“Ancient Oaks”

There is a picture of me. I am twenty-five. I don’t know where this picture is now, packed away after moving, but I remember everything about it. I have just run into your arms and wrapped my legs around your waist. We are celebrating being the proud owners of forty acres and a small cabin in Jacksonville, Oregon. I believe we sense the sanctuary the land will offer us as we start a family and build a future surrounded by Doug fir, pine, madrone, and live oak.

There is another picture, taken thirty-three years later. I’m with our three grown children, close and beaming toward the camera you hold. So much had happened. So many picnics on our meadow. So many Christmas trees taken from the woods. I’d worked as a nurse, and you had built houses. When a fire burned our cabin you built us a yellow farmhouse, set near the apple orchard you’d planted our first year on the land. You used to hold the ladder when our children climbed to pick apples, and later, I taught them how to make applesauce. Here, in this picture, I’m holding my degree, an MFA in writing, and I believe I’m about to become a real writer. I hum with what is yet ahead. I used to write when our kids took their naps, and had a poem published the year our third child was born, right before the fire. As a young girl I’d written poems and made up songs to comfort myself every time my dad got transferred. From Chicago to Independence, Missouri, to Flint, Michigan, and out to Thousand Oaks, California. But here I am, holding my degree, seeing my future self. Maybe it was all still possible.

There is a line in Jane Austen’s book, Persuasion, about the suddenness of before and after. This is before: A few years passed. I had a chapbook accepted and published. The book arrived, front cover painted by our youngest daughter, black and white photo she took of me, happy, on the back. I’d gained the confidence I needed to apply for a teaching job at the community college. Then there was the swift fall of after. It began with a seizure. We were driving back to our oldest daughter’s house after our son’s wedding, our younger daughter in the back seat. She saved us when she said your name and pulled up the emergency brake. Then I became a nurse again, directing traffic, telling the ambulance people what to do. You still have seizures and they leave us both dazed and spent. Your brain cancer has taken part of you away. We don’t know how much time we have. Now I write when you sleep, mid-day, a new northern light slanting into the room. I’m trying to write my way back to the vision of who I believed I could become in the before.

I ask myself: Am I a real writer yet?

The writing pulls me, fragile as a thread, as I work my way, imagining, into the new world. Someday I might write about the apple orchard, or the stand of firs sweeping up the edge of our meadow, though both are long gone, lingering in memory. You don’t climb ladders or build houses anymore. Our new neighborhood in Portland is full of dogwood and rhododendron, the forest distant, darkening the hills. I keep writing and have had some work published, a poem and a short story, but it doesn’t feel the same as it used to. And so I began to write this, to write about you and me. It might bring the missing pieces of you back to me. I hold onto this rope of faith. I hold onto my end because I have to. I hold on, believing the other end is tied to an ancient oak. As I pull myself toward its strength I trust it has the power to save me, or simply lead me into tomorrow.


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About Mary Salisbury

Mary Salisbury, an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship recipient, graduated from the MFA program at Pacific University. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Come What May, in 2014. Salisbury’s poetry also appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Calyx. A finalist for the Orlando Poetry Prize, she is currently working on a poetry collection and also writes fiction. Her short fiction will be published in the 2018 edition of Cutthroat’s Truth to Power. Salisbury's short fiction has won Honorable Mention by Glimmer Train in 2016, and was named a finalist for the Rick DeMarinis story award this year. Salisbury has recently completed a story collection. This essay was inspired by a prompt in a writing group led by the writer, Katey Scultz.