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.
There were six kids in the family by 1969 — four boys, two girls — and very little money. But that never seemed to stop Lorraine from making the most of the least. Annie remembered celebrating on New Year's Eve with ginger ale, onion-cheese pinwheels and cheese doodles. All the kids, in their PJs, would wait for the ball to drop and Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians to ring in a new year, a new hope, a new promise.
But none of them, least of all Lorraine, could anticipate how "Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?" would take on a new meaning in 1975, when Lorraine would succumb to cancer four short months after their New Year's fete. No hope. No promise.
The family muddled through. Annie's father, Daniel, bless his heart, tried to take care of the needs that his wife so brilliantly handled as second nature. But there was something lacking. He knew it, and the kids certainly knew it. He began relying on the kindness of neighbors, who would take the kids into their homes for Sunday dinners when their father worked double shifts, would have the kids over to swim in their pools in the summer or organize back-to-school shopping come summer's end.
Daniel mustered up the courage and strength to face Thanksgiving head on, but it had always been Lorraine who made a feast out of their famine. They ate and were thankful, but they were empty long before the turkey settled.
When December approached, he sat Annie down.
"Annie, I need you to help me this year. I need you to help me make Christmas happen," he said.
Annie wasn't sure if he had meant to say "happen" or "happy." She didn't think it mattered. Either way, she knew she would do her best, but she was 12.
Annie looked at the envelope with $20 and $50 bills inside that her father had handed her. He had tears in his eyes when she looked up, but he quickly looked away and managed to wipe his face without making it obvious.
Annie took the envelope of money to her room and set about making a list. As she counted out the bills, dividing them into six piles, she began to realize that he was spending much more than he probably could and should have.
Lorraine would have begun her shopping months earlier. Annie knew this because she would stumble on purchases on occasion and wonder why there would be a train set or doll carriage or board game under her mother's bed or in the closet. It's not that she was snooping; few of Annie's friends had the willpower she demonstrated at Christmastime.
She hadn't realized then that her mother had shopped sales, been given hand-me-downs and visited area garage sales to give her children the best Christmas she could afford.
Daniel dropped his daughter off at the mall and said he'd pick her up later.
"How much later?" she asked through the open window of his car door. He seemed in a hurry to take off.
"What time is it now, 1? How about I meet you at this door at 5?" he asked.
Annie nodded. He faced forward and pulled the shift lever into drive, but he changed his mind and threw it back into park.
"Your mother always took care of this, you know," he said. "I'm proud of you. You're … you'll always be my little girl. Um, if there's anything … if you have any money left over, you keep it, OK?"
Snow fell as Annie watched the taillights of the old Chrysler as it rounded the bend and moved out of sight. She took stock of her purse on her shoulder, stepped over a slushy puddle and headed into the mall.
Annie sat on a bench in front of Montgomery Ward and took out her list. Though the mall had been open just a year or so, she knew it like the back of her hand. In her mind's eye, she could go from store to store, in order, and name them all, right down to the record store and weird restaurant/snack bar at the other end. She stood and began her hunting trip.
It was close to 5 when Annie arrived back at the predetermined pickup point. It was still snowing, and darkness had descended.
A Santa's helper stood at the mall door ringing his bell for charity. Actually, he took up the mall door. He was huge. Annie looked at him. He nodded at her. Even through a cotton-batting beard, she could see his eyes crinkle at the corners as he smiled.
"Merry Christmas," he said.
Annie nodded. Her hands were cold, and she was holding about a gazillion packages. She found a dry spot on the sidewalk under the door awning and set them down.
"Lot of shopping today," Santa said.
Annie chuckled a little, thinking it made her sound older.
"Doing the shopping for my dad," she said. She had no idea why she felt she had to explain, but she added, "My mom died this year, and my dad needs my help." "I'm sorry, Darlin'," he said.
Annie pushed her hands into the pockets of her Levis, and her fingers wrapped around the $50 bill she had left from the shopping money. She looked over at Santa ringing his bell, stamping his feet in the cold. Her dad was late.
