Ava and Eddie Creger met in high school, where Eddie was a star football player. From their first football party date, the two were inseparable.
“We were so close,” Ava said. “People said we did too much together, but that’s just how we were. We grew up in that age where we married young and grew up together. We never had independence from each other, so it was just what it was.”
Ava graduated from Rural Retreat High School in 1973; Eddie followed the next year.
“I went to Tech for one year, and decided I would rather be married than go to school,” she said.
So, Ava and Eddie married and settled in Rural Retreat, where they raised two daughters, Julie, a pharmacist, and Kelly Ann, a registered nurse.
Over the years, Eddie worked at Pepsi, the Radford Armory and at MTC in Wytheville. Ava, an artist, taught art and scrapbooking classes.
He was born in the mountains, but Eddie loved the ocean. Every year, he and Ava looked forward to their annual beach trip to Cherry Grove, South Carolina. They so enjoyed the sound of the crashing waves that they often carried blankets out onto the deck, snuggled into chairs and fell asleep to the Atlantic lullaby.
Several years ago, Eddie’s health began to decline but he and Ava still visited the beach every fall, along with family members. They always stayed at the same hotel, The Blockade Runner, and rented the same rooms. Every year, Ava saved sand and shells to use in various art projects.
Last year, Eddie still wanted to visit Cherry Grove, despite his failing health.
“When we left from there that day, he was looking out the door on the balcony and he was really blue,” Ava said. “I said, “Honey, it’s all right. We’ll be back next year.’”
“I don’t know,” Eddie replied.
That night, back home in Rural Retreat, Eddie suffered a massive stroke. He died 12 hours later.
His death was a staggering blow to Ava, who felt adrift without her anchor of 43 years.
“I was so unbelievably lost without him,” Ava said. “I could not let go of him.”
Friends and family tried to help her come to grips with the fact that Eddie was gone and Ava needed to move on, for her sake.
“In my mind, I knew he was dead, that he is in heaven and that he is all right, but I could never accept the fact that I couldn’t see him again,” she said.
In July, Eddie’s family asked her if she was up for the annual family beach trip, or if it would be too painful. Ava wanted to go.
“When we were making plans to go, I was lying in bed thinking about it,” Ava said. “We had the wine bottle from our oldest daughter’s wedding. I thought, I’m going to write a letter to him and put a picture and tiny shell in there and put it in the ocean.”
The next morning, she was on Pinterest learning how to seal a bottle so that it won’t sink.
“You take a new cork and dip it in melted wax and push it into the bottle, hammer it in as far as it will go,” she said. “Then dip the neck in cork into wax until it’s about a quarter-of-an-inch thick.”
Ava thought if she was ever going to let go of her grief, the best place would be Eddie’s favorite place, where he spent his last day. Confirmation soon came in the form of a nickel.
“My daddy always said he would leave us dimes and after he died; every time we turned around we found dimes. It’s been 17 years, and we are still finding dimes,” Ava said.
Not wanting to confuse his wife, Eddie told her he’d leave her nickels.
“A week before the beach trip, I had a dream,” Ava said. “He (Eddie) came to me and said, ‘I’m doing great, I’m in no pain, but you are keeping my spirit here. You have to let me go.’ When I woke up the next morning, there was a nickel on my pillow.”
So, on Sept. 23, Ava traveled to Cherry Grove, carrying the bottle with a letter, photo, sand and seashell inside.
“In honor of Walter Edward Creger,” the letter began and continued as Ava wrote about her love for Eddie, her grief and his last day at the beach. “If you find this bottle, please let me know! I will know that my love helped get it to you…. God speed my love, your endearing wife, Ava.”
Two days later, Ava’s brother-in-law went deep sea fishing and launched the bottle in the ocean.
“I was not on the boat,” Ava said. “I didn’t go out and really didn’t want to see the bottle go. I never dreamed it would be found, but I needed to let go of that bottle and the letter to him.”
Hurricane Florence had just rumbled through the Atlantic, so the waters were rough. The boat captain said the strong currents would probably pull the bottle out to sea and it could be a year or more before it reached shore somewhere.
He was wrong.
Three days later, on Sept. 28, Nancy Williamson was walking along Holden Beach, North Carolina, like she does nearly every day. As part of her routine, she collects trash along the shore, about 30 miles north of Cherry Grove. When she bent down to collect a blue cigarette lighter, a blob of wax caught her eye among the seaweed and sand.
“I saw the top part of the bottle sticking out of the sand, and I immediately thought what is this? When I looked at it I could see there was a piece of paper in there,” Williamson said. “I was standing there in awe. I have never in my life found anything like that, and I’m 70 years old and have lived here all of my life. I’ve found a few sand dollars, but nothing like this.”
Williamson couldn’t wait to get home and open the bottle.
The first thing she saw was the letter, then a photo of Eddie, some sand from Cherry Grove and the seashell.
“It was just the sweetest letter … it was a love letter,” Williamson said. “It was amazing; it just touched my heart.”
Ava left her email on the letter, and Williamson soon answered.
“I am so happy she (Ava) replied to me,” Williamson said. “I shared my story with her. I lost my husband, too, after almost 48 years. It was a connection we had.”
And still have. The two women have become friends, corresponding via phone call, text or message every day since Williamson found the bottle. They hope to meet each other one day. Williamson plans to put her treasure in a shadow box for Ava.
“We have contact with each other every day if it is nothing but to say have a blessed day,” Williamson said. “I just want to give her a great big hug.”
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.