Illustrated by Christine Mitchell Adams
To prepare for married life, she’s looking to one of Maine’s great love stories.
BY BOBBIE FORD
I was having coffee in my kitchen the other day when I looked out and spotted two squirrels hugging in the backyard. Our place in North Yarmouth has these floor-to-ceiling windows that let in the most amazing light, and I like to start my mornings meditating on the scene. Most winter days, it’s one of beautiful stillness: clusters of pines and birches, their shadows falling on white. So my eyes went straight to the two squirrels as they scurried out from behind a tree, chased each other, wrestled a bit, and then — just like that — paused to embrace.
I appreciated the comic relief. I was stressed out at the time, jotting notes for what’s turning out to be the hardest writing assignment of my life: my wedding vows. Michael proposed over Thanksgiving, and the months since have been a mild whirlwind of lining up vendors and nailing down details. We want to incorporate Maine into our day as much as possible: lupines on the tables, a rustic barn for the reception, and wild blueberry jam samplers for favors. So far, the planning had been fun, but now I was stymied by the vows: how was I going to put my love and commitment coherently into words? Those affectionate, anthropomorphic rodents in my backyard certainly cheered me up. They also reminded me of someone I could turn to for inspiration: my childhood hero, E.B. White.
Elwyn Brooks White, whose graceful prose made Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little into American classics, is the reason I pursued a career in children’s books. He’s also the reason I don’t eat pork (or spiders), why I refrain from using semi-colons, and a major influencer on my decision to make my dream of living in Maine a reality. Two years ago, I was a publishing executive living in New York City, a dream in its own way, but one that had run its course. Burnt out and looking for a change, I did what I normally do in moments of existential crisis — I turned to writers I love. Looking for strength and motivation, I immersed myself in Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed, and Mary Oliver. But the book that moved me most was Essays of E.B. White.
The more I read, the clearer it was to me that, for the Whites, moving to Maine informed not only E.B. and Katharine’s work, but also their persons and their relationship.
E.B. White and his wife, Katharine, were urban people by upbringing and New Yorkers by vocation, but their hearts belonged to the Pine Tree State. In 1934, four years after they married, the two fled Manhattan to their North Brooklin farmhouse to live full-time. They shared 48 years on the farm, Katharine gardening and editing fiction for The New Yorker, and E.B. tending to their animals and writing. Many of his essays are filled with affectionate musings on his adopted state, as well as anecdotes of the many shared moments he and Katharine spent enjoying their land.
In one piece, he recalls an unusually dry spring, when the two “spent a fine, peaceable hour in the pretty twilight,” attempting to save her dying flowers. In another, looking forward to spring, he anticipates “a scroll of blessed events in garden and in barn.” The more I read, the clearer it was to me that, for the Whites, moving to Maine informed not only his and Katharine’s work, but also their persons and their relationship.
“I liked sailing, and Kay loved the country,” E.B. told a New York Times interviewer, a few years after Katharine’s death. “There was never a dull moment, never a dull day, year in and year out. I think if I’d turned out to be a bum writer, our marriage would have gone on.” I was moved by this notion, that a place could provide such fulfillment, enough to sustain a whole marriage. I mustered up the courage to leave New York.
One day last summer, Michael and I were hiking through Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, marveling at our luck for finding one another: two people from away, taking refuge in the state at the same time. He’d moved here from Pennsylvania two weeks before I did, looking for the same peace that I was — we were dating before I’d even paid my first electricity bill. I was breathless from the hike, so we stopped for a rest in a secluded grove. Michael tightened his boots, winked at me, and shinnied up a tree. As I watched him ascend, I thought about our courtship and Maine’s place in it: The afternoons spent drawing pictures in the sand at Crescent Beach, our trip riding scooters through Acadia. I remembered the time we saw a double rainbow over Portland’s Eastern Prom and the nights spent singing karaoke in Old Port bars. The more I remembered, the more I felt my body relax, the more the machinery of my heart steadied to a peaceful pulse in my chest.
We marveled at our luck for finding one another: two people from away, taking refuge in the state at the same time. He’d moved here looking for the same peace that I was.
The branches rustled as Michael descended, and he nearly fell on his behind. I laughed and helped dust him off. Then we sat on a log for a long while, talking about our past, our future, and other silly things. During the moments when silence overtook our conversation, we stared at the leaf-covered ground beneath our boots, at the piece of the world we were lucky enough to find ourselves in. Eventually, the sun fell, and it was time to go home.
I think back on that day in Pownal as a moment when we channeled a “best practice” of that couple I’ve come to admire, taking time to enjoy our surroundings, letting our mutual appreciation for this place nurture our relationship. I have a hard time imagining the Whites’ love story had it continued to play out in New York City. Or ours, for that matter, had Michael and I met in my Brooklyn or his Erie. It’s not that I believe relationships are shaped solely by place, or that those that are meant to be can’t endure anywhere. But the Whites showed me all that a setting can gift a partnership, and I’m profoundly grateful that ours is Maine.
The Whites are gone now, and their farmhouse in North Brooklin has recently found another new owner. If I’d have had the money, I’d have bought it so Michael and I could share our next 50 years there. For now, though, we’ll live by E.B. and Katharine’s example and enjoy our spot in North Yarmouth, with its tender loving squirrels, here in the state that has nourished us in the same ways I know our marriage will.
This is how I’ll begin my wedding vows this summer.