Alice: an essay

Alice Sumner and the author, poring over “The Biography of E.B.White”

Alice

Our farm’s crop of timothy and alfalfa grown for hay, tall and unruly now in late July, is due to be round-baled and stored. I watch the grasses ripple in the summer breeze, while inside I sweat at my desk, trying to reason with a piece of writing that just did not want to cooperate. Hung on the wall behind my computer screen is a framed letter from E. B. White, a writer whose books and essays continue to have a tremendous influence on me, as they have for many writers I know. I think back to the spring of 1983 when the letter came in the mail to my address in New York City—I was a very young and hopeful writer then— and how my hands shook when I opened the envelope with the return address of a town on the east coast of Maine. I knew who lived there, everyone who knew him did.
Whenever I need inspiration I look to the letter, and I sometimes re-read the book that inspired me to first write to the author—a well-loved copy of Charlotte’s Web given to me by a friend named Alice.
~
In 1968, I was eleven years old when my father got a new and better job in Connecticut, two states away from where we lived. Apologetic but resolute, he uprooted us from our family farm in the Somerset Hills of central New Jersey, and repotted us in the rocky, countryside of New England. Within a few chaotic weeks, I was whisked away from everything I knew and loved as ourFord Country Squire followed a monstrous moving van traveling full speed ahead into unknown territory.

Our new home in a Fairfield County was in a town called Redding, and nestled among a forest of ancient evergreens—hemlock, mountain laurel, pines, spruce, and holly. The dense canopy of foliage obscured all but random slivers of sky, so different from the expansive vista above our acres of flat hayfields in the Garden State.

I felt claustrophobic and gloomy with so many leaves and branches overhead and stayed inside most days, lost in the unfamiliar surroundings. My longing to go home—back to my rope swing left motionless in the loft of the hay barn, back to my grandmother who continued to rule the roost there, back to my deep roots spread across our wide-open acres of land felt unbearable. My parents didn’t seem to have any idea how miserable I was or if they did, they were too busy to indulge me.

On a sticky August afternoon a few weeks after we moved, a neighbor arrived at our front door. She pushed it open while simultaneously banging the brass knocker against its plate and shouted “Yoo-hoo!” She carried a jar of what she later told us was homemade raspberry jelly. My sister and I peeked out from between the spindles of the staircase banister and saw a diminutive woman greeting my surprised mother.
Although it was summer, she wore a fuzzy mohair cardigan buttoned to the top of her blouse. Her short crop of steel grey hair barely touched the back of her collar.
“Welcome to Redding,” she said, her blue eyes twinkling. “I’m Alice Sumner, your unofficial Welcoming Wagon of One.”
‘I’ve come to see how you all are getting on,” she continued, looking at the mounds of packing paper and mess of half-empty boxes strewn about the rooms. Mom led her onto our back porch away from the chaos as she simultaneously smoothed back her own unruly hair while offering Alice an ice-tea.
We learned several things about our new neighborthat day. She told us she was seventy-two years old, four-foot eleven-inches tall, and had earned a degree in English literature from Cornell University during a time when it was more common for women to forgo college and marry instead.

“I’m an avid reader,” she said looking straight at me. She told my mother she did a lot of volunteer work for the town and was looking for new recruits. Her husband, Jim, had a vegetable garden, that always needed a strong set of hands. Alice asked my mother if by any chance the boy in the yard she had seen as she drove in belonged to us. Mom said he did, and his name was Robert, Jr., and he was fourteen.
Perhaps I could help sort books in her library, and young Rob could help Jim pull weeds, taking two out of three of us off my mother’s hands, she proposed. Her books, precious to her, she explained, hadn’t been dusted in ages, and Jim could really use the help. As far as my mother was concerned, it was an instant go.

“And I’ll be back to introduce you to the Woman’s Axillary at Town Hall in four weeks, and Robert Sr., to the Mark Twain Library,” Alice said as she walked out of the front door, her white Keds slapping against the slate path to an ancient steel-blue, Volkswagen Beetle.
“What a treasure,” my mother said, shaking her head and closing the door.

