Oscar Wilde and The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Dubliner Oscar Wilde was born October 16th in 1854 to Anglo-Irish parents. A successful surgeon and philanthropist, his father treated the poor for eye and ear afflictions at the back of their house near Trinity College, Dublin. He later created a hospital to treat the poor, for which he was knighted. Wilde’s mother was a poet and a life-long Irish Nationalist.

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

From these two serious-sounding people sprang Oscar Wilde. A brilliant student and a genius known in his time for his flamboyancy and conversational wit. He turned to writing society comedies (thankfully) only after failing to find success with his attempts at exposing Victorian decadence, such as in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“I can resist everything except temptation”

A prolific writer of poetry and drama, Wilde is best remembered for his epigrams and plays. A married man with children, Wilde became Lord Alfred Douglas’s inseparable lover for four years. Homosexuality for men was illegal in Great Britain in the 1890’s (and remained so until 1967 in England, 1982 in Northern Ireland). In Wilde’s circle, as in all other levels and sections of society, gay men were forced to take their chances. Lord Douglas wrote a poem, “Two Loves,” in which he coined the euphemism for homosexuality, “The love that dare not speak its name.”

The reckless Lord Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford, introduced Wilde to the Victorian underground of gay prostitution, a milieu which Wilde seemed unable to quit, not in spite of the danger, but perhaps because of it.

Enter Lord Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and creator of the modern rules of boxing. The Marquess understood the nature of his son’s relationship and confronted Wilde several times. Wilde pulled himself back from the brink of disaster by mollifying the father, until the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde’s club: “For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite [sic].” Accused as he was of the crime of sodomy in public, Wilde ignored his friends’ advice and allowed Douglas to encourage him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel.

Wilde was at the height of his success with The Importance of Being Earnest running on the London stage. Weeks later, he was in jail.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The case made public the sexual nature of Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, proving Queensberry’s accusation. Wilde spent two years in jail at hard labor for “gross indecency with men.” The jail term ruined his health, his career, his finances and his marriage to Constance Lloyd, who fled England with their two children in the brutal face of the scandal.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Upon his release from prison, Wilde moved to France, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1791, the French having a better grasp of human nature than the British. There he lived on a pittance provided by Constance and the friends who still cared about him, including Robert Ross, Wilde’s first lover. Living in dingy hotel rooms (“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.”), he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on the execution of a fellow prisoner. The work was first signed with the address of his cell, C33.

Writing a 50,000 word letter to Douglas from jail, Wilde forgave him, took responsibility for his own fall and explored the Christian theme of redemption. Ross expurgated and published the letter as De Profundis, which subsequently was published in its entirety by one of Wilde’s sons. Douglas denied ever reading it during a libel trial he pursued against a later publisher.

At the forty-six, Oscar Wilde died of meningitis and is buried (with Robert Ross’ ashes, placed there on the fiftieth anniversary of Wilde’s death) in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His epitaph is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

This year, Wilde and approximately 50,000 fellow outcasts (among them, Alan Turing) were pardoned by the British government for the “offense” for which they’d been punished so harshly.

A partial list of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams:

“No man is rich enough to buy back his past.”
“I delight in men over seventy, they always offer one the devotion of a lifetime.”
“Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualification.”
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“I can resist everything except temptation.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
“True friends stab you in the front.”

Netflix www.netflix.com offers DVDs of several of the film versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, a wonderful drawing room comedy involving switched identities and a handbag left in a train station; and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, not a light-hearted romp involving a painting. Local bookstores and libraries should be able to order print versions of all of Oscar Wilde’s work.

Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography Oscar Wilde won the National Book Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The movie version, Wilde, made from Ellmann’s biography, stars Stephen Fry and is available on Netflix.

Seasonal Anxiety

With apologies to those enduring the aftermath of hurricanes and wildfires, this time of year makes me nervous. My low level but constant anxiety springs to new heights in the fall, not because of the seasonal darkness creeping in, but because of the number of things to be done before a northeastern winter—the battening down of the hatches.