She pulled the $50 out and looked at it. Ulysses S. Grant looked back at her. Fifty dollars. Annie took a few steps toward the red bucket. But as she reached out her hand, the wind picked up and blew the bill from her grasp. Santa was pretty quick for a big guy. He stepped on it before it could flutter even farther away. Picking it up with some difficulty because of his thick, brown-leather mittens, he handed it to Annie. It was a little slushy but no worse for wear.
"Here you go, Darlin'."
"Thank you," Annie said. "But I meant to give it to you."
She slipped it in the slot in the kettle.
He didn't respond, at first, but then he said something under his breath that she could make out but didn't understand: "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
Clearing his throat, he looked at her.
"Have a very, merry Christmas, Darlin'."
Daniel pulled up to the curb just then.
"You too, Santa," Annie said, feeling a little silly at calling this guy Santa. She was 12, after all.
"Well? How'd you do?" her father asked after Annie had loaded up the backseat and climbed in the front next to him.
"Fine, Dad," she said. "It went just fine."
Once at home, her father helped her bring the packages into his room so they could hide them until later, when she would help him wrap them.
"All except this one," Annie said, pulling a bag out from the pile and hiding it behind her back.
"Why? What's in that one?" he asked.
"Can't tell," she said, smiling. Her dad stopped what he was doing and looked at his daughter. So grown up, all of the sudden.
"Come here," he said, with his arms outstretched. Annie went to him, and he hugged her.
"I love you, Sweetheart."
"I love you, too, Daddy," Annie said.
She was his little girl again.
Daniel had to work a late shift that night, so after Annie helped him get dinner on the table and everybody ate, he left the boys to clear the table and do the dishes.
"And I expect them to be done when I get home," he said as he headed out the door.
Annie knew what that meant. The dirty dishes would sit in the sink until she went out to the kitchen and washed them. Ever since their mother died, her brothers did little more than run wild in the neighborhood and terrorize her and her younger sister, Lisa. Lisa and Sam, the youngest of the family, were too small to help out, so their care fell on Annie's shoulders, as well.
Daniel worried that the authorities might come by to split the family up. Neighbors had told him about the boys' shenanigans, but what was he to do? He had to work. He couldn't afford child care. The neighbors understood — to a point.
"Dan, you've got to do something. They're up all hours, they're out all hours. Something's going to happen," Mrs. Kinnen, the neighbor from across the street, had said.
"What do you want me to do, Liz? Split them up? Do you want to watch them?"
No, Mrs. Kinnen didn't want to watch them.
"I'm just worried, Dan," she said.
"I know. So am I."
Daniel's car wasn't out of the driveway before the boys abandoned the dishes. John and Tom, the two oldest, threw their jackets on and headed out the door.
Annie finished clearing the table. Mark, who was 14 and not yet old enough to be brought in on all that John and Tom got into, followed his sister into the kitchen.
"You know what?" her brother, Mark, asked, leaning against the sink.
"Dad's not going to get a Christmas tree."
"How do you know?" Annie asked as she filled the sink with hot, soapy water.
"I heard him talking on the phone the other day. He said he's working late shifts all this week, and Saturday is Christmas. No tree."
Annie turned and looked at the water. Her eyes began to fill with tears. How her mother loved decorating the tree, how she tenderly unwrapped each precious ornament saved from her own childhood. Delicate mercury glass balls, celluloid reindeer, flocked Santas.
"Come with me," Mark said.
"Get Sam and Lisa. We're going tree shopping."
Annie got her little brother and sister bundled in their snowsuits and threw on her own coat and hat.
Annie followed Mark with two small, mittened hands in hers. They turned down the path leading to the town park. It was pitch dark out, and she had trouble making out her brother's silhouette ahead of her. His boots broke trail for them as they trudged in the snow. She almost bumped into him as he stopped short in front of her.
"What are you doing?" she whispered, feeling like they were doing something wrong.