~
The next morning, my mother dropped us off in front of the Sumner’s, a tiny cedar-shingled cottage on Peaceable Street, several miles from our house.
Spying Mr. Sumner with a hoe in his hand, Rob went off in the direction of the vegetable garden, while I walked up a granite laid path through rows of tall hollyhocks in pinks and yellows and knocked shyly on the weathered front door. I heard Mrs. Sumner call out, “Welcome. Walk in!”

Pushing opening the door, I took in several rooms filled with interesting objects absolutely everywhere— pottery plates on stands on the kitchen fireplace mantle, clusters of small colorful porcelain bowls on the table in the entry hallway, silver boxes, and a collection of glass paperweights on a desk in the corner of the living room. But mostly there were books, more than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. Books splayed open on the kitchen counter, books piled on a desk in the corner, books stacked in a wide bookcase in the living room. Booksand more books.

“Hi, Mrs. Sumner,” I said, meekly, twirling the end of one blond braid between my fingers.
“I’m so glad you are here. Make yourself at home. I’m just finishing up the lunch dishes and will be with you in a second. Call me Alice, by the way. I’m not much for formalities.”
Surprised by Alice’s approachable manner combined with the friendly clutter of so many wonderful things around me, I began to ease into the surrounds. My mother collected antiques, and my father books, although not nearly so many as this. Sensing my curiosity, Alice stood back and let me peek around. I was anxious to see the library where she wanted me to work.How could there possibly be any more books in one house?
As if reading my mind, Alice, her back to me as she finished up at the kitchen sink, pointed to a doorway to my left and said, “It’s over there–the library. In that room. I hope you like to read, because you and I will be spending a lot of time in our library until school starts.”
I walked through the doorway and almost smack into an entire wall of books in a bookcase filled from top to bottom. The shelves overflowed with canvas and paper bindings —hardcover, paperback, leather bound, some piled on the floor, others lined up on the desk and windowsills. There was a precarious stack of books on the floor next to a well-worn armchair that served as an end table for an ashtray full of ashes and a pipe. It seemed to me at the time, there were more books in her small library than in the entire Book Mobile that came to my school twice a year.
“I’ll introduce you to some new friends right here before you start sixth grade,” Alice said, motioning toward the shelves. “Let me leave you to get acquainted with them while I fix us something to drink.”
I brushed my fingers along the paper covered spines of Faulkner, Hemingway, Perelman, Waugh, Bronte, and many other writers I hadn’t yet read, but had seen on my grandmother’s own bookshelves on the farm.
“Find anyone you already know?” asked Alice, returning with two glasses of lemonade.
“Sort of. My Omi had some of these books, but I never read them. She said they were for grown-ups.”
“Nonsense. You are old enough to read whatever you want to read.” she said. “I’ll help you get acquainted.”

The new “friends” that Alice introduced me to that summer would become lifelong ones—poets, novelists, humorists, biographers—authors and books that invited me to explore entire worlds outside of my small one—companions I would call on frequently throughout my life. I loved how Alice treated me like an adult in her library although at twelve, I was far from it. She also had sensed my need for confidence before starting a new school, and knowing about and reading good books, she said, would give me a leg up.
~

I began each day at the Sumner’s that summer dusting the many shelves in her library. I pried one volume at a time from its place, wiped it clean and swept away any debris beneath its place. I used tape to repair the torn corners of paper jackets and reorganized the books, alphabetically by author. I would learn that the month of August would only make a dent in the hundreds of volumes in the room.
One of my favorite things to do when I need a dusting break, was one I invented myself with Alice’s permission— making ‘Sumner Library Lending Cards’— by constructing little pockets from folded paper, I then glued them in the back of interesting sounding books for future borrowing. Carefully hand printed index cards were slipped into each envelope for checking out of the library containing the following information to be filled out by the borrower: Name. Date Borrowed. Due Date. Late Fee: A penny a day.
I might have been the only borrower.