Take today’s newspaper for instance. Three helpful columnists listed all of the things to be done this month (half over), during November and in December, in the yard, in the home and precautions to save our lives in a fire as woodstoves, fireplaces and furnaces come alive. Each list is long, and when we’re not up on the roof inspecting the dormers, the eaves, the dreaded fascia boards and soffits, we’re instructed to get down among the weeds, and vanquish them from next spring’s garden. Adventurous souls who own ponds with fish and aquatic plants are urged to capture and carry all to an indoor tank. Evergreens are to be watered (mine are on their own), invasive vines cut and dipped in Roundup, door seals checked by placing and pulling a dollar bill out from the seal (thereby ripping up even more money).

After testing the fire and carbon monoxide alarms and setting the ceiling fans to run clockwise, I’m sure we’ll have time to baste the turkey while our partners drain the irrigation lines. Lines drained and fans running like clockwork, we can take a moment to enjoy the Thanksgiving feast before moving on to digging the new garden beds for the spring. Returning to work on Thanksgiving weekend Monday will seem like a vacation.

Speaking of which, how do people with jobs do all this stuff? How do people who do anything time-consuming, such as, um, writing, caring for children or aged relatives, how do they do any of this stuff? Don’t ask me. I’ve tried to stick to a daily schedule that includes everything that I want to do each day, but as we hurtle toward winter, the list seems to increase, right along with my seasonal anxiety, and I never manage to do it all.

The dog is walked twice a day no matter what, but there are two humans participating in that effort. We cook, we eat, we clean and sleep badly, and we’ve even managed to call the chimney sweep (that’s on the list for November so we’re ahead of schedule!), bring in the houseplants ahead of a frost and stow the kayaks in the shed. Less than half the bulbs have been planted (my hand is up as a glutton for punishment) but I have not sniffed the electrical panel for the aroma of burning insulation nor looked for rust or water to determine whether an electrician should be called (on the December list)—nor will I.

The three lists go on and on as my seasonal anxiety goes up and up until staggering into mid-December, we’ll take a break to prepare for the holidays, making our own lists of cards, food and presents to ready. Happy holidays!

Exhausted and thankful that we do not have root crops like parsnips to mulch, we—like the bears—will hunker down for a long and relaxing winter, when the lists shorten or disappear, and there is absolutely nothing to do outside, except to take nice walks with Yaktrax on our boots and bring more wood in from the shed. My anxiety will return to its normal low level and I swear I will never complain about February again.

Red Sox Karma

Waiting for the Red Sox afternoon game last Saturday, I added to my karma bank account (a line stolen from Absolutely Fabulous creators Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). Our town has a Buddhist temple drawing visitors from around the world. Looking for the mythical address listed for the temple on the Internet, they arrive on our doorstep, frustrated in a sort of zen way, unable to navigate without cell service or GPS.

To explain the route from our house to the temple takes a while, and last Saturday’s lost souls were actually in a caravan of cars, so I hopped in my car and led them to the temple. They followed me up and up the winding road into the hills, as different from the Himalayas in height and color as possible. Once there, I saw travelers in beautiful silk costumes climbing down from buses, choosing to walk the last yards to the temple, set high into the hillside. My caravan and I bade one another farewell, and I drove off feeling a kindly nod from the universe. While we’ve asked every lost soul to inform the temple administration about the wrong address, it’s never corrected, and I don’t expect it ever will be.

Baseball is a game of karma. I hadn’t thought it was of the “what goes around comes around” sort, but the force of the universe and all of its mysteries. I have been a Boston Red Sox fan for a long time—I know. Further evidence of my bona fides lies in my pedigree: I was born into a Brooklyn Dodgers family.

