Most of his letters — those I have not mislaid in the chaos of my cluttered home — were mailed to me from the Florida Keys, where he lived for “the greater part,” he said, of his final years on the island of Tavernier. He had previously lived for more than 30 years in Northampton, Mass., but now returned there, it appeared, only intermittently.
His health, he told me in 2015, had gone into a serious decline the year before. “I was six weeks in the hospital,” he wrote — “stroke, heart, lung and kidney” — and had “almost died.” But he kept on writing lively and amusing letters, some of them surprisingly irreverent and political. “As far as our dear leader goes,” he said of Donald Trump, “his grandfather should have stayed in Germany.” He asked me, “Did you know that the Heinz tomato sauce guy” (actually, the father of that “guy”) “came from the same village at about the same time” as our dear leader’s family did? His letters were full of odd little detours like this that he found intriguing.
And he kept on sending pictures. One was of a reindeer that had flowers growing from its antlers. Others were abstractions. One was just a swirl of red and purple strokes that looked like squirmy creatures against a yellow-speckled background. Another consisted of vertical and horizontal strokes that seemed to be defying one another.
In the winter of 2018 he told me, “Just bought a red car yesterday.” He said he couldn’t “figure out all the new gizmos” on the dashboard, but he seemed to be exuberant (I hope this isn’t disrespectful), like a very young boy who had been given a new toy. “After cataract surgery,” he wrote, “my eyes are good,” so he was free to drive himself around. Still, he noted, “nature is chipping away at us.” He had lost his wife to cancer more than two years before. “I miss her,” he wrote, “every day and hour.”
When his own death at the age of 91 was reported in the press, many of my readers and old friends and teachers of young children sent me thoughtful emails, because I’d spoken frequently of how much his work had meant to me. It was a teacher in a first-grade classroom in the early 1980s who had introduced me, and managed to addict me, to one of the early Eric Carle books she loved. My memory is fuzzy, but I think the book she showed me was probably “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” I soon discovered others by him in the classrooms I was visiting. There was a book about a “Little Cloud” who wanders off and changes into different shapes: a soft white sheep, a puffy-looking rabbit with long ears. There was a book about a lonely mouse — “Do You Want to Be My Friend?” And, of course, there was the endearing “Grouchy Lady Bug” with big black spots against her shell of red. And one book led me to the next.