As a kid I probably read this book 20 times. So ingrained in my subconscious, the characters are more like old friends thought of fondly. The barnyard is an authentic space in memory where the chewing, sighs, and snorts of animals can be heard. There is a heart-soaring feeling when I see kids bounding off a school bus. I know the stench of Templeton’s rotten goose egg. Crackerjacks and candied apples are the taste of the County Fair. When I see a spider, I wonder if she has two sisters named Nellie and Joy living close by. These couldn’t possibly be things I simply read, could they? I’m certain I must have been at the Zuckerman farm.
E.B. White created a world the child-me stepped into and breathed. With all my reminiscence, it’s funny how little I think back on the title character, perhaps because much of my imagining was from Charlotte’s vantage point. She did, however, help me in my first understanding of death. I still recall the line that hurt so badly: “No one was with her when she died.”
In 1980 I watched the animated version of Charlotte’s Web along with 70 or so other first graders. I dreaded the moment towards the end of the story because I knew I would be a wreck. Charlotte was gone, swelling music played, and of course, I bawled. A neighbor and classmate named Hilda* pointed and yelled, “Michelle is crying! Michelle is crying!” On the bus ride home, she teased and retold the episode to the blue eye-shadowed bus driver, who also laughed. Hilda called me a baby for weeks. Now, Hilda’s daughter goes to school with my daughter. They read Charlotte’s Web in class last winter; there was no viewing of the movie, classic or modern.
Almost a full education later, many afternoons were spent in the high school theater department with make-up and lighting and emo life. One year, my big contribution was designing the cover of the program (it wasn’t fancy enough to be called a playbill) with crude interpretations of images already beautifully created by Garth Williams, then typing (on an actual typewriter) the cast list. I also had two acting roles in that production of Charlotte’s Web. Both were approximately 17 seconds of stage time, including walking on and walking off.
The first, with my friend Melanie, as a couple visiting the miracle at the Zuckerman farm, ohhing and ahhing, “That’s some pig!”
The second as part of the pairing “Fairgoer #1 and Fairgoer #2”. Sara and I were judges of the swine.
(I am keeping these photos-of-photos small for a myriad of reasons.)
In 2000, when I was in my 4th month of pregnancy with the creature that is now my beautiful son, I went to our local Costco after an ultrasound appointment. There I purchased a carrot cake, Redkin Fat Cat shampoo, a tiny fisherman’s cable-knit sweater (which couldn’t be worn by said son until he was about 2 years of age), and The E.B White Treasury. I had great reading plans for my offspring, but it took him over 9 long years to show an interest in Charlotte’s Web.
This weekend my daughter read aloud to me. At nine, she is a great reader, as long as she is left to herself. Reading in front of people unnerves her and it’s having an effect on her school progress. So we practice. Today, we practiced with barnyard friends.
“I just love it here in the barn,” said Wilbur. “I love everything about this place.”
* Name changed.