I have loved E.B. White since I was an elementary school child, eagerly listening to my teacher read the class Charlotte’s Web. We’d come in red and sweaty from running in the sun, soaring high on swings, shooting baskets, or jumping rope. We’d sit down and the teacher would say we could put our heads on our desks, could cool our flushed cheeks on their chilly surface. And then she would open the book and begin to read and I’d be swept away, pulled into the story and, what was more, pulled into the sound of the words, their rhythm and beauty. Even then, White stood out to me as I fell in love with his style before I knew what style was.
Years later, in high school, I found a book of White’s essays and was delighted to learn that the Charlotte’s Web guy had written for adults. I sat outside that night beside a dying fire and I read until it was too dark to make out the words and still I remember the pleasure of that, of reading as the fire crackled, as the smoke perfumed the air, as the sun set in beauty beneath the barren fall trees, as I laughed and ached over the words I read, as I fell in love with this brilliant author all over again.
Years passed and covid came and I found myself in a dreary apartment, alone much of the time, and I came across another collection of White’s work. I bought it and devoured it, reading in long, thirsty gulps, reading and becoming a part of the world again, a world where people and nature were connected, where the little things of life that are so often swept aside were examined, seen for their place at the center of life.
This fall, I taught my own class of third graders Charlotte’s Web. They fell in love as I had. They were swept into the story, understanding what was important right away, understanding this tale of friendship and love, though they did require several lessons on inflation before they could understand the prices that are mentioned throughout the book. But, of course, it doesn’t matter how much money Fern’s father gives her at the fair, there’s no question what price Charlotte pays for her babies.
So it was with gratitude toward White, for having given me some successful lessons, for having taught my class some important things, that I returned to my little blue book of his essays. I found myself focused on a short, unassuming one called "What Do Our Hearts Treasure?"
In this essay, White relates his experience of spending Christmas in sunny Florida rather than snowy New England where he and his wife have always known Christmas in the past. The essay is simple, nothing much happens, and yet I return to it again and again. He tells of the shocking pink house he has rented sight unseen, of his wife’s crying spells, which she claims are on account of the situation in Vietnam—an explanation he doesn’t believe, and of a man who comes to fix the heating system and spends hours a day, “in a kneeling position, as though he were a figure in a creche, gazing at the table of tubes and wires left by the removal of the burned-out compressor. He, too, seemed melancholy, but did not weep. He kept his own counsel and did what he could, hour after hour, to remedy an almost impossible situation.” He’s described a repair man at work and somehow it makes me want to cry. We learn that White’s grandchildren have performed in a pageant, his granddaughter reciting something called What Do Our Hearts Treasure? It is a lovely title to an unknown work, a title that makes one think, stop and consider, what do our hearts treasure? It is a question I have been asking myself, in one form or another, as Christmas grows near and another year draws to a close.
I find myself wondering what is truly important to me, what I ought to focus my energy and attention on. It’s not a novel or even particularly interesting question. There are clear answers, too. Just as everyone is supposed to say, “well the important thing is you weren’t hurt,” when someone totals their car without winding up in the hospital, just as they aren’t ever to let on that it would’ve been better if the driver could’ve not been hurt and not totaled the car, too, the things our hearts treasure are meant to be family and friends, maybe pets or good health or nature. And this is true, I think, for most people, at least some combination or variation of those things are important to nearly everyone. But what of the other things? The little things that aren’t really little in the view of a lifetime. The beauty of fresh fallen snow, the feel of warm arms embracing you, the smell of coffee in the morning. How can we begin to recognize these moments each day?
White buys a poinsettia, but feels silly, its red flowers hardly special among the natural blooms of Florida. Instead of a Christmas tree, they buy something tropical called Dracaena marginata, the man selling it had called it Imaginata and White remarks that he preferred that. So do I.
White treasures words, as do I. Am I comparing myself to White? He’s brilliant, a genius. I’ve written some pretty good copy for a deodorant company. And yet, I think he wouldn’t mind. I feel I know him and perhaps I do. I know his writing, I know how he saw the world and I know that I have been moved to awe by the everyday scenes around me as he so often was. In high school, I was desperate to discover my place in the world and I know that White’s words brought me closer to my destination. And so my heart treasures his work, as it treasures the work of many writers, writers who showed me that I was not alone.
I imagine White driving his little potted plant to his rented home, perhaps it is buckled into the passenger seat, perhaps his right arm reaches out automatically when he takes a rough curve, protects the flower from harm. I imagine his confused sorrow as he drives past fields of blooming flowers, sorry his little plant no longer seems so special, aware even in his sorrow that if he loves flowers he ought to love the ones he sees outside his window.
Then a package arrives, gifts from home, and with it comes an answer to the question of what our hearts treasure, or, at least, what White’s treasured. Inside is a branch from a balsam fir. White’s wife buries her nose in it, delighted. The package also contains photos of grandchildren and a little paper drum one had made. White places the drum at the foot of the little tropical tree and creates a paper star and cornucopia to decorate it. He looks out the window and for a moment is sure the Australian pines have “hardened up momentarily for this hour of splendor. They were spruce! They were birch! They were fir!” In that simple package, White and his wife received the treasures of their hearts—family in the form of photos, home in the form of a tree branch trimmed from the backyard woods, love in the form of a tiny drum carefully made, carefully packaged, carefully mailed thousands of miles, and carefully placed beneath a tree, a tree that had no history as a Christmas tree, but became one as soon as the heartfelt gift was placed beneath it.
I don’t know what your heart may treasure, but I wish you plenty of it this year. And I think it holds true that, so long as we have love in our hearts, the world around us will be transformed, our dreams will come true, the Australian pines all around us will harden momentarily for an hour of splendor.
Megan Neary is a writer and teacher living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in After Dinner Conversation, The Cleveland Review of Books, The Amethyst Review, and various other publications. She also co-edits Flyover Country Literary Magazine.