Having grown up on the south side of Smithfield on a side road off Route 8 on what we used to call Pine Tree Camp Road, because their big blue sign was the only marker years ago, it was not surprising I took a job working for Bear Spring Camps, which was about 3 miles away from my home. It was a September gig waiting tables to fill in for those going back to college. September guests enjoyed a more solitary stay with no families around and it was a perfect filler because I was in my late teens and still undecided concerning what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. As luck would have it, the direction I was seeking would come from a guest at one of my tables.
Waiting on him in the dining room did not give me enough time to chat on a personal level, but I did always manage to have a question or two prepared in case the opportunity arose where I could ask about his day or how many fish he caught. I tried to never treat him any differently than any of my other guests even though I purposely gave him more of my attention. There were times I did manage to make him and other guests at my tables laugh with a bit of sarcasm in between serving and waiting on them. This was particularly fun during and after the evening meal when from time to time he sat with his cabin neighbors, the very witty Mr. and Mrs. Conover from NJ. I loved when he had company to dine and laugh with.
Occasionally guests approached him after meals on their way back down to the lakeside cabins, and he would kindly oblige. I vowed I would never ask anything of him and I never did, although he never seemed to mind signing books. I just wanted to be in his presence and not behave as a fan.
I shared with my family and friends, (most knew I was a superfan), that I was able to wait on him in the dining room every single day. I treasured my tiny, handwritten “with many thanks” manila tip envelopes that I am looking at as I type this. Not sure of the significance at the time but I still have them as a reminder of an impressionable time in my life. Deep down, I could not wait for the next summer. I had a plan in place to go back to Bear Spring Camps at the start of the season and become a cabin girl and not just any cabin girl…HIS cabin girl! I am not sure I would say I was obsessed but now that I think of it, I may have been, but in the most harmless way!
After a busy May through August turning over cabins, September finally arrived. Cabin 29 was the cabin he always reserved and I procured it among the cabins I would be responsible for. His family, I learned, had a long history of staying at Bear Spring Camps. After his wife passed away, he began spending time on Great Pond again, always with his trusty canoe.
His editor, Corona, accompanied him and helped settle him in. I envied the time she got to spend with him in the canoe whenever I would see him push it off the shoreline before hopping in.
I doubted he would remember me, and why would he? It had been 11 months since our paths crossed. What I had not taken into consideration was that he would not be told the name of his cabin girl. After the first day I got a note written with pencil with two different styles of penmanship taped to the mirror in the bathroom starting with “Dear ?.” They requested an extra blanket, some paper towels and ended with a “P.S. What’s your name?” It was signed, Andy and Corona. Andy? Must be a nickname, I thought to myself. The very next day I had the opportunity to introduce myself, and he told me to call him Andy. I was hesitant but he insisted.
* * * *
That was the beginning of a great month of chats with Andy. He told me he became Andy, as a freshman at Cornell University where every student named White, was nicknamed Andy after the first president, Andrew White. Andy, a.k.a. Elwyn Brooks White, was and is my all time favorite children’s book author. Heck, at Smithfield Elementary School when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, instead of going out to our long lunch recess, teachers created mini courses for all of us. Winter was long and cold. I chose papier mache with Mrs. Hepburn. I remember being interviewed for TV sharing my spider I created named, yes, you guessed it, Charlotte, after the spider from my favorite book.
Naturally, I was sure to make his cabin my last stop each day so I could be there to converse with him and attempt to get to know him better without having to rush off to another cabin. I felt like any day I missed him in his cabin before I called it a day, was a missed opportunity for me to strike up a conversation. That spider story was one I shared with him. He, in turn, shared how he came up with the idea for Charlotte’s Web, describing his barn in Brooklin, his yard. and his many animals from the past. He had his antique manual typewriter with him, and it sat on a dark wooden desktop looking out toward the lake. He typed notes and letters to people every day. He was very inquisitive and asked me more questions than I could have ever imagined asking him. He became someone I trusted and he always seemed interested and really listened.
When he asked where I lived, I told him down the hill from Pine Tree Camp, the house with the animals in the dooryard or on the loose. And he laughed and said he knew exactly where I was talking about. In fact, he said he had to stop a time or two to let the goats cross the road! I was SO embarrassed but in the best way possible.
