It was the summer of 1982. Baby slung low on my hip; I strolled along the rocky Maine beach, drinking in the deliciously cool air and stunning views of Blue Hill Bay. I couldn’t help but think what a superb job the native American Penobscot tribe had done when they decided to name this place “Kollegewidgwok” meaning blue hill on shining green water. After all, unusual beauty deserves a unique name.
Pausing to relieve the pressure on my hip, I squatted down and placed my daughter on the beach beside me. Ecstatic to have escaped my grip, she happily banged clam shells together and slithered through the slimy wet rockweed like a tiny sea nymph.
I congratulated myself as I watched her play. It had been difficult, but I had managed to finagle a vacation from my nursing job so that our little family could be together for the next two weeks while my husband finished his rural preceptorship with a seasoned country doctor in Blue Hill.
Using my knees to balance herself, my daughter pulled to a standing position and gave me an over the moon toothy smile. Suddenly the smell of rotting fish stung my nostrils and I gasped. Horrified, I realized that the wee darling standing in front of me stank like rotting fish. Laughing at my own parental foolishness, I made a mental note of what tots should and shouldn’t be allowed to do on the beach, and hoisted her to my waist.
The sky turned a lovely orange-pink color as I waddled back to the beachfront cottage my husband and I were renting, carrying my putrid smelling child. To my surprise, I found my husband home from work and waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Pee-u! She reeks! What did she get into?” he asked, pointing at our daughter and waving the smell away from his nose. “Someone needs to hose her down.”
I smiled guiltily. “I’ll go run a bath.”
“Wait a minute, I need to talk to you. What would you say if I told you that I’ve arranged a babysitter for tomorrow night and we’re dining out with my preceptor and—“ he said, pausing for dramatic effect and looking like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary. “E.B. White?”
“Are you joking? E. B. White!” I squealed, nearly dropping the baby and staring at my husband in disbelief. “E. B. White, the author?”
“Yes, he lives five minutes away in North Brooklin. He’s good friends with his family doctor who just so happens to be my preceptor,” he replied, grinning like a maniac. “Apparently he’s become quite reclusive in his later years, but he’s agreed to have dinner with us.”
No way could this be happening! I had just been invited to go to dinner with my childhood hero E. B. White. Elwyn Brooks White, the well-known essayist, the New Yorker writer, the reviser of Strunk’s The Elements of Style and the famed children’s author.
My head was spinning and I was giddy with excitement. “Oh—my—goodness!” I screamed. “I’ve got to get a copy of Charlotte’s Webb so I can ask him to sign it.”
“I’ll pick up a copy at the local bookstore if you go give that child a bath this instant,” he said, crinkling his nose in disgust.
I momentarily contemplated handing the baby over to him and telling him that he’d get use to the smell, but quickly discarded the idea and headed toward the bathroom with Miss Stinkypants. I wasn’t going to do anything to antagonize the man who had just invited me to dine with E. B. White.
I watched from the car window as evening spilled over the tiny seacoast town of Blue Hill. Wispy shafts of light trickled through the trees and gleamed against the white clapboards of the inn situated before us, causing them to blush pale yellow.
In a matter of moments my husband and I would be meeting the renowned and reclusive writer, E. B. White. Pulse pounding and stomach fluttering, I stepped out of the vehicle. Tucking my purse securely under my arm, I clutched the firm hand my husband offered and managed to make it to the entrance of the inn without fainting or throwing up.
The innkeepers, a delightful husband and wife team, met us at the door and explained that they would be escorting us to a small private dining area far away from the regular hustle and bustle of their establishment. They knew that Mr. White was rarely tempted to leave the solitude of his saltwater farm in North Brooklin and they were honored to have him as a guest. With that said, they whisked us through a series of comfortably furnished rooms to the door of a small private chamber.
As my husband and I entered the room, I noticed two dignified men sitting in overstuffed armchairs in a corner of the room, legs crossed, chatting amiably and sipping martinis. I recognize one gentleman as Dr. Soucy, my husband’s preceptor and the other as E. B. White. They rose from their chairs the instant they noticed us.
“Lois and Cliff, this is my friend Andy White,” said Dr. Soucy. “Andy, this is Lois and Cliff.”
I smiled hesitantly at the handsome older gentleman standing before me with his silvery white hair and mustache, waiting for him to set the tone for the evening, and to my great delight he extended his hand to me first.
I contained my excitement and shook his hand with all the demureness I could muster. “You have no idea how pleased I am to meet you, Mr. White.”
