April

Growing up Updike

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David Updike — son of acclaimed author John Updike and current John Updike Scholar in Residence at Alvernia University — offers Alvernia Magazine a glimse of his life, "Growing up Updike."

A couple of months ago, in early June, I attended a retirement party for a neighborhood couple, here in Cambridge, Mass. I met a pleasant couple there, both psychiatrists, and after we had spoken for a while they asked me what my full name was, as I had introduced myself, as is my habit, only as David. “Updike,” I added, reluctantly, and they looked at me quizzically for a minute before asking the inevitable “Any relation?”

“Oh, well, yes.” I confessed, and after a pause added, “Direct relation.”

“Really?” one asked, eyes twinkling, doing the math, then guessed. “Father?”

“Yes, it’s true,” I said.

“Really?” the woman asked, studying me, as if for genetic verification.

“I’m afraid so,” I said.

“Now that you mention it, there is a resemblance — it must be true!”

My wife was there to buffer the revelation, and after some more chitchat the lady of the couple offered, “That must have been very hard, growing up.” This, too, is a common assumption. “Especially, as an English teacher who also writes!”

I put up some mild resistance, suggested it was not so difficult, that he was a good, loving father, most people had it far worse, and managed to shift the topic onto their children, who all lived in faraway states. But she was still chewing over my paternity.

“You do look like him, now that you mention it,” she said. I still felt the impulse to defend myself from their worry, but eventually I drifted away into safer social waters. But in the days to follow, I mulled over their question, and wondered if this was a very modern, post-Freudian idea — that the sons and daughters of the famous and successful must necessarily be burdened, or overshadowed, in some basic, Oedipal way. And if this is true, why am I reluctant to accept it — the obvious fact of my difficult childhood, and psychological torment thereafter?

As children, we grew up with the click-and-clackety sound of his typewriter — a battleship gray, Olympia manual — in our ears, and a gathering sense of his success, then growing fame. By the time I was seven he had published “Rabbit, Run,” then won the national book award from “The Centaur,” and moved his office from our house to a larger space in a modest, somewhat run-down office building downtown that he shared with a dentist, accountants and other such small businesses.

There, on a side table, lay “The Centaur,” with a picture of a half horse, half man. At night, he sat in a chair, reading proofs — long, scroll-like pieces of paper, on which he made small adjustments with a pencil. One fall, my grandparents arrived from Pennsylvania, with a basketful of fruit and a skittish dog, to look after us while my parents went to Russia for a month on a state department tour. His picture began to appear in magazines, and he was even sometimes on TV. A year or two later, Russians visited us, bearing gifts, and we took them for a lively walk on the beach, dogs and children included. Perhaps only with the publication of “Couples” in 1968, and the news from my friends that my father wrote a “dirty book,” did I feel a twinge of unease, tempered by the knowledge he would be paid $400,000 for the movie rights! For soon we were on a boat, crossing the ocean in my new gray flannel pants, to spend the year in England attending a fancy American school and making side trips to Amsterdam, Austria for skiing, and then Morocco in April, to get some warmth and sun. Then by June, we flew back to America.

updike circa 1970s

Photo: David plays cards with his dad at Martha’s Vineyard, circa mid-1970s

My parents were still very young, in their thirties, and by my estimation the best-looking couple in their groups of friends — my father certainly the cleverest and most famous, my mother surely the most beautiful. But as a child my father had psoriasis, and asthma, and so shied away from organized sports, and even, I believe, felt inferior to the sports stars at Shillington High — the Harry Angstroms of his class.

My mother had played field hockey in high school, and was an excellent ice skater, and they took us for long skating expeditions up the Ipswich River, back when it still froze solid. They played volleyball on Sunday afternoons, and then all migrated to someone else’s house, for “cocktails.” They learned to play tennis, and ski, and we all went on Pleasant Mountain in February, where they had renamed the beginners slope “Rabbit Run,” after his best-known novel.

In tennis and skiing, they both became what I might call elegant intermediates. My father played kickball with us in the backyard, wheeling around the bases on long, loose legs while we frantically tried to retrieve the ball in some distant bushes. In the fall, there was touch football with the men, and in spring, before volleyball, half-court basketball, where he played shirtless and had a reliable, baby sky hook.

But he was not from here, Massachusetts, we were well aware: every summer, toward the middle of July, my parents packed us all into their blue or green station wagon of the time, left the cats and dog in the care of a neighbor, and off we would go, on a long, eight-hour drive to Pennsylvania, in the heat of the summer. None of our cars had air conditioning, so the miles went by in a rush and whirl of wind let in through the open windows. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut — Cross Bronx Expressway, then over the George Washington Bridge. There was a sort of wondrous awfulness to New Jersey — the smell, the power plants, the vast, murky marshes — and in the car patience and alliances were beginning to break down; skirmishes erupted which my father would try to regulate, with long, halfhearted swipes of his arm.

But by the time we reached the Delaware, and crossed it — celebrated with the inane song “Here comes David floating down the Delaware, chewing on his underwear, hope he has another pair” — the end seemed in sight. The wastelands of New Jersey gave way to the dense green throat of the Pennsylvania turnpike, occasional fields of corn, and this seemed to be where a part of real America began.

We began our watch for the first sighting of the smokestack of the Bethlehem steel plant, at Morgantown, our final exit to the farm. Then off we turned, paid the toll, and rose and fell through the familiar last turns, then turned at the Amishman’s farm, onto the red, dusty road up to the farm, rumbling between two fields of corn, the smell of pigs, as swirling cones of red dust settled behind us. We passed the barn, rocked over a drainage ditch, then rolled onto the yard where my grandfather was sitting on a green bench, next to a walnut tree, shucking corn.