Take this year. Last night the Red Sox entered the game in the AL first place with ninety-one wins, at four-games over the Yankees with six left to play, and a secured berth postseason. The original ace hired, David Price, played out of the bullpen last night. His replacement, ace pitcher Chris Sale, allowed four homers. Today the Red Sox are only three games ahead of the Yanks. This week the second best pitcher Drew Pomeranz lasted two innings, and last year’s AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello allowed a grand slam in the first inning (Porcello is fighting for third place on the postseason roster. He has a tough game ahead of him tonight). Of the starter defensive and offensive players, the majority are hurt, even the kid, rookie phenom Andy Benintendi.

This is the same Red Sox team that won extra-inning after extra-inning games this month, often in the wee hours, always when exhausted. In a sport where each team plays a relentless schedule of one hundred sixty-two games in six months, the Red Sox seemed to rise above the toll of injuries and exhaustion, until this week.

Is it their karma? Impossible to know, since karma takes into account past existences as well as the current ones. Not the same force that won the World Series for the Red Sox in 2004, the first time in eighty-six years, vanquishing the “Curse of the Bambino.” Perhaps the Red Sox karma is now of the “what goes around comes around” variety, and we’re seeing the payback now, as we did last year in their utter collapse in the first round of the playoffs.

By the way, as of last night, the Yankees clinched home field advantage, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in Major League Baseball. I’m at the ready to ferry lost worshippers up to the temple. Om.


‘Out, damned spot! out, I say!’

I clean the house a fair bit. The country is very dirty, which you might not expect if you don’t live in it. I’ll admit to cleaning a fair bit, but it’s nothing obsessive. If I were obsessive, the house would be a lot cleaner. My partner in grime (laundry is her vocation) refers to me as Lady Macbeth, but I doubt that Lady Mac ever cleaned anything, except one spot of blood—and boy, did she make a fuss!

While vacuuming, I ponder the past and think of the future; I think about what I’m writing while wrestling with the hose, the machine, the attachments. We had my Irish grandmother’s Electrolux for decades—long enough to replace the motor two or three times. The entire machine was metal. Except for the motor, nothing wore out, nothing rusted or broke, but its weight signed its death warrant. We traded it in for a series of plastic jobs that broke instantly. We’ve returned to Electrolux, which is plastic now, but a good machine.

Not good enough, though. With the technological advances we’ve seen, nothing really helps with cleaning (please don’t write to me about Roomba). Most of it is hard on the back and knees. Canister vacuums fall down the stairs half way up, and it seems a bit odd to buy the backpack vacuums available for one set of stairs (plus we don’t have much storage space).

Still, when I’ve cleaned I feel like I’ve done my bit to beat back the ever-increasing entropy in the universe. Vanquishing some small portion of the chaos that is a mélange of gnats, grass, pebbles, spider webs, leaves, dog hair, mud, dust, and other country detritus (this in a house where we take our shoes off at the door!).

However fleeting, order brings peace.

My Irish grandmother was a serious cleaner, one of a higher order. In addition to wielding her Electrolux, she scrubbed with stiff brushes in pools of Clorox. Her strength was formidable and she could scrub the life out of a floor, a pot, a shirt or a toddler in the sink. When not cleaning, redecorating or cooking for her husband and three children, she also held a paying job as a housekeeper, working for the married hosts of a popular radio and TV talk show (Tex and Jinx—you can Google them). If she was lucky to make the express train at 59th in Brooklyn, the trip into Manhattan and their apartment took at least an hour. I assume that she cleaned for the couple and their two children, but like many women of her generation and class, she could do just about anything in what were known as the domestic arts (knit, crochet, sew, upholster). I don’t imagine anyone hired her as a cook, but she was an honest cook of plain food and an excellent baker.

While I do not have my grandmother’s strength, and I don’t use bleach, I can ferret out dusty baseboards at fifty feet, specks of spaghetti sauce on the stove, when the wainscoting is in need of attention.

As for blood, we’ve yet to commit a murder on the premises, but with the blood spattering common to murder mysteries, I doubt if one spot will send us over the edge.

