Updike Remembered

(written the day the great man died)

Years ago, John Updike had a short story in The New Yorker about the death of a tall and salty woman who anyone familiar with his work could tell was his mother.

I knew it was his mom. I also knew he lived not 30 miles from me because my oldest girl’s Ninth Grade English teacher told the class as much. Her husband played cards with him and she had these kids reading some of his stories and I guess she just mentioned the town.

As soon as I heard it I got right on the phone to Directory Assistance and there he was, street number and all, so I wrote him a condolence note, enclosing with it something I had published about my own mom cracking jokes at her birthday party one minute and dead the next.  It also had in it a small black cat and a woman playing the cello; a white slab of pastry marble set into the wooden counter top of our 1890s pantry and the even more stunning death by heart failure of a much-loved youth in front of 20 pals at the close of a church retreat.

Mr. Updike answered immediately, on the first of three postcards I have had from him over the years. He said his mom had ‘keeled over’ in the kitchen and the neighbors had found her body. He thanked me for my thoughts and then made a remark so wonderful about my writing that when I was preparing to bring out my first book I wrote again to ask if I could print it on the cover.

Again came an immediate postcard: “OK on the quote. Good luck with the book,” it said and this one act of generosity is what has kept me going ever since.

I am not writing this to thank him for making me famous. I am not famous. I’m just a newspaper columnist looking to catch people at their best, or quirkiest or most outrageous.  I am writing to thank him for showing me what joy you can feel if you let yourself see everything as connected, which Physics teaches us it surely is.

Look at this short passage from “The Full Glass,” one of his most recent New Yorker stories and see if you don’t think it simply shines. In it his narrator and alter-ego is remembering a long-ago barn dance to which he invited a pretty and popular girl he had loved since kindergarten but rarely spoke to, a girl he never thought would say yes.

“I had been to barn dances before with my country cousins and knew the calls. Bow to your partner. Bow to your corner, All hands left. Women like all that, it occurs to me this late in life – connections and combinations, contact… As she got the hang of it, her trim waist swung into my hand with the smart impact of a drum- beat, a football catch, a lay-up off the reverberating backboard. I felt her moist sides and the soft insides beneath her rib cage, all taut in the spirit of the dance…”

Connection, combinations, contact. The drumbeat, the lay-up, the catch.

Who wrote about sports the way John Updike did? Or art for that matter? Or books? Or even love? It seems to me that in everything he wrote there are these surprising and wonderful revelations: that the sexual IS the spiritual, that all math is really music, and that friction brings heat and sometimes, if we’re lucky, babies.

“Never stop!” I earnestly wrote in my final letter to him last June, “and don’t even think about leaving the party early!”

He did though; he left it much too early and I see now that when he wrote this piece he probably knew there was a taxi outside waiting for him.

I hope that his ride in it was easy and that he is safe now in the shining world he could all but feel lying just beyond this world. And I know that strangers though we were, I will miss him for the rest of my days.

8 thoughts on “Updike Remembered

  1. Oh Terry, what a delight this site is. Thank you for sharing your talent and your stories. I’ll be returning again and again. Reading your stories makes me want to write even more. See you on the 1st.


  2. Hi Terry.( or Miss Marotta as we used to call you.) I loved your article about Eddie.I never had you as a teacher, but my friend Danny was in love with you. You must only have been a couple of years older than us back then ( we graduated in 1971.) I have two sons 10 and 12 and I found your story very entertaining. I write a little article called On The Sill Side for the Somerville News. It was great to see your work !!! Jimmy Del Ponte

  3. Terry;
    Ginny and I have been cleaning out our bookmarks to make room for the future.(yes kid you made the cut)Anyways, I just read your column, “Viva Viagra” aloud to Gin which had us laughing aloud to say the least.Latest development is the outdoor shower which our nephew Tyler (Johnny christened him TW)designed and built. The inaugural shower was this evening and it was perfect.
    Also, BIG STUFF HERE……
    WE are Grandparents! Your window awaits…

  4. Hi Terry, this blog is most entertaining! Thank you for including me on your list.
    I once had a cat (who looked remarkably like your boy) who needed the same operation for the same reason. It was in the mid ’70s and cost us a whopping $200 which we could ill afford, but we did it to save his life. He returned the favor by spending the next 12 years peeing on things belonging to us: the children’s shoes left in a pile; a dishtowel dropped on the floor; and finally, an iron fry pan left on the top of the stove. That was the last time he was allowed in the house (he lived another 8 years as a truly outdoor cat, but stayed with us the whole time, eating on the deck). He died at age 15 and we still mourned him despite his shortcoming.

  5. I read your article on guarding against MRSA. I have a few questions. My daughter has a roommate that might have MRSA on her thigh.she had a staf infection a year ago and the infection is back and worst.I am very concerned and so is my daughter. The girl is not very clean. Doesn’t the doctor or hospital have to notify the college? And Doesn’t she have to have a private room or go home till it closes up? Thankyou

  6. Good evening,

    I met you earlier this evening at my place of employment and am pleased to have found this blog. I whole heartedly enjoyed reading your thoughts and laughed out loud much to the chagrin of my cats who had joined me as I read. Please continue to think out loud for the rest of us……..

    Looking forward to many hours of smiles, laughter and tears.

  7. Terry. Love every bit of your work. So uplifting, so interesting. Keep up the great writing.

    I welcome you to meet with us again (any time you might have time.) I’m speaking for our writing group John Lester Writing Group (Wilmington, Tewksbury)We meet once a month.

  8. Hi,
    I used to read your work often in the local newspaper. That was long ago. I am glad that I have found you once again. Thanks for all that you do. I constantly use your “Summer won’t keep” line when trying to get my wife to go somewhere. Thanks again.

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