chatting with ghosts
a visit to E.B. White’s farm

IMG_9597Have you ever wondered by what mysterious alchemy a whim becomes a wish, and a wish a reality?

I’m pretty sure it requires some combination of love and pure intention to transform an idle fantasy into an actual event. Oftentimes, a spirit of adventure is necessary, too. Oh, and a willingness to envision – even if the vision itself seems far off and far-fetched.

This is a tale of a daydream that actually did come true, a road-trip story that had its beginnings in the pages of a cherished book and then slipped right out of fiction and into real life. Sometimes, the stars line up.  Sometimes, all the puzzle pieces fall into place.  And sometimes “real life” feels, if only for a day, graced by a touch of magic.  Want to come along?

charlottes-web-bookBecause I became a surrogate mom to a daughter late in life (a tale with its own magic, which I tell here), the two of us had some catching up to do as we got to know each other. It didn’t surprise me, though, to learn that Lauren and I shared a love of E.B. White in general, and of Charlotte’s Web in particular. Having adored White’s enduring classic as a child, Lauren eagerly introduced her two young nieces to Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte as soon as they were old enough to listen. Having felt the same, I shared with her that I’d read Charlotte’s Web to my own boys, not just once but many times over the years, eventually relinquishing the final chapters first to Henry, and later to Jack, to read out loud, so they wouldn’t have to listen to me trying to speak through my tears.

Charlotte’s Web may masquerade as a children’s book, but it is really one of the most profound and tender portraits of a friendship ever written – timeless, ageless, full of light and shadow, humor and deeply felt emotion, oddly endearing details and unforgettable characters, both human and animal.

It is also, for me, a touchstone, a reminder of what it is to write simply and well, to observe all beings with compassion, to honor life’s impermanence, its fleeting beauty, its enchanting and engrossing twists and turns. And, too, this cherished book is a reminder that love can become sadness, that even the most special friendships end, but that the pain of that loss is always worth enduring in exchange for the rare gift of being seen and known and cared about for a time.

IMG_9555 (1)So when Lauren wrote me last fall to ask if I’d be game for a trip to E.B. White’s saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine, I didn’t hesitate before saying “yes” – a yes which set all manner of things in motion.

Lauren tracked down the current owners of the farm, Bob and Mary G., who purchased the property just after White’s death in 1985. White was a notoriously private man, and his former house has always been and still is a private home, not a tourist destination. And yet, this kind couple have inhabited their special place for over 35 summers, with a deep respect for its gentle ghosts and its singular history. Changing and updating only what needed to change, they have also lovingly preserved whatever could be saved, a way of honoring both E.B. and Katharine White and much of the character of their beloved homestead.

Fortunately, Bob and Mary also understand that for some of White’s most devoted readers, the hunger for pilgrimage runs deep. With quiet hospitality, they do their best to accommodate those who feel compelled to make the long journey to Brooklin, if only to breathe in the salt air and to see for ourselves the venerable old barn that inspired the book we hold most dear in our hearts.

Over the course of many months, Lauren initiated a correspondence with Mary, arrived at a suitable summer date for the two of us to visit, found us rooms at an Airbnb down the road, and bought herself a plane ticket north. And so it was that the long-awaited day arrived at last. We set out early in the morning from my house in New Hampshire, carrying clothes for all weather, coolers packed with food, provisions for the road, walking shoes and some art supplies.

unspecified-1First stop: my parents’ house on Bailey Island. For a girl born and bred in Connecticut and transplanted south to Atlanta right after college, a first trip to the coast of Maine was pretty exciting in itself. And I loved seeing this old family place I know and love through the delighted eyes of a newcomer. As the mother of sons, it’s quite a treat for me to have the company of a daughter, especially a young woman who appreciates my motherly ways and my skills with a lobster cracker.

unspecified-3We unpacked the car and struck out on foot, soaking up the sun and working up an appetite for dinner – lobster salad and champagne, to celebrate our togetherness, the beginning of our adventure, and the singular beauty of a July afternoon in Maine.  The sunset that first night was perfect.  We sat at the table for hours, talking, watching day turn to night, marveling at the fact that we, who had found each other through, as Lauren says, “the power of the pen,” were finally here, doing this thing we’d each dreamed about almost forever.

IMG_9630Early the next morning we were on our way further downeast, which is to say north on Route 1, the very route E.B. White himself used to travel from his desk at the New Yorker to his beloved rural retreat. Seeing the landscape unfurl before us — the fields rolling down to the sea, the old white farmhouses hunkered down into the earth, the yards bedecked by country-fair-worthy zinnias and bright flags of drying laundry flapping in the wind — I could fully identify with White’s irrepressible desire to flee their hot, dry rented rooms on the Upper East Side and relocate to the rambling old house with a barn attached that he and his wife Katharine had bought in Maine. It was 1938 when they left New York, a move EBW himself considered “impulsive and irresponsible.” He and Katharine had enviable jobs at the country’s most esteemed magazine and, as White acknowledged “everything was going our way.”