I am not the housekeeper my grandmother was, but I think I would have been an excellent housekeeper in a large house of old—think Helen Mirren in Gosford Park, or Phyllis Logan in Downton Abbey—but with better sherry, a better outfit and more of a private life, or a private life (don’t write to me about Carson, please). A leader of women and men, all scouring the wainscoting, scrubbing the pots, cleaning everything, down to the last damned spot.


With the flip of a switch, it’s no longer summer in our hills. School is open, the leaves are turning color, the apples are red, it’s cool and wet even on sunny mornings, and spiders are carrying their nurseries on their backs.

September bookends the steepest decline in hours of daylight. October, November and December have slower, steady declines, ending with the winter solstice, when the daylight hours begin their creep back. There’s no denying the encroaching darkness this month. The morning twilight and daybreak are later every day. The evening versions are earlier. The darkness is stealing into every corner, creating shadows where baking sun lay just a few weeks ago.

Bang on time, the irritants that cause me allergic consternation in the fall are in full bloom, and according to my records, this is the week our hummingbirds fly off to their far-flung winter vacation. The Monarch butterflies are still here, but they too will migrate before the end of the month. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings are flying through, but the Phoebes are gone. We’ll see stragglers from all bird species over the next few weeks, but then it will be time to wait for the bears to go to bed before pulling out the bird feeders for the winter residents.

Many don’t like the dark of September through December, bemoaning the going to work and returning home in the dark syndrome. Golfers, certainly, but after work shoppers too, so I’ve read. Not me—I love…half of it. Rising in the dark was never a pleasure when I had to do it, but now I can stay under the covers until twilight, at least. I love the early dark evenings, and did even when I held a nine to five. The autumn dark sends a lot of people over the edge into serious depression, and while I’m usually with the crowd on that edge, a dark late afternoon feels cozy to me, like something wrapping its arms around you.

There’s much to do before the early comforting dark arrives, though. Not a drop of what faces people in Texas, the Caribbean and Florida this month, of course, but a fair amount of work, some of it hard on the back. While the wood has been delivered and the chimney sweep is scheduled, all of the pots of herbs and hayracks of flowers, umbrellas and chairs and tables will have to be emptied, closed and stowed in the shed for the winter. Annuals, bulb foliage and vegetables must be cut down and cleared away, weeds pulled. It seems like we had little time to enjoy it, thanks to our wet and chilly spring and summer, and now we’re bracing for the hours of labor ahead to undo what we struggled to create. The flip is switched, whatever the calendar tells us. It’s no longer summer.

Find Your New York City

While staying at the New York Hilton Midtown to attend the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference this week, I watched the vacationing children pose with an interactive screen in the lobby. Their parents photographed them in front of several iconic New York scenes, as indeed they could at the actual site, should the family travel to view them in person (although I understood the value of the distraction in air conditioning). The interactive screen beckoned with “Find Your New York City,” and I wondered how I could do exactly that in the limited time I had outside of conference sessions and the agent pitch slam.

My New York City is broken into several chunks of time, all somewhere, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but gone, according to me.

Born in Brooklyn, I spent my formative years there (show me the girl at seven and I’ll give you the woman). We moved a short distance out of the city (my father, a Philadelphian, was disturbed by my childish Brooklyn accent), but it remained our city, and then in dribs and drabs, we all moved back.

I lived in Manhattan for a peripatetic period when I was a twenty-something woman. In six years I lived in three apartments in West Greenwich Village, one in Yorkville, one in what was the Hungarian neighborhood of the East 70s, one in the East Village on Avenue A (but only very briefly: the cockroaches threw me out on my ear), and last, on West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus, bordering the Columbus end of the block. I left that apartment for Boston, and never returned to live in New York.