Alice never rushed me or prodded me to continue a dusting job left half-done when I stopped to work on my “lending library,” or open a book that interested me and read a passage or two, which was on most days. She let me while away the afternoon at my own pace, a smile on her face whenever she saw me reading belly down on her ancient oriental rug, my bare feet kicking up behind me. I think it made her proud to watch my furrowed brow concentrating on passages from Wuthering Heights, then deem it worthy of a library card. I felt very smart and couldn’t wait to go home and tell my parents about my days with Alice.
Never much of a student, I learned much later in life I was, and still am, slightly dyslexic and attention deficit. In the 1950’s little was known at my school about learning disabilities. Reading came slowly to me and my writing was filled with spelling and grammatical errors. Feeling able and comfortable in Alice’s library was a new experience for me.
One afternoon, I spied several slim volumes sitting on the ledge of a window transom above the library door and brought them to Alice’s attention. Hunched into a permanent comma from osteoarthritis, she told me to go outside to the garden and ask my brother to fetch a ladder from the potting shed. Rob fenagled it through the front door and set it up against the doorway. Alice told me to climb up and see what was there on the shelf.
As I climbed down, a half-dozen faded canvas covered books were gathered in the front of my tee-shirt. I poured them out onto the floor. Beautiful, shiny plated illustrations graced the covers—The Bobbsey Twins, The Five Little Peppers, Uncle Wiggly and several children’s books by E. B. White. I handed them one by one to Alice.

“Well! Hello, old friends! I almost forgot all about you,” she exclaimed, delighted to see the books again. Then I went back up the ladder and retrieved the remaining half dozen. I felt my heart thumbing inside my chest, as if I had discovered buried treasure.
Alice plopped into Jim’s armchair, the books and me at her feet, and we began opening each one and flipping through the pages. Bits of barely visible dust motes floated up into the daylight.

“Who’s Nan?” I asked, seeing the name inscribed on the inside front covers.
“My daughter,” said Alice, who I thought had only two grown sons. “She died very young, in a car accident, a long time ago. These books were hers.”
This was the first time I’d known of an adult who had lost a child in such a tragic way. I remember sitting at her feet with my hands folded in my lap, unable to think of anything to say that might comfort her. Finally, I said what I thought she might still be feeling, or what I know I might have felt.

“I’ll bet you really miss her. It must be lonely without her around, Alice.”

“I do miss her. That’s why I like you being around. You bring her memory back into the house and into my heart. Here, have you read this?” Alice handed me a copy of Charlotte’s Web. She didn’t seem to want to talk any more about Nan.

I’d seen this book with its wonderful cover in my school library last year in fifth-grade. The words in it seemed a little too hard for me to read. I hadn’t checked it out, I told her, feeling a bit embarrassed by my confession.
“You can read this. I know you can. Try Stuart Little, too, a story about a mouse that lives in the city.”

“A dear friend wrote it a long time ago, along with several others you might like,” she said, pulling three others from the pile.

Both books were inscribed inside when I open them. On the first page of Charlotte’s Web, the inscription read, “To Nan, from E.B. White.”
In Stuart Little, “To Nan, I hope you and your mother like this new one. Best, From Andy White.”
“Should I keep these books, Alice, or give them back to you when I finish? It might take me a while.” I was a little worried I might not be able to finish them this year.

“Yes, I suppose you can. They should have a new home now.”

Alice told me that Fern, the main character in Charlotte’s Web, lived on a farm a lot like the one we had to move away from. She had a pig named Wilbur, who was her best friend. I told her I had a barn cat named Stowie and she followed me all over the farm.
“A loyal friend is the best kind of friend,” Alice said.

I tucked the three books into a paper bag and that night began reading Charlotte’s Web, completely confident I could get though it by the start of school. All the practice I’d had reading passages from grown-up books in Alice’s library had made a difference in my reading skills.
~

That summer started a years-long friendship with Alice, through middle school, high school, and my college years. We kept up a steady stream of letters many of which I still have. When I was in college, she packed her letters with news from Peaceable Street, and a review of a book she recently read, and recipes she’d tried with fruits and vegetables from Jim’s lush garden. Alice made me feel respected when sometimes later on as a teenager and young adult, my own parents doubted my choices—school abroad, then a semester off, another college, two journalism jobs, five more writing jobs—why couldn’t I settle down? But Alice seemed to believe I’d make the right choice eventually.