Even so, as he recalls in his introduction to One Man’s Meat, the essays he wrote from Maine for Harper’s, “I led my little family out of the city like a daft piper.”

A friend, upon hearing EBW was departing the city for country life, said, “I trust that you will spare the reading public your little adventures in contentment.” Fortunately, White paid little heed to that advice. (Years later, however, he admitted he still heard the man’s leering voice in his mind every time he sat down to write about “any delights that I experience.”)

Of course, he had no way of knowing his greatest work lay ahead of him, or that it would be inspired by the farm, by his deepening love of nature, by his endless curiosity about spiders and rats and geese and pigs, and most of all by his insatiable pleasure in the world. But as an old man looking back and writing a new introduction to One Man’s Meat, he had this to say:

Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those years in Maine as the time when this happened to me. Confronted by new challenges, surrounded by new acquaintances – including the characters in the barnyard, who were later to appear in Charlotte’s Web – I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had the chance to get some of it down on paper.”

IMG_9843What a pleasure it was to pull this collection of wise, intimate essays from my own bookshelf a month or so ago, and to revisit my old friend on the page before setting out to meet his spirit at the farm where he lived out the best of his writing days.

On the road, Lauren and I listened (not for the first time, for either of us) to EBW reading Charlotte’s Web aloud, perhaps the most perfect match-up of author’s voice and material ever. No one could possibly render the contemptuous voice of Templeton the rat with such spot-on accuracy, or so beautifully recreate the dialogue between Wilbur and Charlotte, or offer up such an authentically self-righteous goose gabble as EBW himself. (I know every word of this book, and still it captivates me.) Meanwhile, the miles rolled by. For lunch we ate cheese and crackers and dried apricots in the car, eager to arrive at our destination.

IMG_9522The GPS led us this way and that, through villages, past glimpses of marsh and sea, down one long winding road after another. And then, suddenly, there we were, climbing the back steps, knocking at the kitchen door, being welcomed by Bob and Mary, and ushered right into EBW’s study to hear the story of how the large maps White had chosen decades ago for wallpaper had been hung, in his absence, upside down.

It was a lot to take in: EBW’s office, full now of its current owner’s books and possessions; across the hall, Katharine’s sunnier study, updated but still clearly a space for getting things done; up the steep stairs past original 1700s murals on the walls, to EBW’s bedroom with it’s view across the fields — and, coiled like a sleeping snake in the small closet, the old rope ladder he kept at hand just in case a house fire ever required him to navigate an emergency exit through a window.

unspecified-4From the house and its layers of history, we proceeded out through the “summer kitchen” and into the barn itself. It was tempting to stand there in the dim silence for a while, matching what we saw before us to the description we’d heard EBW read just moments before we arrived:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.”

The cows and horses are long gone, of course. And yet, as White himself had once observed about the place, “Certain things have not changed.” There were the farm tools, hanging neatly on their hooks.

IMG_9493Tacked to the wall, a yellowed paper inscribed with a family’s most-used phone numbers, with Henry the hired man’s four essential digits at the top of the list. (Henry stayed on, we were told, for many years after EBW and Katharine were gone, caring for the house and the gardens the way he always had when they were alive, until he, too, departed this earth.) There was the trap door that opened up to the manure pile on the lower level, where Wilbur passed his eventful days.

And best of all, perhaps, there was the old, sturdy, thrilling rope swing, the very swing that was much loved and much used by EBW himself, and which he memorialized for all time with his description of the swing in Zuckerman’s barn:

You straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and. . . ”

Could we take a ride?

Unknown-2Indeed we could.

IMG_9535A shady lane led past the garden, alongside the pond, and down through the trees to Allen Cove and EBW’s hallowed writing cottage at the water’s edge. The door was open, as if someone was expecting us.

unspecified-5It was here, in a plain wooden cupboard hung on the wall, that EBW stored his works in progress.

IMG_9516It was here, by a window lifted open to the sea, that he sat alone with his typewriter. And it was here that photographer Jill Krementz captured him at his craft on a summer day in 1976 – perhaps the most iconic, most romantic, best-loved portrait of a working writer ever taken.

unspecified-2At the end of the day, Mary told us, Henry would appear at the door to carry EBW’s heavy gray Underwood back up to the house.

“Why not just leave it down at the cabin?” a friend once asked.

“Because,” the hired man patiently replied, “then he would have to have two.”

