Fifteen years ago this summer, I stood weeping in our local public library while making copies of letters on the public photocopy machine, dimes in one hand, folded linen stationary in the other. I remember it was fifteen years ago because I was enormously pregnant with Darling Daughter. People walked a wide circle around me without making eye contact. Which was just as well.
The letters I copied through my tears were from my beloved Dr. Brown, my favorite college professor. They were typed on an old typewriter and they contained wisdom and poetics on marriage and family, books and writing, life and love. I wanted to send them to his recently widowed wife, who had just written to tell me he’d died; but I couldn’t bear to part with them, hence the copies.
Dr. Brown was my advisor in college. He was an English professor — not the clichéd silk scarf wearing professor holding court in enormous lecture rooms, but rather, a dear man with a small office crammed floor to ceiling with books who genuinely enjoyed talking with his students one-on-one.
In the bottom drawer of his desk, Dr. Brown had a tin of cookies. He was a severe diabetic, but he enjoyed cookies immensely and didn’t consider life worth living without them. He and I ate a lot of cookies together the semester I took an independent study with him on essay writing. It was a sweet semester, not because of the cookies so much as what we talked about. Dr. Brown introduced me to E.B. White, whose books he kept in the drawer with the cookies. The two just…went together.
I knew E.B. White for his children’s literature, of course, but not, I’m ashamed to admit, for his essays, articles, and letters — until I met Dr. Brown, who introduced me to many small pleasures in life, cookies in the desk drawer and the art of buying used books among them. Under his tutelage, I managed to procure most of the collection of Mr. White’s essays and letters. Serviceable copies already marked up by another’s hand, and so I had no problem making my own notations in them, as well. I was tasked with studying them, attempting emulation (Dr. Brown thought I might benefit from White’s succinctness — go figure!), and just generally absorbing their wonderfulness. My dear friend was a firm believer in osmosis. He wanted me to absorb — brevity, style, wit — before I put my own words on paper.
While on vacation in Maine earlier this summer, I found a used copy of The Wild Flag by E.B. White in an antique store. I’d never seen it or heard of it. I could hardly get the money out of my purse fast enough. This book is a collection of editorials he wrote for The New Yorker “on Federal World Government and Other Matters.” Copyright 1943. It is unbelievably timely. And ever so helpful. It could be that these editorials are interspersed in my other White volumes — I haven’t checked — but this sweet little book is dog-eared, worn, and “purse sized,” and I love it with every fiber of my being.
I’ve decided the kids need to hear some of it. I intend to bake some cookies in Dr. Brown’s honor and read aloud to them from The Wild Flag in these waning days of summer. I want them to take it in — osmosis! — before heading back to their busy school year lives. Before taking in any more headlines.
I love being able to share “grown-up” writing with them now that they’re getting so…grown-up. Maybe they’ll sit on the porch swing with me like we used to? I bet if I bring the cookies, they will….