Sarah Bartow couldn't believe she was back home.
During the five-hour drive to Summer Lake from New York City, she'd felt her stomach tighten down more and more with each mile she covered, each county line she crossed. She'd parked in front of Lakeside Stitch & Knit on Main Street five minutes ago, but she hadn't yet been able to get out of the car. Instead, she sat with her hands tightly clenched on the steering wheel as she watched mothers pushing strollers, shoppers moving in and out of stores, and happy tourists walking hand in hand.
The warm days of summer had already given way to a crisp, cool fall, and the thick green trees around the waterline were transformed into a dazzling display of reds and oranges and yellows. Everyone looked happy, content. Summer Lake was picture perfect: The sky was blue, the lake sparkled in the sunlight, and the white paint on the gazebo in the waterfront park looked new.
But Sarah had never quite fit into picture perfect. Especially now that she was here for her job. Which meant it was time to unclench her chest, untangle the knots in her stomach, and get down to business.
Pushing open her car door, she grabbed her briefcase and headed toward her family's store. The Lakeside Stitch & Knit awning was bright and welcoming, and the Adirondack chairs out front welcomed knitters to sit for as long as they had time to spare.
She smiled her first real smile of the day, thinking of how much love and care her grandmother and mother had put into this store over the years.
The shiny knob on the front door was cool beneath her palm, and she paused to take a deep breath and pull herself together. Entering a building that had been her second home as a little girl shouldn't have her heart racing.
But it did.
As she opened the door, the smell of yarn hit her first. Wool and alpaca, bamboo and silk, cotton and acrylic all had specific scents. Although she hadn't knitted in almost two decades, the essence of the skeins lining the walls, in baskets on the floor, knitted up into samples, had remained imprinted in her brain.
She hadn't come back to play with yarn, but as she instinctively ran her hands over a soft silk-wool blend, thoughts of business receded. The beautiful blue-green, with hints of reds and oranges wound deep into the fibers, reminded her of the lake and mountains on a fall day like today.
From out of nowhere, Sarah was struck by a vision of a lacy shawl draped across a woman's shoulders. Her shoulders...and there was a man wrapping it around her shoulders. A man who looked just like--
"Sarah, what a lovely surprise!"
Sarah jumped at her grandmother's sudden greeting, dropping the yarn as though she were a thief who'd been about to stuff it into her bag and dash out the door.
Her grandmother's arms enveloped her. At barely five feet, Olive was eight inches shorter than Sarah. She had always felt like a giant around the tiny women in her family. And yet it never ceased to surprise her how strong her grandmother's arms were. Warm too. They were always so warm. So loving.
"Your father's commemoration isn't until next weekend. We didn't expect you to come home a week early."
Sarah forced a smile she didn't even come close to feeling. Lord knew, she'd certainly had enough practice in pre
tending. In the year since her father's sudden death, she'd been going into the office every day with that same smile on her face, working double-time to make sure her work didn't suffer in the wake of her grief.
But it had. Which was how she'd found herself about to lose her biggest client a week ago.
The Klein Group wanted to build condominiums in the perfect vacation town. They had shot down every single one of her proposals--Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Cape Cod. Her boss, Craig, had been frowning at her the same way for three months, as though he didn't think she could hack it anymore, and as panic shook her, Sarah's mind had gone completely blank. That was when her phone had jumped on the table in front of her, a picture of Summer Lake popping up along with a message from her mother.
It's beautiful here today. Makes me think of you.
Before she knew it, Sarah was saying, "I have the perfect spot."
No pitch had ever been easier: The condos would have a spectacular view. There was an excellent golf course close by. And best of all, their clients would be only hours away from New York City, close enough to take a break from the stress of their real lives but far enough removed to get away from it all. It didn't hurt that movie star Smith Sullivan had just had his surprise wedding at Summer Lake. Based on what her mother had told her, Sarah was pretty certain that Rosa Bouchard--famous from the years she'd spent growing up on reality TV--and her boyfriend, Drake Sullivan, had just moved part-time to the lake too.