Lauren and I lingered for a long time at the cabin. We sat on the hard wooden bench and gazed out the window at EBW’s beloved view of water and sky and shore. We imagined what it might be like to live in the serene old house and to work in this simple, sacred cottage by the sea. We listened for echoes and watched the dust motes dance in the air. And we imagined EBW here – half farmer, half literary gent, as he called himself — breathing eternal life into a pig who wanted to live and the spider determined to save him.

It was surprisingly easy, in this remote, unchanged spot, to conjure the spirit of a writer who passed away over thirty years ago. I remembered exactly where I was when I heard the news of EBW’s death: riding the M bus on an autumn morning from my own overheated, too-small New York apartment to my job as an editor in midtown Manhattan. I saw the front-page notice in the New York Times and felt as if I’d lost both a mentor and a friend.

unspecified-6And now, thanks to countless twists and turns of fate, here I was all these decades later, sitting at his desk. Here I was, looking out his window to the sea, the sound of his voice reading aloud still fresh in my ears. Here I was, having long since left the city for the country myself, having married and raised sons and written books and buried dogs and lost loved ones. Here I was, having learned and survived my own hard, sad lessons about the limits of friendship. And having found, just as Wilbur does, that a grieving heart recovers and that this blessed, beautiful life goes on — a life full of sea breezes and sunrises and sunsets, wonderful books and unexpected adventures, and a beloved daughter-by-choice with whom to share it all.

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for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. Robin Fisher says:

    Dear Katrina – What a beautifully documented journey of your beautiful adventure with your dear Lauren. I love how you capture with words what many of us feel and experience. Of course I too have been captivated by EB Whites’ books as a girl and an animal lover and can’t help but think of Charlotte whenever I see a big grey spider! Thank you for sharing your experience so openly! I am so happy that you have recovered enough from your surgeries to embark on this trip. It’s inspiring me to keep working toward my own goals of healing so I am able to continue experiencing life to the fullest. Namaste, Robin

  2. marlene alves says:

    As an older woman, I have yet to read “Charlotte’s Web”; however, after reading the magical journey you both took to this treasured spot, I certainly will. Thank you!

  3. Lauren Seabourne says:

    Thank you for capturing just one extraordinary part of our magical trip together. There are so many memories to choose from, but this day will be one I’ll never forget.
    I love you.

  4. Sandee Dean says:

    What a magical trip the two of you had together! I loved reading about your journey…it made me feel like I was right there along with you. What a very special trip with two very special people.

    I also wanted to thank you for sending me the 2 books…I have just started one now that my girls are back in school and am so enjoying it and can’t wait to read every night!

    Thank you for such a sweet and thoughtful gift!

  5. Deborah Dwight says:

    Perhaps your most beautifully written essay ever!

  6. Thank you for this lovely essay. The phrase that has most influenced my adult life – my mothering – is the one that comes right after the description of the swing that you use: “Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman’s swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.” I’d heard it read to me as a child and then just when I needed to hear it again, we listened to EBW’s audio (you are right, the very best audio ever) while we were on a road trip. It helped me see that my children were interested in their self-preservation and that I could, to a great extent, trust them to take risks.

  7. This is wonderful! My children have read this book. I have not. Well, now I will.
    This inspires me to visit Maine as well. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Everything about this essay, love is the word that comes to mind… EBW, Charlotte and Wilbur, your relationship with Lauren, your perfectly chosen words and your beautiful pictures… Love. I’m embarking on my first trip to Maine later this month, perhaps we’ll make a pit-stop in Brooklin. ~xo

  9. Thank you for this beautifully written summer vacation. I’m reminded not for the first time of late, that my New England roots seem to be calling me home. As I read, I not only enjoyed being the fly on your barn wall, I thought of Andra Watkins encouragement to make memories while we can. Just think of the memories you and your daughter will have for many years to come.

  10. I cherish E. B. White beyond the reaches of my lexicon. At-at-at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again, as I said to you privately, “I can’t think of a finer gift for the two of you than to have shared this experience together. ✨” Thank you, dear friend, for sharing this gift, for allowing us to catch a glimpse of the hallowed Maine acreage that was home to one of our nation’s greatest writers. xxoo

  11. Vesta Brown says:

    You have captured my very heart through this sharing of your adventure. I have loved EB White for many years now, read and collected all his works. I have felt a friendship with him, although impossible, was as true as any. I have daydreamed of this very trip but you have saved me the time and expense and captured the spirit of it beautifully. I can’t thank you enough. I had to read it through tears of joy.

  12. Angela Muller says:

    I sit here, tears marking my face…so beautiful…thank you.

