Old Oaks from Little Acorns Grow


It’s going to be a good year at least for the squirrels. The oaks have weathered a difficult year, thrived even, and the forest trails pose a greater than usual risk of a twisted ankle, what with the bank to bank blanket of green, gold and black acorns. Helmet warnings perhaps should be issued to forest hikers.

We had friends over for a hike this weekend, average age: 60. Elevation change: 100 feet. Injuries sustained: one re-twisted ankle sprain that responded well to ice, elevation and chardonnay. Average years married for three couples: 38 years.

I spent more than a few hours over the past week reading some 50 letters to myself. Handwritten back before I abandoned legible penmanship, she handed them to me in a shoe box. I’d sent them from 5216 Clairmont Avenue, Birmingham, to my future wife in Biloxi in the college summers apart: 1968 and 1969.

After all these years under the same roof, I had not known before that they existed. Learning of them in a rare moment of mutual disclosure, I grasped at this chance for an archeological dig, brush and tiny light in hand. In the words and the spaces between them where there traces of foundations where roots once grew? Where below the sediment of years were our gnarled beginnings?

It is a good thing when we are young that we don’t know what the future will bring. Perhaps it never stays–the naive hope that love will consume, last, be enough; that it will weather other suitors we can never dream of so young: children, jobs, bills, old ghosts and the usual disfigurements our untested expectations inevitably suffer.

The last letter to her was scribbled in a panic: I’d just learned the path and strength of Hurricane Camille. Ann’s house on Biloxi Bay was dead center of the worst hurricane on record. The lines were out. I did not get a letter or a phone call for three weeks. I assumed my fiancee had been swept to sea. Sometimes I think I was.

Rest. Ice. Elevation. Compression. If all soft tissue injuries were only so easy to heal.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Nice notes, Fred. I too have a folder of handwritten letters from my husband-to-be when he’d moved back to Maine from his 2-year sojourn to California, where we had met each other. His kids needed him closer to them, & I agreed.
    His ‘memory’ says I was more in love than he; the letters prove we were both besotted. After 27 years of marriage, I’m waiting for the right time to spring those letters on him. Valentine’s Day? Our next anniversary? His birthday in a few weeks?

  2. hmmm… so much stirring under the surface of these words…. a haunting prose.

    my husband and i just celebrated our 7th year of marriage. i tell everyone that that’s equal to about 20 ‘Hollywood’ years. 🙂 but we have already had our share of going to the ‘hard’ places , unmet expectations, doubt, etc.

    my mom sent me a quote once that said something about love not being gazing into each other’s eyes longingly, but gazing outward together, side by side. and i think there is wisdom in that…

  3. Fred, you have an amazing capacity to express deep emotion with words. I have re-read this entry several times to examine what has attracted me. It is certainly the photograph since I consider myself to be a visual person, but it is also the invitation to remember. This coming January, my wife and I will be married for 40 years and I will turn 60 the next month. Colleagues had great fun last February when they celebrated my 60th a year early. The joke has given a year-long opportunity to remember the past and envision the future. The letters I wrote to Judy before we were married are long gone. They had been saved for many years until an overly-zealous recycler took the box in which they were stored. The memories are not gone however. I especially appreciate the latter portion and the reflection on soft tissue injuries. Thanks.