It is still clear in my head and heart, that first time experiencing “Charlotte’s Web”. It was kindergarten. And in the midst of my burgeoning love affair with books a trans-formative bomb was detonated: the possibilities of the medium were exposed with the tale of Fern, her radiant, humble pig and a spider. It was the first story I’d ever read or heard that felt as if it had real life impact…and it contained a moment above all the others that sticks out 32 years later.
Mrs. Windringer was reading the part in the story where Charlotte was feeling weak. Something was wrong, my heart and head were in alarm. Even as a Kindergartner my sense of foreshadowing was in tune…I did not know what that literary term meant, but I knew it when I heard it.
Then… Templeton and the egg sac, Charlotte left to die alone…it was a tough lesson. I was melancholy for days, not even Star Wars could clear the funk.
Sure there was joy at the end when Charlotte’s children decided to stay with our hero Wilbur. But as Wilbur himself stated, it was never the same. Charlotte was a true friend, she sacrificed her health, her future, her life to save his. It set the bar for friendship high for this guy. It was a measure never met, most especially by me. If only I could be a Charlotte.
While walking through Wegmans a few weeks ago I noticed that “Charlotte’s Web” was on sale for three bucks. Three bucks! How could they even think of giving away such a classic for such a pittance?
The book was part of a county-wide reading project. Before I could think of the potential heartache to come, a copy was in my basket. Anna saw the book, with all the animals and Fern on the cover, and hugged it. There was no turning back, in more ways than one. Revisiting the story was bound to be painful, but perhaps a necessary lesson for my girl. Her life to this point has not been touched with any profound and personal loss.
“Charlotte’s Web” became the first book I’ve ever read to Anna that was not a picture book. She was leery at first, wanting that pictorial crutch that can be so hard to give up. Once we got started she snuggled in and enjoyed the story. Whenever I looked down I could see her brain working hard to fill in the gaps that pictures normally did. She was falling in love with the Zuckerman’s farm, just as I had 32 years prior.
About halfway through the book I was expecting her to go vegetarian on me. Though a profound bacon inhaler, she was clearly troubled by the realization of where the delectable treat came from. Anna was very concerned for poor Wilbur. One night at the end of our two chapter trip to the farm she looked up at me and asked, “Is Wilbur going to be alright”. “Yes”, I said, knowing full well that while the pig was safe, heartbreak awaited.
At the pace of two chapters a night I could not hold off the inevitable for long. That did not stop me from trying. Days passed without the binding cracking an inch. While in the car one day my wife asked Anna who her favorite characters from the book were. Anna rattled off “Fern and Wilbur” immediately. In the pause between those two, I relaxed…”thank goodnes…
“Oh and I love Charlotte. She is so smart and a good friend.”
My wife saw my panicked look and smiled. I knew that no delays would save me. That night we finished the book.
Anna curled in tighter as Charlotte grew weaker. She kept looking up at me as I did my best not to react to both the story and Anna’s emotional response to it. As I watched a bit of her naiveté melt away I was both saddened and content.
Life is tough, certainly much more than the tale of a pig and his spider friend who sacrifices herself for him. Starting the process of understanding life and death is an important one. At six years old Anna is lucky that her first experience with these heavy realities was with Wilbur and Charlotte. But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, especially at her age.
In the days since reading the book Anna has been more affectionate, which is something considering she was already an all-timer in that regard. She has also started to read “Charlotte’s Web” to my four-year old son. At first I was thinking of intervening. At four was he ready for this? Then I thought of Anna, my sweet, sensitive Anna and how this would help her process her feelings. And life didn’t care that James was four. I’ll check in with both daily to see how the book was going, and step in when needed.