  13. Lindsay Corris says:

    I am so happy that you and Lauren got to share this special time together. I heard all about your wonderful adventures! You are both so blessed to have each other! I hope to see you soon! Xoxo

  14. Katrina – what a treat to read about your journey to Maine with Lauren. I also was moved to tears – memories of Charlotte’s Web as a child and with my own children, and all of your poignant thoughts and observations! I was in Maine for a week during July as well – I wonder if our paths crossed! It is a special place for me too – even as a Californian – my great grandfather had a cottage in Boothbay Harbor and my mom spent her childhood summers there! Thank you for this lovely essay!

  15. Marilyn LePan says:

    Katrina, I just loved reading this, as Charlotte’s Web is my very favourite books,
    I read it to my children and waiting to read it to my grandchildren.
    I also have 2 sons, and would LOVE to have a relationship like you and Lauren have
    I had hoped it would have been with my daughter in laws, but they have their own
    mothers and I am on the outside, but I won’t give up hope maybe someday a
    daughter will come into my life, as it did you…..You are a beautiful mother,
    Lauren is a very lucky lady!!! Thanks of much for sharing this…….

  16. Brett Peterman says:

    I love getting to hear about the adventures that you and Lauren share. You have such a wonderful way with words. I felt as if I was there. I’m so pleased that you were able to experience the world of this wonderful writer. I enjoyed Charlotte’s Web as a child and, as an adult, got to pass that along to my child.

  17. Kelli Page says:

    Thank you sharing your adventure! Now I know what to read!

  18. Beautiful post! I love to visit and blog about ‘author’ homes and I love E. B. White, as well as having a deep affection for Maine. Therefore, I’m VERY envious of this amazing experience you’ve had. By the time I saw you riding on his swing and sitting at his desk, I was like WOW! Thanks so much for sharing your adventure. p.s. I work at a public library and am constantly recommending the audio version of Charlotte’s Web, so wonderful to hear his voice reading the story the way only he can read it.

  19. Oh this made me smile. What a wonderful, life affirming trip for you and Lauren. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  20. “Why did you do all this for me?”, he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.” “You have been my friend.” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
    Katrina,
    Thank you for being my friend through your stories for the past 15 years. They been there for me, making me smile, inspiring me, supporting me and comforting me. That in itself is a tremendous thing.

  21. this is purely magnificent. almost as a dream. might i humbly suggest some version of this beautiful beautiful essay might be submitted to the new yorker or the new york times? it deserves to be read widely and deeply, and it inspires some of us to trace the route to the heart of authors who have most inspired us. your road trip above was nearly as perfect as being there myself, and most appreciated since it allowed us to be there without bothering dear mary and bob, benevolent caretakers of the EBW dream. (and thank you SO for letting me know there’s a way to HEAR EBW reading his words, a notion that sends me over the moon). and finally, i love the story of you and your lauren, and this road trip, a celebration of that serendipitous union, and i love that — kindred spirit to you — she struck up a correspondence with mary in the months preceding the trip, wholly respecting their caretakership. bless you, and thank you for this sumptuous summer’s treat. xoxox

  22. I remember so well reading Charlotte’s Web to my class of 5 and 6 year olds, one chapter at a time, maybe 30 years ago! I too had to fight back tears when reading about Wilbur and to this day, I carefully carry spiders outside, thinking about Charlotte. Thank you for this beautiful journey and rekindling the memory.

  23. Liz Smith says:

    Hi Katrina!
    Oh my goodness, it was all I could do to not cry while reading your words as they capture the passion you felt and feel for E.B. White, his writings and his world. I can relate to the emotional intensity of this, as I feel the same way about Eugene O’Neill, for instance. When I went to the National Theater Institute, our junior year of college, I got to see the cottage in New London where O’Neill’s father, the actor James O’Neill, and family (including Eugene) lived and in which “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is loosely set. It’s almost a mystical connection that I think you also felt in seeing the Whites’ house and barn. Or, going to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, same thing.

    Thank you for sharing, and thank you for your beautiful and inspired writing!!!

  24. Susan Hickey says:

    So beautiful! I have read Charlotte’s Web many times, to my own daughter and to the children I have taught! I can relate to the reading through tears!! What a wonderful journey! Thank you for sharing this experience and I love the pictures. I want to go read it again!!

  25. An amazing journey you took and thoughtfully shared with us here… it’s as if I (kinda) took it too. I really enjoyed reading this adventure of yours and to have learned a few new things about the writer. The fact that he too did what was not deemed ‘practical’ or ‘advisable’ by his peers and to follow his hunch, or heart, to country life! Nature and Beauty and Reverence for all Life is inspiring to read. Thank you!

  26. hmbalison says:

    What an amazing journey. I missed the original posting because I was on an adventure in Nicaragua but what a treat to read it now. I love the photos. I got teary reading your words. It’s amazing the power of books and how we as readers fall in love with authors. I plan to listen to Charlotte’s Web. What a treat!

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