(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.