Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Father's Tears

As an English major at a small, private Methodist college in the 1970s, my courses in English were limited to the staples -- Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, British poetry, and early twentieth century American literature. As a graduate student, the choices included more variety -- Faulkner, Robinson and Frost, Dante, the Russians, French and German novels, and the poetry of John Donne. I finished my degrees in 1990, and I did not study for any of them -- anything written after 1960.

John Updike was not part of my collegiate course study, falling into that category of American writers of the latter part of the 20th century. I hope that current students enrolled in English classes now are assigned essays or short fiction by Updike, who will hold up to time as a significant American writer.

In the 1980s, a fellow teacher asked me if I had read the novels of Updike, most notably the ones called the Rabbit series, starring the small town athlete Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Considering myself at the time a reader of fiction, I attempted to read one of them and found them slow --- too small town --- too male -- and perhaps too far from my own experience to be relevant - Rabbit's sexual conquests alone a little off putting, and Updike's pun not lost on me. :)

As a reader of The New Yorker for the last twenty years, I have read essays and short stories by Updike and grown to respect him as a writer -- finding not necessarily his political or religious views aligned with mine [after all he is a Yankee and a liberal ...LOL), but some of his social commentary is incisive and thought provoking.

In one of his essays in the fall of 2001, Updike wrote poignantly about the tragedy of 911, an event that he and his wife observed from their Manhattan apartment fourteen blocks away. His reporting on that event -- personal and poetic - moved me to tears. I actually kept the magazine that contains it.

His short fiction also appealed to me because he wrote nostalgically of his childhood and used his experiences effectively to relay his sheltered but interesting upbringing. Perhaps, I am old enough to appreciate what he has preserved for American fiction -- or maybe, in my humble opinion, this is his best form.

I doubt that I will try another of the Rabbit novels -- but I just finished My Father's Tears and other stories, a collection of the last short stories written by Updike, who died in January of this year, and apparently wrote up to the last days of his life.

Perhaps, I now feel a connection with Updike. Even though Updike was fifteen years younger than my own father, in the majority of these short stories, he made me think of my father and mother's generation. Born in the 1930s, Updike, an only child, grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the home of his grandparents. My father too was an only child and grew up in his grandparents home in a small town in Missouri...

but it is Updike's reminiscences of this era that make me think of my parents, especially my father, and the things he remembered from his own childhood.

Eighteen short stories made up this collection. Most of the stories had elderly protagonists -- their commonality -- wealth, ability to travel, and time on their hands. These characters thought about their past, sometimes the way they had wronged others, seemed confused about the fast paced world they lived in now, but were totally "okay" with being in the last years of their lives. Updike writes vividly about the infirmities of old age -- about the fears, the memory lapses, and the emotional pain that comes with outlasting your wife, your classmates, or even your children -- or about being unable to follow directions to an unfamiliar place.

I liked something about all of the stories; some of them stuck with me returning me to memories of my own parents' stories of growing up in the Depression as well as the problems they encountered as they aged. Whether Updike was recollecting the kitchen of his grandparents with details like "oilcloths, tin dippers, Bakelite phone, or "linoleum" or carefully illustrating the small town five and dimes with their "overhead pneumatic tubes and Philcos," he incorporated autobiography by using his childhood and young adulthood memory to tell these stories and give realistic pictures that only someone who had experienced it first hand could do. His vivid details were reminicient of the stories my parents told of their coming of age in the Depression, not in the shadow of it as Updike did. Regardless, Updike reinforced in his stories the impact of that time, a time that made a lasting impression on my parents and obviously Updike.

In the short story "My Father's Tears," he describes the train station of his youth, a place that "you felt safe inside... being built for eternity, when railroads ... looked to be with us forever. The station was a foursquare granite temple with marble floors, a high ceiling whose gilded coffers glinted through a coating of coal smoke. The tall-backed waiting benches were as dignified as church pews.... [but]within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop and eventually the station, like railroad stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. The fine old building like an over sized mausoleum... all the life it had once contained ... sealed into silence, and for the rest of the century it ignominiously waited .. to be razed."

In this passage, Updike's description reminded me of the sentimentality that I listened to from my parents's generation of the rapidly changing and unpredictability of the future. They talked about train travel and train stations -- its romance, its adventure, and its being such a comfortable way to get from place to place -- much more than the automobile, which was mechanically unreliable -- plus, they were notorious for flat tires.

As a child, I rode the train from downtown Atlanta to my grandparent's home in Virginia -- leaving from a grand building very much like the one Updike brings to life in this story.

In "Free" he tells the story of an elderly man who did not appreciate his "boring" wife until she succumb to cancer, and he moved about for two years with the numbness of her absence. In yet another, "The Walk with Elizanne," he writes about a man going back to his fiftieth high school reunion and being embarrassed as a classmate he hardly remembers tries to takes him down memory lane, a vague and foggy place.

One short story, "Varieties of Religious Experiences," Updike imagines the experiences of the hijackers and one of their victims prior to their deaths in September of 2001 -- one of two stories that Updike obviously deters from his usual point of view.

Updike worked best in the short story --- like all writers, they write best about what they knew -- and what Updike knew --- radiators, Canasta, coal chutes, Katzenjammer kids, mechanical change makers, and first run movie theaters is his own history.... American history that I experienced vicariously because of my own parents.

The beauty of fiction is that it can freeze time -- and there is no more wonderful time to freeze than your own. :)


  1. You have a talent for making us feel the stories. A great talent, by the way. I won't be reading Updike.

  2. I would like to read the story he wrote as he watched 911 unfold. Will you make a copy of it for me sometime?