The year I decided to go abroad to study art history and English literature, Alice applauded. Write to me, she said, every little detail. That year based at the University of London introduced me authors I had yet to read but had seen in Alice’s library. Dickens, Johnson, Joyce all became new favorites.

During school vacations, then weekends home to Redding, visits to Alice for ice-tea and a garden tour from Jim, were top on my list. My family always looked forward to the Sumner’s annual Labor Day picnic supper, which we rarely missed. Something fresh from their garden was on every plate, and usually New England style baked beans Alice made from scratch, primarily for my father, her biggest fan of the salty, semi-hard fare, that none of us but Dad could stomach. We ate at the Sumner’s splintery weathered picnic table and discussed the summer gardening season, Dad’s as well as Jim’s; my brother’s first job out of college; my sister’s recent interest in fine art painting; and my mother’s thriving volunteer work with the town. I brought a list of books I’d recently read and paper and pen to jot down new suggestions from Alice.

I told Alice I had grown to especially love the writing of E. B. White, the author of my forever favorite book, Charlotte’s Web—the story that pulled me out of my homesick funk when we first moved to Redding. I tried to emulate his style and voice in the creative writing classes I enrolled in starting my junior year in college, which Alice encouraged. I loved his self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek wit, his laconic humor about nature and life in Maine, and New York City, where he and his family split their time. I read almost everything he wrote—books, essay collections, poems, and his “Talk of the Town” columns in The New Yorker, including a book he edited by one of his Cornell professors, William Strunk, The Elements of Style. Alice sent a copy of it to me at college to help me with my writing, still somewhat a problem in the spelling and grammar department.
During my last semester of college, I applied for a summer intern spot at The Vineyard Gazette, a small but nationally recognized newspaper published by James Reston, a former columnist for the New York Times. Dick Reston, the Gazette’s editor-in-chief and James’s son, was a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He oversaw the interns, and I was scared to death of him. What about my spelling? My terrible grammar? Alice assured me I could handle it.

“Use that dictionary your father gave you. And don’t let the Reston’s titles intimidate you. They are there to teach you. So, do your best, which I know will be just grand.”
When I arrived that first morning to the Gazette, a copy of The Elements of Style was on my desk with this note:

“We hope you are already familiar the rules and information here within. If not, here is a copy for you to keep so you can better learn the grammar and punctuation we appreciate here at our newspaper.” Instantly, I knew everything would work out. I had a familiar friend and a mentor already, right in that little black book.

~

The following Labor Day, at their annual picnic, Alice and Jim shared the ups and downs of their gardening season, and Alice’s plans for the next Redding Church Fair which we all supported. I had just graduated from college, and Alice told me she was anxious to hear about my first new full-time job as a reporter for a weekly newspaper on Cape Cod.
It struck me then, Alice rarely talked about herself, her jobs, her years at Cornell or about her past. But we cajoled her, and finally she decided to share the story of her own graduation and then her subsequent engagement to Jim, a fellow Cornellian, two years later.

“Is that alright, Jim? “she asked her husband across the picnic table.

“Of course!” he said, “You were the best catch at Cornell!”

She told us she had spied Jim peering at her through an opening between the books on the shelves in the Universities vast library.

“Psssst, Alice!” he whispered to her, “how about getting out of here for a soda pop?”

She blushed, fiddled with her stack of books, then eventually accepted, she said.

“It was love at first sight, don’t let her fool you,” Jim said. And we all laughed.

Jim left the table to get a second helping of Alice’s homemade baked beans, and Alice glanced over her shoulder toward the house, then leaned in and said, “Actually, I was engaged once before I met Jim. Yes, I never told you, I guess. I was proposed to by another upper classman, E. B. White, but I turned him down.”

