This story, written by E.B. White’s Brooklin, Maine, neighbor Roy Barrette, first appeared in the February 1986 issue of Yankee magazine.
By Yankee Magazine
May 25 2017
This story, written by E.B. White’s neighbor Roy Barrette, first appeared in the February 1986 issue of Yankee magazine.
Entering Brooklin, Maine, from Blue Hill on Route 175, you will, by and by, pass on your left a large white “Captain’s” house that sets back about 100 feet off the road. Until recently the lawn between the house and the highway was shaded by a pair of case-shaped elm trees. These, like so many others of their kind, succumbed to the Dutch elm disease. It is sad, but nothing lasts forever, there is constant change. Life itself never ends, though that of the individual must. It has ended for the man who lived in this house. His name was E.B. White, one of America’s most famous authors. He was my friend, and although I did not see him every day, I shall miss him because we thought alike about many things.
There were usually a couple of cars parked in his driveway or near the barn, but you were not likely to see many other signs of life unless you chanced to pass a spare figure on a bicycle which, more likely than not, would have been his. He might have nodded to you in a friendly way as he passed, but would not have stopped unless he knew you well, because although thousands of people knew what he thought of life through his writings, he did not have many close friends. He could have, but chose instead to live a private life. That was why he came to live in the quiet town of Brooklin (pop. 600). Any worthwhile writer, particularly one of E.B. White’s introspection, lives largely in a world of his own creation. Whenever I saw him on his bicycle, I was reminded of a painting by Andrew Wyeth of a boy standing alone by his wheel. All Andrew Wyeth’s paintings are touched by this same haunting quality of loneliness.
Those who live in Brooklin, though they may not have known E.B. White intimately, thought of him as belonging to the village and were as proud of him as they would have been to have the biggest elm tree in the state of Maine within their borders. He is known jocularly as Joel White’s father (Joel is E.B. and Katharine White’s son and runs a boatyard here in town). While most called him Mr. White to his face, they referred to him as “Andy” behind his back. His full name (which he was recorded as not liking) was Elwyn Brooks White. He acquired the name “Andy” as a college freshman, and it stuck. I have never heard anyone call him Elwyn, and I doubt he would have responded to it. I always called him Andy as he called me Roy.
Andy bought his house in Brooklin in the early 1930s and lived in it during the war years, but he did not come here full time until 1957, which is when I bought my place. Amen Farm, my home, is about 2½ miles south, down the Naskeag Road from the village center, which is where the church, firehouse, cemetery, store, and library are located. Andy lived about the same distance to the westward. If you live within five miles in Maine, you are close neighbors. I don’t know what his farm looked like when he got it, but mine was rundown. I had to dismantle the house and rebuild it to keep it from falling down around my ears. I got some pointers from Andy, so I guess he had some of the same problems. He came here as a notable professional essayist while I, on the other hand, was an ex-seaman and ex-insurance broker specializing in aviation coverage. I thought nothing of flying, but Andy would get on an airplane only at the end of a gun.
My writing was casual, but dated back as far as my seafaring days. I felt very humble talking to Andy about it, but he make me feel better by saying that he thought the best writing was done by people who stole what time they could from some other job.
I met Andy for the first time when I went to his house to talk to his wife about matters concerning the Friend Memorial Public Library in which she was keenly interested and with which my own love of books had involved me as soon as I came to town. When I came here, Katharine White, probably the best editor The New Yorker ever had, was still actively working. Like all country houses in Maine, including my own, the Whites’ house door has a front door which nobody ever uses. I guess front doors are placed there for symmetry. A native once told me that if ever anyone came to his front door, he fled out the back because he knew it must be a salesman. I went to Andy’s back door, which opens onto a closed porch and then into a sitting room where he and Katharine spent most of their time. I don’t remember much about my first visit, but I do know that Katharine talked library. When she and Andy went to Florida, as they did for a while in those days, she wrote me five- or six-page letters by hand telling me what she thought of things. My wife and I called on them once in Florida, and even though Katharine had slipped on the terrazzo floor in the kitchen, she was as usual up to her middle in papers. Andy found time to take me out to his bayou to show me where he went fishing. I think they lived there as quietly as they did in Maine. I never knew them in their New York days. I think Andy was always a countryman at heart, but he was a good New Yorker, too. He wrote kindly of it. He fell into the category of the Italian who you scratch and find a musician. If you had scratched Andy, you would have found a countryman.
My friend was a martini drinker and could mix a mean one. When Katharine was living, I would sometimes be asked over for a drink before dinner and would always find them in the sitting room, Katharine in the corner of the couch with a table piled high with papers in front of her, smoking (she was a heavy smoker and an inveterate coffee drinker), and Andy going through his exact ritual of martini making. Since she lived to 84 and he to 86, I don’t believe their habits shortened their lives. I am more like Andy. I don’t smoke, haven’t for 40 years, but I do drink martinis. I am 88, so I guess, as we used to say at sea, “different ships, different long splice”—what kills one doesn’t hurt the other.