He questioned why I hadn’t gone to college after high school and I told him about getting accepted into the University of Alaska, Fairbanks but had no idea how to go about actually making it happen. (In my next life, I will be a high school guidance counselor that does not think that every home has 2 parents that went to college who know how to help their children with scholarships and financial aid to go to college.) Which brings me to how I ended out flying out to Nevada and California to visit relatives and eventually attending the University of Maine, Orono.
E.B. White gave me a direction to take. Yup, little ol’ me, he encouraged me to travel and to go to college. I can happily and proudly say he helped me become who I am today.
We corresponded via the U.S. Mail. Was I nervous that he would pick apart my writing style in letters I wrote? Heck, yeah! I supposed his rule to “omit needless words” from his revision of The Elements of Style did not pertain to my letters! The two letters and one Christmas card I still have from him, bring me back to our conversations and how he really listened to me in Cabin 29. This excerpt is from one of the first letters I received while on my extended stay in Nevada on October 25, 1983, “What a surprise to get a card from you! I have often thought about you out there in the West and wondered how your trip went because I remembered that you were dreading the airplane ride.” He mentioned the Conovers recently stayed overnight at this house in Brooklin before returning to their cabin, then home to NJ. He shared he had gotten a new dog named Red and he was “cute as a button.” He ended with, “…and take care of yourself so I can see you again next summer in camp. All best wishes, Andy White.”
The Christmas card from him in 1983 made me giggle as he signed it, “from EB White Cabin 29,” like I would not know who E.B. White was without letting me know he stayed in Cabin 29! He added a personal note on the other side of the card stating he was delighted my trip was a success, wished me a wonderful Christmas in Smithfield and hoped to see me the next summer, signing it, “Love, EBW.”
The final letter was hand written in September of 1984, a moment of concern crossed my mind because he should have been canoeing at camp. I was now living on campus as an official UMaine Black Bear, where I received his note. He was in Blue Hill Hospital after a fall and his doctor ordered X-rays and wouldn’t know anything for a couple of days. “We’re having beautiful weather here! How I wish I could be in camp with my canoe! Anyway, it was good to hear from you and I hope you are liking life at Orono. If you get a chance, come to Brooklin and pay me a visit at my house.” He gave me his phone number and ended the letter with, “Love, Andy White.” The affection I felt reading “Love, Andy White,” still makes me emotional today. I know he truly cared about me because he wrote back with genuine thoughtfulness every time I sent a letter. I know he trusted our friendship because he invited me to his home.
Little did I know that would be the last time he personally answered my letters. As I was anxiously and excitedly waiting to get a confirmed date to visit him, I received a typed note dated October 12, 1984. I was thrilled to get a letter back soon. “Dear Jodie, Mr. White has asked me to write and tell you that he was awfully glad to get your letter saying that you can come visit him, but that he is temporarily unable to entertain visitors. He’s sorry to put off your visit and will write you himself when he’s feeling better. P.S. He enjoyed your pretty card, too.” As saddened and disappointed as I was to read those words, I continued to write to him to cheer him up, keep him up to date about my studies, share any lake news, and let him know I was thinking about him.
It honestly never occurred to me, until writing this, that he could quite possibly be receiving a daily mailbag full of correspondence from family, friends, and well wishers from around the world. When I received personalized notes replying to things I shared in my letters to him, I knew in my heart that he knew I cared about him and I knew he cared about me. He did not have to ever write back to me, he chose to. His personal secretary never had to reply to my (if you have ever received one), probably lengthy letters, or share that she read them to him. She sent me the following note dated February 22, 1985. “Dear Jodie: I’m responding to your letter to Mr. White…he does enjoy having lively letters such as yours read to him. He wishes you well in your twenty-first birthday year and in your university studies. And yes, hearing your letter did make him smile, and he thanks you.”
He died in October 1985, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease along with a steady decline in his physical health. Coincidentally enough, I was in Technical Writing class when my professor let the class know he passed away. He said a few words about the writer, what he meant to the world of writing, and the influence in his own life. I slowly got up to leave and as I went by my professor’s desk, I looked at him and said, “He was all that to the world, but to me, he was my friend.”
And I am confident he thought the same of me.
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