Walking in the mornings for exercise this week, or out in search of lunch, I found something of what was my New York City: Sabrett hot dog men, dashing and annoyed New Yorkers, exhausted and fleeced tourists, Carnegie Hall and Central Park, the sound of the streets, the brutality of the smells, good and bad, and the light, filtered through the haze of the traffic and the heat. I photographed the Art Students League for my wife, who had been a student there as a teenager. In the hotel staff and on the streets, I found people from all over the world, working and living in the city, making it their city. I found a phone box, albeit more like a carrel, with a man standing in it and screaming at no one; that seemed like a real throw back.

I didn’t find my former profound understanding of the transit system, although I could navigate the streets easily, and I found that I had no tolerance for the recklessness of cab drivers and jaywalkers. I found Trump Tower, an inevitable affair, standing on the former spot of the opulent building graced with Art Deco statues that had held the department store Bonwit Teller, lost thanks to the builder of the tower in 1980. Few of the regal stores on Fifth Avenue were still there. Naturally, I found the prices exorbitant and the bagels large and puffy, but I’d known about all of that for some time.

As I walked across Central Park I found a clean, well-cared for and well-used park, unlike the dirty, shabby and dangerous stretch it had been. I walked to my last apartment on West 69th St., one of a handsome threesome of brownstones with beautifully arched entrances. Unfortunately, the new owners had gutted what had been a real library from my old apartment, complete with built-in floor to ceiling shelves and rolling ladders, in order to add retail space (unoccupied as of this week).

I connected with my cousin, a young woman who came to New York to find her future. All other family members live elsewhere or can be found only by Einstein’s theory. The same can be said for friends, but that didn’t stop me from scanning the faces of the throngs, just in case.

Finding the city that was my place of birth and breeding, I failed to find the city that was my stomping ground: I couldn’t find my New York City.



Trump-Free Orange

I have banished all thought of Trump from these posts, of the sight and the sound of him, but he’s pushed his way in here with his escalating threats of nuclear retaliation, beginning on Nagasaki Day (Steve Bannon’s idea?). As I’ve watched the news stories recounting the North Korean threats and Trump’s irresponsible counter-threats in comic book speak, I’ve noticed how very orange he seems this week. A man on vacation might choose to spend time outdoors, and accumulate some sort of natural glow, even if careful about skin damage.

Trump does not seem concerned with anything natural, other than the desire to exploit and abuse nature in order to make more money, but the threats of annihilation, ruination and the alteration of the natural world send me in the other direction.

The Monarch butterflies are flying over the fields and gardens of New England now. Even though a cool and wet summer, it’s been warm enough for them to complete their life cycles, and I see one or two every day as I walk in these beautiful hills, reminding me to realize my life, every, every minute—

To my eye, the Monarch orange is the most pleasing color imaginable, warm and rich, as pleasing as their size and shape. Photos of them do not do the color justice, again, to my eye, since there’s no guarantee that each of us sees a color identically. Watching them fly past or flutter around reminds me in an instant of what is wonderful about our planet, condensed into a small and delicate-looking being. Delicate they are not. Next month they will migrate, the only butterflies to do so, to their winter home in a mountain forest in Central Mexico. One September afternoon I was walking across the Salt and Pepper Bridge in Cambridge Massachusetts when a kaleidoscope of Monarchs crossed the bridge, flying southwest. I wished them bon voyage.

This week I saw a pair mating while flying. They rested on a leaf at my eye level, and in unabashed voyeurism, I was able to study the two at a very close range. Off they flew, locked together. “Show offs,” I muttered.

Every year I try to imagine the Monarch trek, and worry about the number of survivors. This year, I worry that the Monarchs may face high levels of radiation blowing in the west-east winds across the oceans and earth from Guam or North Korea.

I’ll walk in the hills again today and hope to glimpse that wonderful orange color fluttering over a field of green, and I’ll avoid looking at an unnaturally orange face mouthing a threat of fire and fury to the entire world. Our world holds both in precarious balance at this moment, as we revolve around the sun at 18.5 miles per second.