While Andy and I were friends, I would not say we were of the bosom variety, neither of us being of that nature. We would occasionally dine together, alone or with friends, and now and then drink and evening cocktail. Andy didn’t like to make dates very far ahead. If you asked him for dinner a week from next Tuesday, he would either decline or say “Yes” and then telephone to say he was overtaken by something and couldn’t make it. It was better to wait until the afternoon of the day of the party and then ask if he would like to come. If there were not too many other guests, he would often agree, and he was always a charming and amusing guest. He talked very much as he wrote. Towards the latter part of his life he didn’t go out much but told me one day, “Roy, I don’t entertain, but any time you want a drink you are welcome. Just stop by, but don’t wait after 5 o’clock.” He told me once that he was drinking too much. If he did, which I seriously doubt, it was never when I was around. He enjoyed an evening drink or two, as I do, but it was no problem to him. One evening when he was at my house, with just myself and my wife, we had our usual two pre-dinner drinks and I offered him to split the dregs of the shaker with him. He acceded, and as he sat in his chair in my library, fell asleep while my wife was getting dinner. In a few minutes my little dog Gay jumped on his lap and kissed him on the chin. He woke with a start, looked around, and said, “Roy, if I ever take a third martini, shoot it out of my hand.”
Andy loved his farm. He gave up working it personally (he always had some help) in his later years, as I did when I found chasing a bull down the Naskeag Road on a Sunday morning was a bit more than I was up to. I told him I was going to get rid of my few sheep and cows and he agreed that was the thing to do. He said, “There is no fun when you can’t take care of them yourself.” There isn’t. We both stuck it out as long as we could, though. He was fond of taking me around his place and tried unsuccessfully to give me a couple of geese. At that time I already had hens and turkeys as well as four-footed types in varieties, and I didn’t want any more. I did give him some hens once when a fox or a coon cleaned out his flock, and he gave me an inscribed copy of his Letters of E. B. White in return: “For Roy Barrette, neighbor, and the only one who ever crowned me with seven beautiful black pullets after a raid by the coons. Gratefully, Andy.”
Andy read my columns in the local Ellsworth American, but we didn’t talk much about writing. He would occasionally comment on something I had written, and once after he had stopped writing, said he envied me the energy to keep on turning out a column a week as I had done for almost 20 years. He said, “It is wonderful to see words following one another across the paper, the way my geese waddle up, head to tail, from the pond.” I tried to get him to talk about his own work, but never got far. I told him that an acquaintance of mine who was a fan of his said he had read everything E. B. W. has ever written. That amused him. He chuckled and replied, “I doubt it. I am not so sure I have myself.” After 20 years I know what he meant. After having my corn patch cleaned out by a coon, I told Andy one day that I would like to find the crew he described in his story, “Coon Hunt” from One Man’s Meat. We talked about for a bit, and he remarked. “You know Roy, the thing I remember most about that adventure is that everybody wanted to get as far away from home as possible.”
No story about Elwyn Brooks White would be complete without reference to his health, or what he had always felt to be his lack of it. Ever since I had known him, Andy had been in and out of the hospital suffering from some complaint, real or imaginary. For some years he kept people, nurses some of them, in his house overnight. When a friend asked, “Why a nurse?” he is reputed to have replied, “To assure me I am not going to die.” There was some wry humor there as usual. For a long time he complained of memory loss, which is really an affliction, not a disease. If it is, I have it too. I tell my wife that when I forget to zip up my pants and forget my own name she can begin to worry. Someone said that Andy had Alzheimer’s. Many people around here thought of him as a hypochondriac. If Andy were able to come back now, I am sure he would say, “Well, I’m dead. Do you now agree I did have something the matter with me?”
I have all but three of Andy’s books on my shelves. The one that I keep by my bedside, though, is One Man’s Meat, first published in 1942. I have read it in pieces a score of times, and whenever I pick it up the old enchantment steals over me: “The first sign of spring here is when the ice breaks up in the inkwell at the post office. A month later it leaves the lakes. And a month after that the first of the summer visitors shows up, and the tax collector’s wife removes the town records from her Frigidaire and plugs it in for the summer.”
I know why I came to Brooklin, and I think I know why Andy came here. We came to be neighbors by chance. We did not know for sure that Brooklin offered what we were seeking, what Thoreau called a wide margin round our lives, but we knew it could only be found in the disappearing countryside. Perhaps we were not sure, but we were lucky. I feel about life as Andy did when he said, “Life’s meaning has always eluded me and I guess always will. But I love it just the same.”