Mark took a long-handled axe out from under his coat. Annie's eyes grew wide. "Mark, what are you going to do?"
"I'm getting us a Christmas tree," he said. "Step back, and keep those two out of the way."
Annie ushered Sam and Lisa away from their brother's arc as the axe came up and made the first contact with the trunk. He worked for what seemed like an hour. It wasn't a very sharp blade. But finally, he gave one more chop and the tree toppled over.
Mark looked up at Annie with a huge grin.
"Help me carry it. I'll take the stump; you carry it at the top."
The pair managed to get a hold of the tree and turn in the direction of home. Sam and Lisa were excitedly clapping their hands together, making a muffled sound with snow-covered mittens. Mark shushed them.
"You guys have to stay quiet," he said in a whisper. "This is a secret. You can never tell anyone."
The tree was longer and heavier than they'd thought it was when it was standing. Annie had to stop a couple of times to rest her arm, but they managed to get to the house.
After some trimming off both top and bottom, Mark brought the contraband tree into the living room. It stood from floor to ceiling.
"That's huge," Annie said.
"It's great, isn't it?" Mark said, holding it so it wouldn't topple.
"Just wait 'til Dad gets home," Annie said, sounding unsure of the whole plan.
"I'll get the ornaments down from the attic. We can decorate it and have it all ready," Mark said.
He leaned the tree against the wall and headed to the attic. When he returned, he had the box that contained the essence of Christmas with their mother. They strung the lights and unwrapped each ornament, telling the stories they knew accompanied them as they best remembered. Sam and Lisa helped with the lower branches, hanging ornaments that wouldn't break. When everything had been hung, Annie stood back and admired the work.
"It's perfect," she said.
Actually, it wasn't. Not being a cultured tree, it sported huge bare spots and brown branches, but Annie seemed blind to its imperfections. To have gone from the promise of no tree to making Christmas complete with this one was all that mattered in her heart.
They turned off the living-room lights and basked in the glow of tree bulbs. The door opened just then. Annie had no idea it was so late. Their father walked in and looked at them, his mouth agape.
"What the? How the?"
"Surprise!" they yelled.
"We got a tree," Lisa said, tugging on her father's sleeve.
"I can see that," he said. "Where did it come from?"
"It's a surprise," Annie said.
It certainly was, he assured her.
He hadn't had time to remove his coat when there was a knock on the door.
"Now who can that be at this time of night?" Daniel said, opening the door to a police officer who filled the doorway. "Can I help you?"
"Are you the owner of this house, sir?"
"I am. Why? What's happened?"
"Sir, there seems to have been an incident at the town park involving a tree. I followed a trail of pine needles here."
The officer gestured outside, where the top and bottom of the tree lay in a pile of snow. He turned back.
Daniel looked at his kids. Annie looked up, sheepish. Mark stood with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, his head bowed.
The officer took a step into the living room and saw the decorated tree. He then looked at Annie for what seemed like a very long time. The stern look on his face began to soften, just a little, and his eyes were moist. He turned to Annie's father.
"I'm just checking to make sure everything is all right. You never know these days," he said.
He turned to Annie. "You have a very, merry Christmas, Darlin'."
He tipped his hat to her, turned and left the house.
"What just happened?" Daniel asked his daughter.
"I think we just had a little Christmas magic," Annie whispered.
Over the years, Annie had thought a lot about that night and that tree. She thought about it every time she ran out to the park and saw the crudely cut stump left in its place. She thought about it when she put up her first tree in her first apartment. And she thought about the man who would be Santa to her father that night.
And here she stood, 40 years later, looking at the general spot where that tree had once stood, had once been felled and had now been replaced.
Noticing a tag on the trunk, about eye level, Annie moved a few steps in. At first, she thought the bronze disc looked like a trail marker.
But as she took the tag between her fingers, she could read the inscription: "For Darlin'."
"What are you looking at, Mommy?" Hannah said as she ran up beside her.
"Darlin'," she said, turning to her daughter. "It's Darlin.'"