Love finds us in unexpected ways. I learned this on my 7th birthday. I was in second grade and the only present I remember from that birthday was a book my parents gave me. The inscription, written by my mother, reads “7th birthday. Amy, oodles of love, Mommy and Daddy.” It was a copy of Charlotte’s Web, written by E.B. White with illustrations by Garth Williams.
This wasn’t the book that taught me what it means to love reading. I had been reading for a while and I already loved it. Even before I could read I loved books and stories. My father read to me every night before bed. My mother claims she can still quote Green Eggs and Ham from memory because she consistently complied with my requests to “read it again.” There is a photo of me at 3 or 4 sitting on our couch with my dolls sitting beside me as I read to them from one of my picture books. No, Charlotte’s Web didn’t teach me the love of reading.
It’s hard to put into words the love I discovered in this book. From the first sentence to the last punctuation mark, I was entranced. Maybe it was the discovery that when I read a book that embraces me, I don’t just read it, I live it. Maybe it was the idea that animals can talk if only we listen hard enough. Or perhaps it was the premise that every creature, no matter how big or small, has something to teach us. Maybe it’s all of those things, but there’s something more; something intangible and inexpressible about the love I felt (feel) when I read this sweet story.
I know I learned that the love of a good friend has great power – power to heal, power to save, power to transform. It was one thing to sit in Sunday School and learn that Jesus said there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. It was a whole other matter entirely to see that embodied in the love between a spider named Charlotte and Wilbur the pig.
I learned about grief from reading White’s classic. Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read the book, Charlotte dies at the end. It wasn’t a tragic death, just a poignant close to a life lived in love. But I have never gotten over it. In second grade I read this book over and over and over again. No matter how many times I read it, I would come to the last paragraph of Charlotte’s life and weep inconsolably. One night as I sat in bed crying bitter tears, my mother came up to see what was wrong. I held out the book to her, almost as though I were imploring some higher power to change the words that broke my heart. In exasperation my mother said, “Amy, Charlotte always dies.” I know that, but that knowledge has never lessened my sorrow.
Maybe the most important lesson I learned is that the written word holds its own power. It can save. Charlotte’s words saved Wilbur. Words and the worlds they create have saved me. Not just through escape to a different reality, but by giving voice to the meaning I sense in the world around me.
Love comes unexpectedly. The great loves of my life have appeared when I least expected them, but when I needed them most. Charlotte’s Web, simple words strung together to make a compelling, beautiful story, is one of those unexpected loves. I can only hope that someday someone will say about me what was said about Charlotte in the book's final paragraph.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”