Story weaves lessons of love, loss and legacy
By Marty Wiggins
Women’s Fund of Smith County
Everyone has a favorite grade school teacher and mine was Mrs. Weaver, a cheerful, grey-haired woman who loved her third graders. While I’m sure we learned many things in grammar, math and science, my cherished memories from that year involve books. After lunch and recess, when a classroom full of kids was wound up, Mrs. Weaver had the perfect afternoon antidote: story time. As we lay our arms and heads on our desks, she would pick up reading from the day before or start a new book.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
Thus began the story of Charlotte’s Web, the literary classic by E. B. White that has engaged and enlightened children (and adults) since its publication in 1952. Let’s recap: a new-born piglet – and runt of the litter – is saved from untimely death by Fern Arable, when her father deems him too small to keep. Fern devotes herself to the young pig, naming him Wilbur and feeding him from a baby bottle. In a few weeks he is old enough to move down the road to the large farm of her uncle, Homer Zuckerman. Fern spends time with him almost every day, but Wilbur is still lonely. Things worsen when the barn animals tell him that spring pigs are killed in the winter for ham and bacon.
As Fern sits quietly and listens, Charlotte – a large grey spider – befriends Wilbur and takes on the challenge to save his life. Through creativity and skill, Charlotte weaves “Some Pig” into her web, words seen glistening in the morning dew by the Zuckermans. Over several weeks, other descriptive messages about Wilbur follow in succession: “Terrific,” “Radiant” and “Humble.” People far and wide come to see the miracle of the web and especially the celebrated white pig. The notoriety results in a special prize awarded to Wilbur and Mr. Zuckerman at the local fair, thereby changing the pig’s fate and ensuring a long life.
Sadly, after laying her sac of spider eggs, Charlotte dies, as spiders must do. Wilbur, although devastated, protects the egg sac through the winter and then welcomes 514 baby spiders in the spring. Three of them – Joy, Aranea and Nellie – decide to stay with Wilbur in the old barn and pledge their friendship.
Charlotte’s Web is a Newberry Honor Book, and E. B. White was awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1970 for his work. However, the book’s greatest distinction lies in the wealth of lessons woven through the pages and impacting readers over generations.
First, stand up for injustice in the world and apply your resources, just as Fern earnestly applied herself to the unwanted piglet. Next, notice someone who is lonely. Offer “Salutations!” as you introduce yourself and begin a friendship.
Be mindful of each day you are given. Remember as a child when a summer day could seemingly last forever? Try to capture that same spirit. Then, keep your eyes open for miracles. As the Zuckermans’ minister explained, the words on the spider’s web proved that we must “always be on watch for the coming of wonders.”
Understand that those who give to others enrich their own lives as well. When Wilbur asks Charlotte why she showed him such kindness, she talked of friendship and noted, “By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
Talk to children about death, how it is a part of life. They will surely encounter death soon enough, whether it is the loss of a family pet or a grandparent. Perhaps the words of Charlotte’s Web helped me, as a nine-year-old, better face my father’s early death from cancer just a year after hearing the story.
Finally, like Charlotte – who was “beautiful, brilliant, and loyal to the end” – we can all leave a legacy. No one who saw her intricately woven words ever forgot the miracle of Charlotte’s web. Wilbur treasured the memory of his heroine year-to-year as he enjoyed “the changing seasons . . . the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”
During this season of Thanksgiving, find a young child and a copy of Charlotte’s Web. (If no child is available, read the book yourself.) Let’s be thankful for the dedicated teachers who instill a love of reading, for the friendships which sustain us through good times and bad and for the books that bestow lessons of giving and living and the glory of everything.
The Women’s Fund of Smith County extends Happy Thanksgiving wishes in honor of all those who serve our community. We are a giving circle of more than 270 women, who collectively provide high-impact grants that benefit women and children. For information on membership, please call 903-509-1771 or visit www.womensfundsc.org. Marty Wiggins is a Past Chair of the Women’s Fund and professionally provides fundraising counsel to charitable organizations.