Every, every minute

I volunteer for our cemetery association, functioning as its secretary. If the position sounds sedentary, it is only partially so. Much of the time is spent on my feet, walking around the cemetery with the schematic of the graves, probing plots for unheralded occupants, measuring, marking, and placing flags at the veterans’ graves.

The cemetery dates to 1771, when the resident colonials living in these hills did not care to carry the caskets of their dead very far. Every gesture in those days required backbreaking effort by woman, man and beast. It’s a tiny cemetery, and situated on a hill, too steep and too small to farm. Tucked into the surrounding hills that are a lush green in the warm months, aflame then quenched into a muted brown each autumn, and white and gray during the long winters, it is always beautiful.

It is very quiet in our cemetery, except when the field below is being mown. Mostly there is only birdsong to disturb the silence, but often there is nothing but the sound of the wind. The air is nothing short of delicious, like silk in your lungs; clean and sweet smelling. It is a place for the living as much as the dead, and as I move myself around sorting the rows of headstones into some sort of grid, I find that the special quality of the quiet has entered me; a peaceful intruder.

Our family members are buried there, and we will join them, nestled together in between our mothers. I am aware that I will join them, that I will move from life to join the dead in this cemetery. Being human, I can’t quite imagine it, even though I am certain it will come, as it has and will for everyone.

Still, I am happy rambling around the place I know very well now. Comforted to see the family names of friends and neighbors, saddened to read the names of men who left New England to join the Civil War, and were shipped back to this small and quiet place. There are probably Revolutionary War veterans in the cemetery, but those headstones are illegible and list like aged teeth.

When I first visited the cemetery, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. Near the end of the play, the dead in the town cemetery speak to one another, and one of them, the young protagonist Emily, wants to go back to her life for a day, just a day, to recapture her lost life. The dead warn her not to go, that it won’t be what she hopes for, but she goes. Emily’s visit to the day of her twelfth birthday is agony for her because she can’t go back, of course, and she asks in anguish what we all ask, what we all wish we would do:

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

The Stage Manager, who serves as Greek Chorus, answers:
No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

I am reminded of Emily’s question every time I visit our cemetery, and leave vowing to realize my life while I live it—every, every minute. Being neither a saint nor a poet, I fail.



A Lucky Man and The Voice of An Undertaker: E.B. White and Jean Stafford

Writers E.B. White and Jean Stafford were born in July, he in 1899 and she in 1915; he in Mt. Vernon, a suburb of New York City, and she in California. Their life stories were as different as their writing, although each was touched by greatness, and much in their lives unfolded in the midtown Manhattan offices of The New Yorker magazine.

E.B. White needs no introduction, but it is sad to write that Jean Stafford may. Stafford published three novels (Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and The Catherine Wheel) in the 1940s and 1950s, and published wonderful short stories in The New Yorker containing characters like Lottie Jump in “Bad Characters.” Her habits served her private life on a platter, and at times overshadowed her talent during her life, and certainly after her life, since her biographers tended to embrace what Joyce Carol Oates termed “pathography.” Stafford’s alcoholism was described as the stuff of legends, and is generally recorded in anything written about her in the first or second sentence, often overshadowing her great talent as reported by those with much less. Anything written about her first husband, poet Robert Lowell, generally begins with a phrase like “brilliant but mentally unstable,” and only eventually reveals the story of his drunken car crash in which Stafford nearly died (he walked away unscathed).

In spite of all the turmoil, she continued to write and publish, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970. Describing her writer’s voice as “the voice of an undertaker,” Stafford may have referred to the authorial vivisection she practiced with wry humor, to the great enrichment and pleasure of her readers. There are few better examples of this talent than the non-fiction book she wrote about Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, A Mother In History. A remarkable book, it was written using the interviews Stafford conducted while living with Mrs. Oswald, as they sat in the kitchen, each in their dressing gowns.

