Annie stood looking at the sap-covered bark on the trunk of the evergreen that soared probably 30 feet above her head.
She was on the footpath of the town park, the path that led away from the tennis courts and toward the playground and picnic pavilion. The tree caught her attention not because it was so different from any of the other evergreens surrounding it, although it was clearly shorter than its neighbors.
No, it caught her attention primarily because it was there, occupying a space that in her mind's eye had been empty.
Annie had grown up in this North Country town, spent many fond hours running down this path on her way to the playground with her brothers and sister. And at 50, on a rare holiday visit back north, she found herself back on the footpath, walking through the snow with her own children, as they ran ahead to climb on snow-covered playground equipment.
Five-year-old Hannah's voice cut through the cold and snapped her out of her reverie.
"Mommy, come on!" she yelled.
Hannah's breath came out in tendrils of steam, her cheeks — what little Annie could see of them from behind the kindergartner's scarf — a rosy pink.
"I'm coming, Sweetheart," Annie called after her. "Mommy just moves a lot slower than you do."
Annie looked around. Not much had changed in 40 years.
Her mother, Lorraine, died the year Annie turned 12. Until that year, Lorraine was the life force behind every nuance of Annie's family's life. Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July — Lorraine organized the celebration, no matter how seemingly insignificant it may have been.
A church Labor Day picnic? Her mom was on it — sausage from LaBarre's Meat Market, potato and macaroni salads, chips, Dad's Root Beer, Dad's real beer — Mom had it covered.