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Richard Sheffield: Life's simple joys are a web of ordinary miracles

By Richard Sheffield

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Wilbur (left) and Charlotte (right) in "Charlotte's Web."

Paramount Pictures

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With a fervor acquired in fourth grade, my wife urged me to read Charlotte's Web. Annette loved the timeless tale of Fern, the farm girl who sought to save the runt of a pig litter, and Charlotte, the barn spider who engineered the rescue. When our youngest, Ryan, began the children's classic in early November 2006, I did too.

We alternated reading and talked with Annette about each turn in the story. Ryan and I became enmeshed in the plot and characters spun by E.B. White. Annette revived childhood memories.

We shared these discussions on our bed. Annette was fighting appendix cancer, weighed less than 90 pounds and could not digest foods. She received her only nutrients through an IV line connected each night. Weakness, nausea and achiness kept her mainly home bound.

Our chats became uplifting "simple joys" for us — those seemingly ordinary things that bring meaningful happiness. For Annette, they were similar to quiet baths, strawberry-rhubarb pies (B.C. – before cancer), and changing seasons on the mountains surrounding us.

While struggling for life, Annette kept observing these somewhat common developments that somehow stirred uncommonly good feelings. She listed such things as "pansies in the backyard," "kids helping with dinner and dishes" and "feelings of peace." Seeing them as heaven-sent, she adopted two more terms for them — "silver linings" and "tender mercies."

After we finished reading Charlotte's Web, Thanksgiving came and our entire family watched the Macy's Parade broadcast, a favorite tradition from Annette's youth. We were surprised and excited to see a float touting an upcoming movie based on the book, with Dakota Fanning as Fern and Julia Roberts as voice for computer-animated Charlotte.

Atop the float, Sarah McLachlan sang the movie's theme song, "Ordinary Miracle." The lyrics could have been Annette's:

"It's not that unusual, when everything is beautiful. It's just another ordinary miracle today.

The sky knows when it's time to snow. Don't need to teach a seed to grow. It's just another ordinary miracle today."

We had to see the movie. Later one evening, Annette, Ryan and I were home alone. Ryan hesitantly asked Annette if she would be up to going that night. She was. We left home, and Mom was with us.

We watched the warm portrayal from center seats in the theater, glancing at each other during favorite scenes. Annette's and Ryan's faces shined with youthful exuberance, and in a few spots, we shared tears.

Charlotte brings attention to Wilbur the pig by spinning words about him in her web: "some pig," "terrific," "radiant" and "humble." Fern's mother asks the local doctor if he understands how there could be writing in a spider's web.

"Oh, no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle."

As the final scene closed, McLachlan sang what we felt in sharing Charlotte's story and its retelling through the parade, movie and music. These simple joys were a web of ordinary miracles for us.

Four months later, we lost Annette.

Small things continue to stir memories of her. Recently, I could not find my copy of "The Elements of Style," the little handbook on writing grammatically and simply, and meaningfully. Many know it as "Strunk & White," after its authors.

Professor Will Strunk wrote the guide for his students at Cornell, including one Elwyn Brooks White in 1919. Four decades later, as a highly-acclaimed essayist for The New Yorker, White rediscovered and updated the stylebook, added an introduction and a chapter on writing clearly, and published it broadly, now having reached more than 10 million.

While on the Internet ordering a new copy, I realized that this "White" also authored Charlotte's Web. Tender feelings returned. Wanting to share them, I approached my two daughters who majored in English and writing, and asked, "Who wrote Charlotte's Web, and can you name another of his books?"

With hints, my daughters also connected a silken thread from the little book about good writing — to the beloved book about a spider — and then to Annette. While tearfully missing her, we somehow felt uplifted in remembering how she found joy in simple things, saw silver linings in dark ominous clouds and felt blessed with God-given mercies. We relived the ordinary miracles interwoven with our last Thanksgiving with her.

E.B. White's initials make a telling, simple anagram — WEB.

Richard W. Sheffield is a business lawyer and a member of the Provo school board. He studies and writes about how we and our children learn and grow most, using the theme "Light 2 Life." He can be reached at RSheffield@FSLaw.com

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