Sarah couldn't imagine ever leaving the city, but that didn't mean she didn't see how magical Summer Lake could be. The Klein Group had agreed.
The previous Wednesday, she had been ecstatic about her win at work. But now that she was back in her hometown, all she could think was, What have I done?
Soon enough, her grandmother would know why she was back. Sarah's chest tightened again at the thought of the disappointment she might see on her grandmother's face. The dismay that she might have to face from everyone she knew in town. At least until she could make them see that the condominium plan wasn't actually going to hurt the small lake town they loved so much.
"It's so good to see you, Grandma. You don't know how good." She wrapped her arms tighter before finally making herself draw away. "Is Mom working with you today?"
"Denise had some errands to run in Saratoga Springs and won't be back until late tonight. Will you be able to spend the night before heading back to the city? I know how much your mother would love to see you."
Sarah knew that was a huge understatement. Her mother would be heartbroken if her daughter came and went without seeing her, but Olive had never believed in guilt. She had never once pressured Sarah into coming home more often or sticking around for longer on the rare occasions when she did visit. When Sarah heard her coworkers talk about how their families were forever pressuring them to move back to their hometowns, she was glad her own family was so hands-off with her. They respected her goals and plans too much to ever bombard her with hints that they missed her.
She knew she was lucky to be so free. And yet, sometimes a secret little part of her wished they would fight just a little harder to keep her around.
"I'll probably be here a week. Maybe two." And then she would leave again, returning to the city life she had chosen as soon as she'd graduated from high school. "It's a bit of a working vacation actually."
"Two weeks?" Olive looked like she'd won the lottery. "What a treat to have you here, especially when we're having such a beautiful fall."
As a sharp pang of guilt at not seeing more of her family settled in beneath Sarah's breastbone, she followed her grandmother's gaze out the store's large front windows to the lake beyond the Adirondack chairs on the porch. "Fall was always my favorite time of year here."
Her career as a management consultant in New York City meant she had barely been back for more than a weekend, even over holidays. Growing up watching her father do such great things for so many people as a New York senator had fueled her to want to follow in his footsteps--not as a politician, but as someone who worked hard, cared deeply, and felt joy at a job well done. After graduating from Cornell University with an undergraduate degree in economics and then an MBA, she'd chosen Marks & Banks carefully based on their commitment to the environment and the fact that they did more pro bono work than any other consulting company.
Her father had always encouraged her to reach for the brass ring, and even if some nights she fell onto her bed fully clothed and woke up the next morning with mascara smudged around her eyes and her stomach empty and grumbling, that was exactly what she'd done for the past ten years.
Pulling her gaze away from the sparkling lake, she turned back to look at the store. "The place looks great, Grandma."
Olive frowned as she scanned the shelves. "I just don't know about the changes your mother made."
Considering that her grandmother hated to move even a couple of skeins of yarn from one side of the store to the other had Sarah second-guessing her project for the Klein Group yet again. Why couldn't she have blurted out the name of any other Adirondack town? Still, she was glad for her grandmother's unintended warning to tread carefully. The condos were bound to be more change than this town had seen in fifty years at least.
"Actually, I think the changes help liven up the place." And then, more gently, "It's still your shop, Grandma. Just a bit shinier now for the new generation of knitters."
"That's exactly what your mother said. Two against one."
Sarah didn't want her grandmother to think they were ganging up on her. Just as she would have approached a potentially disgruntled client, she took another tack. "What have your customers said?"
"They love it."
Sarah had to laugh at the grudging words. "Good."
"Well, since you're going to be home for so long, I'll be expecting you to finally pick up the needles again," her grandmother shot back.
"We both know that isn't going to happen."
"You used to love to knit when you were a little girl. I'm telling you, it's not natural to quit knitting one day and not miss it."