In mid-life, Jean Stafford enjoyed a good marriage with journalist and New Yorker regular A.J. Liebling. He died a few years later, and she was not saved from her progressive illness, but she continued to write, although she never wrote fiction again. They are buried together in the Green River Cemetery, East Hampton, New York.

E.B. White had the perfect life. His childhood was idyllic (he and his siblings were raised by tolerant and affluent parents in a large house and yard from which he was free to roam, and the family spent every August together on a lake in Maine), and he enjoyed an adulthood nearly free from health problems and scandal (except when he married the divorced Katharine, and published, with James Thurber, Is Sex Necessary?), his one, long marriage a good one, with a family that included a son, a stepson, stepdaughter and grandchildren.

His writing was broad ranging, successful, and still cherished today; the clarity and simplicity of his writing is the perfect communication of his depth of feeling and the unique variety of his knowledge and interests. White wrote for The New Yorker (where he met his wife Katherine Angell, then the fiction editor, and later the author of Onward and Upward in the Garden), but he also wrote children’s classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and essays “Death of a Pig” and “Here is New York,” among so many other essays and letters. He also introduced the world to his Cornell professor’s grammar and style textbook, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., with White’s own several revisions, introduction, and a new chapter. Hence the birth of “the little book.”

E.B., or “Andy,” spent much of his life in small boats, from sailboats to canoes, fishing or hanging on by his fingernails when the crosswinds hit. He enjoyed everything about his large, old farmhouse and barn in Maine, including the inconveniences, his wife’s garden, the humor in the disasters, his constant observance of nature, and the long summer nights; everything, until his wife died. His biographer, Scott Elledge, reported that White responded personally to the hundreds of letters of condolence he received, many from those who had known his wife only through the Letters of E.B. White. To one he wrote, “I don’t know what I ever did to deserve a wife with Katharine’s qualities, but I have always had a lot of luck, and she was the most notable example.”


My Father’s Tomatoes

I started my first vegetable garden in a long time this year. It’s very small, consisting of two white cedar raised beds (gardenraisedbeds.com) and a few extra planters for patio tomatoes and herbs. The lettuce and Swiss chard in the raised beds seem stunted, possibly due to the chilly and wet spring and early summer, possibly due to the soil-compost mix, probably because I don’t know what I’m doing.

My circle of local friends is absolutely chockablock with master gardeners, one of whom writes a gardening blog (http://www.commonweeder.com). I turn to all of them for advice and if not too late, I take it. However, we already have eaten one ripe tomato and have another red one on a vine, both very early for gardens in these hills. One of my master gardeners accused me of painting it. Beginner’s luck, I said.

His wife, another master gardener, warned me that gardening is an addiction. She’s correct: I’m already plotting and planning expansion, especially for asparagus, which will keep us waiting for two years, at least. We are low on room with sun near the house, so the plotting may be thwarted. We have a large field next to the house, but we’re staying out of there with the exception of planting fruit trees and plants the pollinators like, leaving the space to the deer, the bears, the bees, butterflies and birds.

My father was no gardener, but he spent a lot of his childhood on his uncle’s farm outside of Philadelphia, and so was familiar with the rhythm of the seasons and planting, a fact not revealed to me until one of the last summers he was well. He carved up the yard behind their small house in North Carolina, to which they retired from Brooklyn. He knew to dig it and dung it, a feat of backbreaking energy that was also a revelation.

He planted tomatoes and nothing else. Rows and rows of tomatoes, possibly all the one type, because the harvest was overwhelming. My mother, a real city gal, had them coming out of her ears, but she had no impulse to can them, nor room to freeze the sauce that she made. Spaghetti sauce and sliced tomatoes appeared on everything.

That was it, though: the start and the end of his foray into gardening, possibly because he got sick that year, possibly because he’d gotten it out of his system. I can’t remember and there’s nobody to ask. My father died in that house after a very long illness, during which my mother hired a fellow to mow the yard weekly, but I still could see the outlines of my father’s hard work, of his tomato patch, the day I moved my mother out of that house.