A shy smile flashed across his weathered face which intensified the deeply etched creases around his twinkling and still mischievous blue eyes. “Please call me Andy,” he said in a rich resonant tone belying his age.
“I like the name Andy,” I said as we seated ourselves around a small dining table in another corner of the room, “but I love the name Elwyn. I have a dear friend named Elwyn.”
His lips curled into a bemused expression. “Obviously my mother was fond of the name Elwyn too, but I never really cared for it myself. In fact, I’ve always said she just ran out of names by the time she got to me and I got stuck with Elwyn. When I went to Cornell, I got the nickname Andy and I was entirely glad of it.”
“He’s got a little story to go along with how he got his nickname,” said Dr. Soucy.
“Please tell it,” I implored.
Andy smiled at my young wide-eyed excitement. “It’s not that sensational,” he replied. “The name of Cornell’s co-founder and first president was Andrew Dickson White. As a little wink and nod to him, any student that entered Cornell with the last name of White was nicknamed Andy, hence I became known as Andy.”
Thus began our extraordinary evening with Andy White. Conversation flowed freely and easily between the four of us at the table for the next two hours. I had been expecting a quiet, perhaps even reserved man, but to my delight he was extremely pleasant, utterly charming, and devilishly witty.
Chatting with him was effortless and I still remember our many topics of discussion that evening. We chatted about Cornell, New York, Maine, brothers, sisters, the medical and nursing professions, sailing, boatyards, the ocean, children, grandchildren, farming, gardening, animals, writing, conservation and quite sadly, Andy’s failing vision in one eye.
We lingered over dessert for another forty minutes, but regrettably the evening was drawing to a close and I still hadn’t worked up the pluck to ask Andy White for his autograph. It had been such a lovely evening and I didn’t want to spoil it, but it seemed a shame not to have anything to commemorate such an auspicious evening.
I decided to throw caution to the wind and produced a book that I had been concealing in my purse. “I have a favor to ask you before we go and I will completely understand if you would rather not do this for me, but I brought a copy of Charlotte’s Web. I was hoping you might sign it for me and my daughter Mindy.”
He nodded his head in a way that told me he was accustomed to such requests but thoroughly disgusted with them as well.
“Your books inspired me to write when I was a girl and I had every intention of making a career of writing until I discovered that writers weren’t always guaranteed steady paychecks.”
He chuckled to himself as if I said something terribly funny. “You’re still just a girl,” he replied with a sly smile, taking the copy of Charlotte’s Web from my hand.
“To Lois and Mindy,” he said out loud as he inscribed the same onto the title page of the book. “If you like to write and have a knack for it, you shouldn’t give it up just because you didn’t make it your career. Write for your own amusement. I can tell you from solid experience that writing is more gratifying when there are no editors or deadlines involved anyway.”
“I imagine writing is even more enjoyable when you’re not forced to deal with a demanding and adoring public either,” I said. I mouthed the words I’m sorry as he placed the book back in my hand.
E. B. White shook his head sadly. “Yes, there is that.”
I clasped the book to my chest and gathered my things. “Thank you for making an exception and coming out to have dinner with us tonight. We had such a wonderful time.”
His face flushed and the smile on his face widened. “I confess I don’t care very much for dinner or nights out anymore, but this has been an enjoyable evening. You were a breath of fresh air and I was in good need of one.”
I floated out of the inn and into the car alongside my husband in high spirits.
“This night was better than anything I could ever have imagined. I had such a good time,” I announced to my husband when we arrived back at our cottage. “Not only did Andy White pay me a compliment, he autographed my book and told me not to give up on writing.”
“I don’t think you should give up on writing either. Your use of the words bay scallops on the grocery list this week gave me chills,” he said with a smirk, pretending to shiver.
“If you found bay scallops impressive, just wait until you see how I work the word lobster into next week’s list. It will have a profound effect on you,” I said, kissing him on his cheek and scooting off to bed.
Years have passed now since my husband and I dined with E. B. White, but I have never forgotten how thrilling it was to be in his presence and I’ve never forgotten the words that he spoke to me that night, “If you like to write and have a knack for it, you shouldn’t give it up just because you didn’t make it your career.” It was sage advice from the man who left an indelible mark on the literary world with his crisp clean writing style and on one incredible evening in 1982, an indelible mark on me as well.
Postscript: My youngest daughter, Lara, feeling very left out that E. B. White hadn’t written her name in the book, added her own touch to the autograph when she was about eight. My family is just full of E. B. White fans!