How an Oak Helped Me into the World
When I was six, I met my first oak. I was a shy child, having grown up on a small farm in central Illinois. When I entered first grade, I had little experience being away from my mother, grandmothers, and little sister Judy. I was not used to the social rigors of being with a group of kids my own age. Our socialization to that point consisted of playing tag with several boys in the cemetary after Sunday School.
My grandfather died within days of my first day of school, and my mother and grandmother became mysteriously withdrawn. One day early on Mrs. Waddell, my teacher, told me my mother left a message that she could not pick me up as planned and to ride the bus. I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me, and I cried and cried. When kids asked me what was wrong, I told them that my uncle had died. I was embarrassed to say how much I had counted on my mother getting me.
There were other challenges as well. Kids were punished with spankings. I feared doing anything that would get me disciplined. Once my friend Penny broke a light in the basement by jumping rope with a string of beads that she and I had just strung. When Mrs. Waddell spanked Penny, I cried in guilt and terror. Mrs. Waddell stood by, bewildered.
I had trouble making friends. Some of my classmates were cousins and rode the bus home together. Others knew each other before. I didn’t know how to break into these groups. So when I found the young oak just outside the south bank of windows of our first grade room, I delighted in collecting acorns.
Our own yard at home had an ash and a box elder, a birch and a cottonwood, but we did not have an oak. I spent recesses that fall under the tree picking up the night’s droppings. Steve from our church, who was much older, teased me as I took off their little hats and then replaced them. Otherwise I remember being alone with the slender young tree.
Although, in my child’s mind, it seems I spent the year in this activity, it couldn’t have been more than a month, and probably much less. Oaks drop acorns for only a few weeks, just before their leaves turn brilliant crimson. Before long I was playing soft ball or on the merry-go-round with others.
This August, 62 years later, I returned for my 50th high school reunion to discover the one-room school house was gone, but the tree remained. Of course, it is larger, but surprisingly, not that much. Oaks grow slowly.
But it is still the first oak I have known. There have been many others since which have been important to me.Today I support efforts to re-oak Napa Valley by collecting acorns and as well as legislation to protect the lovely oak savannas that are still here. Perhaps I am playing it forward to these majestic trees, in gratitude to that one in particular, who so many years ago helped me make a difficult transition into the world.