"Are you calling me a freak of nature?" Sarah teased. Only, way down deep inside, not belonging didn't feel like a joke. Instead, it felt like a reality that she'd tried to pretend hadn't hurt all her life.
Her grandmother picked up a few balls of yarn that were in the wrong basket. "I'm saying I think you must miss it." She looked thoughtful. "Perhaps it's simply that you haven't found the right reason to start knitting in earnest yet."
"I just don't like knitting, Grandma. Not like you and Mom do."
"You know, my mother tried to get me to knit for years before I really fell in love with it."
"You're kidding me." Sarah assumed her grandmother had been born with knitting needles in her hands. "What changed?"
Olive sat on one of the soft couches in the middle of the room. "I met a man."
"No. Not Grandpa."
Sarah's eyes went wide with surprise as she sank down beside her grandmother, who had already reached into a basket next to her seat, pulled out a half-finished work in progress and begun a new row.
"Everyone was doing their part for World War II. I wanted to help the soldiers, and I was always good with knitting needles. I knew our socks and sweaters were giving joy and comfort to men, strangers I'd never meet, but who desperately needed a reminder of softness. Of warmth."
Sarah thought about the tiny caps and booties her grandmother had always made for the new babies at the hospital. Sarah had made them too, when she was a little girl. She'd loved seeing a little baby at the park wearing something she had made.
"So it wasn't just one man who made you love knitting," Sarah said, trying to keep up with her grandmother, "but many?"
"I knit for the cause, but that's all it was--a cause. It wasn't personal. Not until him. Not until I made his sweater." Olive's eyes rose to meet Sarah's. "Every skein tells a story. As soon as a person puts it in their two hands, the mystery of
the story is slowly revealed." Sarah's breath caught in her throat as her grandmother said, "Hold this, honey." Since she didn't know how to knit anymore, Sarah laid the needles down awkwardly on her lap. "Those fibers you're holding can become anything, from a baby blanket to a bride's wedding veil," Olive said softly. "But I've always thought knitting is about so much more than the things we make. Sometimes yarn is the best way to hold on to memories. And sometimes... Sometimes it's the only way to forget."
Sarah found herself blinking back tears. This was exactly why she never wanted to come back to the lake. There were too many memories here for her. Memories of people who had meant so much to her. The walls of the store suddenly felt too close, the room too small. She needed to leave, needed to go someplace where she could focus on work and nothing else.
"I need to go," she said as she stood abruptly, the needles and yarn falling from her lap to the floor before she could catch them.
Frowning, her grandmother bent to pick them up, but was suddenly racked with coughs. Fear lancing her heart, Sarah put an arm around her and gently rubbed her back.
"Why didn't you tell me you were sick?"
Her grandmother tried to say, "I'm fine," but each word was punctuated by more coughing.
Olive Hewitt was a small-boned eighty-eight-year-old woman, but Sarah had never thought of her grandmother as frail or fragile. Until now. As her grandmother tried to regain her breath, Sarah suddenly saw how translucent her skin had become. Olive's hands had always been so strong, so tireless as she knitted sweaters and blankets, the needles a blur as she chatted, laughed, and gossiped with customers and friends in Lakeside Stitch & Knit.
"You shouldn't come to work if you have a cold. You should be resting."
Mostly recovered now, her grandmother waved one hand in the air. "I told you, I'm fine. Just a little coughing fit every now and then." At Sarah's disbelieving look, she said, "Things like that happen to us old people, you know."
Sarah hated to hear her grandmother refer to herself as old, even though she knew it was technically true. It was just that she couldn't bear to think that one day Olive wouldn't be here, living and breathing this store, the yarn, the customers who loved her as much as her own family did.
"Have you seen Dr. Morris?" she asked, immediately reading the answer in her grandmother's face. Sometimes she was too stubborn for her own good. Grabbing the cordless phone, she handed it to her grandmother. "Call him."