A&E Columns

This must be the place: Ode to Anna Marie, ode to the kids of Smith Street (and beyond)

The North Country is well known for its backroads. Garret K. Woodward photo The North Country is well known for its backroads. Garret K. Woodward photo

Stepping outside the small log cabin, I took a moment to collect my thoughts. Vast farm fields and ancient dirt in the rural countryside outside of Goldsboro, the cool air of an impending fall was felt with a sense of relief in a place where heat and humidity reign supreme. 

The home was owned by my girlfriend’s father. He had been gravely ill for a while now. At 68, his iron will was what was keeping him alive in this ongoing bout with brain cancer. Numerous surgeries with hope quickly fleeting. The house was heavy with sadness, my girlfriend, Sarah, a ball of tears, emotions and memories. 

Pulling out my phone on the back porch, I scrolled Facebook for a hot minute and came across a sorrowful post on the newsfeed. A lifelong friend from my hometown had passed away after an aggressive battle with brain cancer. Anna Marie. At just 40, she left behind two children and a devoted husband who was her high school sweetheart. A small community now at a loss for words. 

My heart sank into my stomach. I was well aware she was sick. And I knew it wasn’t looking good. But, in my heart-of-hearts, I figured if anyone could push through and overcome such an enormous, daunting obstacle, it would be Anna — she was just that ideal mixture of courage and conviction. 

Soon, social media was abuzz with countless tributes and remembrances of Anna. Posts from names and faces that I hadn’t seen since high school graduation some 20 years ago, of parents of friends I’d had as fixtures in my life since I emerged from the womb. The tiny Canadian Border town of Rouses Point, New York, mourning one of its finest.

As one’s mind undoubtedly does in these instances, mine flooded with a stream of thoughts and memories. Anna was a genuine, beautiful soul. Her kindness knew no bounds. An incredible teacher and cherished community member. Fond memories of us Rouses Point kids growing up on Smith Street, Mountain View Drive and Lakeside Avenue. 

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To note, Anna’s younger brother, Bryce, is one of my oldest friends. And though our paths may only cross every so often at a wedding or holiday get-together back home in the North Country, the channels of communication remain open between all of us RP boys, now men scattered about the country — North Carolina to California, Illinois to Arizona.

Those long gone days of riding bicycles between backyards to each other’s houses, swimming in nearby Lake Champlain in the summer, ice skating the same body of water come winter, onwards to teenage mischief of basement parties, out-of-town concerts and over-the-border shenanigans in Quebec.

I called my mother and informed her of Anna’s passing. She spoke of how much she adored Anna, how she was her favorite student when my mom taught her in first grade at Rouses Point Elementary School. And how proud she was when Anna became an educator, eventually teaching in the same classrooms of her youth — instructing hundreds of students, some of whom being the children of her former classmates.

Bidding adieu to my mom, I headed back into the log cabin. Sarah was sitting next to her father, who was laying in a hospital bed newly installed in the living room. Regardless of the current diagnosis, his spirit remained high. I looked at Sarah and admired her strength in this harsh crossroads of her life, which had also included losing her mother and grandmother in the last year. 

On the return drive to Waynesville from Goldsboro, I received a message from another childhood friend, Pete. He’s one of the old-school RP crew along with myself, Bryce, Kyle, Sean, Ryan and Lance, amongst a handful of other cronies. Pete’s getting married later this month on Long Island. He wanted to know if I was still planning on attending the celebration — “Of course, my brother. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Put me down for two. Y’all will love Sarah.”

With Sarah napping in the passenger’s seat along the five-hour or so trek back to Haywood County, I kept getting lost in thought, the fading sun falling behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. Headlights and taillights to destinations unknown. All of these people in all of their respective lives, each doing whatever they can to survive — day-to-day, year-to-year, come hell or high water.

I thought about Anna. It’s a tragedy to see such a bright light extinguished so early in life. Wondering about her young family and what the future may hold for each of them. My mind soon turned to Bryce and how deeply I’ll embrace him with a hug at Pete’s wedding — a joyous celebration for all involved, every one of us holding tightly to memories of our youth, of RP and of our friend lost too soon in this sometimes cruel realm that is existence.

Visions of that town up on the border. It’s a lot quieter now than when we were all runnin’ round. Companies have left town, so have many of us. Several of our parents still reside up there, and we visit from time-to-time. No matter, the aging structures and cracked pavement hold the secrets of a place close to the heart of those who wander beyond the horizon.

Those hallowed grounds of youth and adolescence and its remaining inhabitants, whether above or below the ground, are the foundation by which we conduct ourselves and pursue our dreams with a reckless abandon — for there is no other way to go but forward. 

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1 comment

  • As someone who also grew up in the North Country (Carthage/Watertown), I can still see the world as it was. A few school friends tell me how it is today. I tried to appreciate the area as it was since the army base was always altering the landscape. Nothing could coax me to go back, though. I am quite happy settled here on the lands of the EBCI. Mountain views and elk out the front door with a river, birds and raccoons out the back...

    posted by Karen Noftsier

    Sunday, 10/29/2023

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