“What? You turned down E. B. White? I didn’t even know you were friends,” I said, my eyes wide with surprise. I was thoroughly taken aback by Alice’s revelation.

“I didn’t think Andy-that’s what we all called him-really meant his proposal at the time. He was flighty. And I honestly didn’t think he was truly in love with me, although he said he was, not like Jim was, anyway. I made the right choice. Andy and I made better friends than lovers. We’re still good friends.”
So many books signed over to Nan. So many references to his work over the years. Now I finally understood.

The stars came out one by one, illuminating the blue-black evening sky. Alice called me into the house to help her clean up. Jim and my family stayed outside in the moon-light with the fireflies, nibbling at Alice’s homemade blueberry pie, chatting into the night. Gathering dishes near the sink, ducking under the Sumner’s cast iron, and copper pots and pans hanging from the low ceiling, Alice put her tiny wrinkled hand on my arm and said, “Wait a minute, don’t rinse those yet. I have a graduation present for you.”

She opened a drawer of the knotty-pine corner cupboard, filled with back issues of The New Yorker, stacks of letters tied in pale blue ribbon, old photographs, and a fat manila envelope all of which she handed me. Inside was also an original galley proof of E.B. White: A Biography, by Scott Elledge— plus a thick handful of envelopes addressed to her.
I looked at her, stunned. “I’m lending these to you to look through for as long as you like. I know how much you admire his work,” she said.

While writing the manuscript of the biography of White, Elledge had asked various people named in the book, Alice included, to fact-check their own quotes and information. On the galley margins were penciled comments, corrections, and edits from White, James Thurber, Roger Angell, White’s stepson and future editor at The New Yorker, and many other remarkable writers.
Taking more liberties within the manuscript then only the words that pertained to him, White noted in the margin “The White, of Strunk and White, thinks you should reword this sentence to read….”
A pile of personal letters accompanied the manuscript given to me, mostly from White to Alice during their courtship and subsequent friendship, which he eventually reprinted in his book Letters of E. B. White. Some of her replies to him were retold there as well.
When Alice handed me these treasures, she said in her usually matter-of fact manner, “Let these papers be reminders to you to write and write well as you start your career. Stick with it, no matter how long it takes to get to where you what to go. Someday, maybe I’ll have to start saving your letters for prosperity,” she added with a wink.

“Can you tell me about your relationship with Mr. White?” I asked.

“Yes, while Jim’s still outside talking to your family,” she said. “Sit for a minute.”
~

Alice met “Andy,” while both were students at Cornell University in the spring of 1920, when he was the editor-in-chief of one of the only two daily American college newspapers in print, The Cornell Daily Sun. Diminutive and bookish, Alice Burchfield, then a junior nicknamed “Burch,” by her friends, caught his eye. She was involved in the theater, and Andy watched her in several starring roles. When they eventually began courting, White wrote her love poems under the pseudonym “D’Annunzio,” and published them in the Sun where she would be sure to read them. Six months into their dating, this ran in the paper:

I mused upon the girl who sat
And rambled on of this and that
She differed not from others there
She had, I thought, quite pleasing hair,
And surely it was no high season
To think there was no more reason
Why she should not—and not another—
Be my future children’s mother
– From E. B. White: A Biography by Scott Elledge

Their courtship lasted two years. Andy wrote a few school plays for her to act in for the Cornell Drama League and featured her in sentimental essays and missives written for his English classes. When he graduated, two years ahead of Alice, he moved back home to Mount Vernon, New York, to look for a job. They stayed in touch, but the distance proved too hard on the relationship. Letters were misinterpreted, opportunities to visit each other went unheeded, and both contributed to a breakdown of communication and intent. Although Andy eventually attempted a proposal, she refused—not for lack of love, but because she didn’t completely trust his motives. Before proposing, he had never told her he loved her, and she suspected he became somewhat jealous of Jim’s attentions. In White’s absence, Jim had started a friendship with Alice. And that, said Alice, was that. However, Alice and Andy stayed friends, even after Alice and Jim married in 1923, two years after her graduation.
As Alice talked, I remembered the dog-eared copy of Charlotte’s Web, still in the bookcase next to my bed in Redding, the one inscribed: To Nan, All the very best, Andy White. I had read it so many years ago but thought of the story so often. It, too, had remained a good friend.
Alice told me she and White had kept up a cordial correspondence throughout their lives and when he was editing Letters of E. B. White in 1975, he asked her permission to reprint some of their college, and later correspondence, but told her he would understand if it felt too personal for her. She told me she complied without hesitation, smiling broadly and adding, “It was my ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.”