Out we spilled, road weary and barefooted, into the rich fragrant air of Pennsylvania. The grass was cool with the first touch of dew. All around, pats on the back, half hugs, my father and his father shaking hands, holding on for a moment, and my grandmother emerging from the house from cooking, trying to contain two scary collies, Teddy and Laddie, one of whom had an inclination, to use my grandmother’s words, to ‘nip’ at people.

How did we spend our summer week, here in Pennsylvania? We took these same dogs for walks, up the dirt road to the corner of Weaver Road, as it sloped down to the Weavers’ house. We played croquet on the thick, sometimes prickly lawn, and contracted poison ivy on the bottoms of our feet, and between our toes. We played quoits with my grandfather — always in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up — and visited the barn, its vast, sweet-smelling reverent spaces, where my grandfather slept on a tiny cot, with the pigeons and the shuffling horse, George, below.

Once or twice, I believe, I slept there with him, on a cot of my own. My father took us to the Maple Grove swimming pool to cool off and have some fun, where the music played the compelling hit of that summer, and the addictive, decrescendo refrain, “red rubber ball…”

He took us to see his old house in Shillington, but was too shy to knock and ask to go in, so walked us back to the playing field, and the shelter where he used to play roof ball. Even at an early age I could sense his disappointment that we seemed to underappreciate these places which, for him, held such sweet, emotional weight — the memory of childhood, of his being seven, or so, and sprinting out of the side door of his house to join his friends in the Pennsylvania twilight, to play a final game of roof ball.

My grandfather took us to the drag races, now and then, where he found the sight of these cars “comical,” and on errands to get dog food, or milk or a bottle of wine for my parents, and there was always a vague sense of adventure about being out in the car with him, as though something unexpected could happen, or we would meet someone he considered wonderful or amusing.

But by the end of the week, my poison ivy between my toes had gotten worse; I had hay fever, and some mornings I woke up with my eyes glued shut by my own effluvia, which had to be steamed off with a hot washcloth, my hay fever no better. Plus, we were saltwater kids, my mother and grandmother didn’t have the easiest of relationships, and so one dewy morning, as the Pennsylvania heat was rising up from the hazy fields, we would pack up the car, and head back north, where these same grandparents would join us for Thanksgiving.

It must have been a surprise to my parents, as it was to me, when I started to write short stories, and then odder still, had them accepted by The New Yorker. Photography, not writing, had been my preferred medium, and I knew well that my father had toiled for a decade or so — sending off countless cartoons, and spots, and light verse — before his first poems were accepted by The New Yorker.

I knew that my own success was somehow unjustified — unearned. I need not have worried, for in my mid-twenties things got more difficult, and I was languishing in New York, where I had moved for no very good reason, and every couple of months I would call my grandmother in Plowville, and tell her I would be on my way. Her husband had died in 1972, and so she had been living alone on the farm for more than a decade.

She would be waiting, there at the Bieber bus terminal in Reading, in the familiar white car. We would stop at the Reading diner for lunch, then drive out to the farm. I would spend a couple of days there, helping her with errands, doing a few chores around the house, taking walks by myself, wondering what I should do with the rest of my life. I found these visits reassuring, somehow, calming, and I would return to the city with a somewhat renewed sense of purpose.

She, too, was a writer; she had published in The New Yorker, and her first collection of short stories, “Enchantment,” was published when she was in her 50s. Perhaps she served as a more realistic literary role model than my father, whose fame and productivity were of a level only a fool or a genius could aspire to. There was a quiet dignity she showed me, in doing what you can, writing a story here and there, and being grateful for whatever success came your way. She published a second collection, “The Predator,” the year she died, 1989.

I’m not sure my father was thrilled when I decided to go into teaching, like his father. He had witnessed his own father’s travails and torments with “classroom management,” and he had evaded teaching after a single summer class at Harvard, but must have seen that teaching was a more viable way for me to make my way in the world. He had always been very encouraging, and full of praise when I published something, and would ask me, shyly, on the golf course, how “things are going.”

He must have seen, too, that I was very social, needed a place out in the world, people to rub shoulders with, to joust and joke with — a world outside my own head. And so I got a master’s in teaching; my published stories and book helped me get some jobs and now I teach at a community college, an environment that suits me rather well. I write when I can, and feel the urge, which is not every day.

Which brings me back to the cheerful psychiatrists and their concerns at a lovely garden party in June: It must have been a “terrible burden” to have such a famous father growing up — and in the same field! Well, I should admit that it could be distracting sometimes when, after toiling for an entire year and I managed to get a single essay or story accepted for publication, to have a thick, heavy manila book envelope arrive on our front doorstep, with my father’s familiar handwriting, and inside, a 486-page volume of collected criticism; a month later, another object of comparable heft would arrive — a novel, this time — in the same year! “Geesh, Dad,” I might have muttered, or thought … “gimme a break already.”

That said, I typed the first draft of these pages on two manual typewriters, one a heavy Olivetti that my father bought in England in 1968 and used for the rest of his life, the other an Olympia manual, almost identical to the one he used in the ’50s and ’60s, and eventually, simply wore out. I enjoy the act of typing, the sound and athletic action required of my fingers, and some of this must go back to childhood — sounds heard as an infant, then boy, the audial cadences of thought.

There is also the satisfaction of a nicely turned phrase, of sentence, a pleasant sense of craft, of making something — a story that feels whole, complete, and comes to a mysterious yet satisfying end.

And so, to their question I now answer, a couple months later: No, it never felt like too much of a hardship, actually, to have a famous father growing up. We were proud and pleased by his success and fame, and enjoyed a secondary, second-generation glow of celebrity and fame. And if it ever really was a “burden,” from a psychological point of view, it seems to me now it was a slight and not unpleasant one, my privilege and good fortune to bear.

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