For E. B. White’s readers and family, a sense of trust came easily.

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  1. Lately I have been missing my stepfather, Andy White, who keeps excusing himself while he steps out of the room to get something from his study or heads out the back kitchen door, on his way to the barn again. He’ll be right back. I can hear the sound of that gray door—the steps there lead down into the fragrant connecting woodshed—as the lift-latch clicks shut. E. B. White died in 1985—twenty years ago, come October—and by “missing” I don’t mean yearning for him so much as not being able to keep hold of him for a bit of conversation or even a tone of voice. In my mind, this is at his place in North Brooklin, Maine, and he’s almost still around. I see his plaid button-down shirt and tweed jacket, and his good evening moccasins. One hand is holding a cigarette tentatively—he’ll smoke it halfway down and then stub it out—and he turns in his chair to put his Martini back on the Swedish side table to his right. It must be about dinnertime. What were we talking about, just now? We were close for almost sixty years, and you’d think that a little back-and-forth—something more than a joke or part of an anecdote—would survive, but no. What’s impossible to write down, soon afterward, is a conversation that comes easily.

    Here we are, instead, on a frigid December day in 1929, walking up a steep stretch of Pinckney Street, on Beacon Hill, in Boston. The narrow brick sidewalk is snowy in places, and the going is harder for Andy than it is for me, because he’s wearing ice skates. He’s be...