Alice saved all of his letters on the recommendation of one of her Cornell professors who admired White and had seen vast talent in the young writer. She told me she was glad she had not thrown away any of it away, a correspondence which lasted for more than forty years. It wasn’t because of his fame, she explained, but because she cherished their friendship.
Alice set the pile of papers on top of a collection of paperweights covering the surface of a side table near her chair while she searched for an old canvas tote bag to put them in, a giveaway from the Mark Twain library, a place she still frequented. With the bag tucked under my arm, I turned to leave, but as I got to the old front door I knew so well, I looked over my shoulder to thank you again for the remarkable gift however temporary.
But she had turned her attention to her paperweights, her small hands cupping the beautiful glass, while humming to herself.

~

With Alice’s prompting when I was in my late twenties, I worked up the nerve to write to Mr. White, noting the association we shared. I told him how I too, had fallen in love with writing, and Charlotte’s Web was still one of my most favorite books and best friends.
“Dear Mr. White,” I began, “You and I have a few things in common. Two things we both love…”
I wrote and rewrote the letter, careful to check for spelling mistakes and finally mailed it. I received a prompt, concise reply about two weeks later. In it, he responded to my written plea for more stories from him, for a future child I might have to read to one day.
“I wish there could be more (writing) from me, but I have little hope of that now in my state of degeneration.”
At first, I didn’t understand. What did he mean? In my mind, he couldn’t possibly be ill, could he? But he was, and he died a handful of years later in 1985, in the house next to the barn on a rise where he wrote Charlotte’s Web. Alice died two years later.

~

After my husband, young daughter,and I moved to the farm in New Jersey, and during the unpacking, I came across the familiar canvas bag from the library of my Redding adolescence-The Mark Twain—the tote Alice had given me with E.B. White’s papers inside, decades ago. My fingers tingled as I lifted it from the old camp trunk where I had stored it for safe keeping and realizing in that moment, I had never returned the papers to her. Now it was too late. I had no idea how to find the Sumner’s two sons to ask if they wanted the papers back.
Many pennies a day overdue.

Now at my desk, I glance less frequently at our timothy fields and more at the work in front of me. I am doing what I love, but when I am stuck, I look at the framed copy of the manually typed letter hanging above my desk, the one Mr. White sent me more than three-decades ago. Then I think of Alice.
“I am glad,” White wrote in his letter to me, “to know that my writings are still giving pleasure and solace to people today. Many thanks for taking the trouble to write.”
I remembered Alice and I read his letters to her together at the last Sumner Labor Day Picnic we shared together a number of years before the Summers moved to Florida, in hopes the warm weather would ease her arthritis pain.That night, she surprised me with uncharacteristic emotion, and leaned over and put her frail arms around me, wings I now realize I had thrived underneath for years.
“Thank you,” she said then, “for your friendship. I have treasured it.”
Not nearly as much as I have, I remember thinking.

I mourned Alice for many months after she died. I still miss her today, almost forty years later. In her honor, and to preserve the collection she loaned to me, I donated the works to The Rare and Manuscript Collection of the Cornell University Library, which holds White’s archives. They are there for public viewing and are occasionally brought out for special exhibits, of which I am always invited to attend.

Alice’s friendship never needed an invitation, it was always there for the sharing. I’ve saved every one of her letters, and although she was less famous than Mr. White, Alice was my hero. Her letters rest in the same old black camp trunk as White’s once did. The trunk is large, but not large enough to hold the handmade pocket envelope I pasted onto my heart, filled to the brim with Alice’s generosity.