jumper from the top of the key, he said she could use two hands. But she waved him off and swished the shot with an effortless flip of the wrist.
“You’re awesome, Aunt Binnie.”
Ten years later Tommy was working 60 hours weeks to support his wife and their newborn when his father phoned one evening to say that Aunt Binnie had died.
“You don’t have to go—it’s an expensive flight. Besides, she wants to have her ashes spread on some secret island.”
Tommy had lost touch with aunt. While he was sad to learn she had died, the mention of the secret island brought back memories of her in a way disturbing way. He had been so busy with his own life that he had delayed visiting his aunt again until it became easy not to think of her.
He looked at his wife asleep on the sofa. He vowed that after the baby was old enough to go on an airplane, they’d visit the secret island. He walked around the apartment listening to the hollow ring of his shoes on the wood floor while he tried to recreate that summer with his aunt.