The Centaur’s Son
Burl N. Corbett was awarded First Place in Essay in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
When I look back now at the age of 67, it seems as if I were predestined to become a writer. How else can I explain all the “coincidences” and twists of fate that led me toward eventual publication? The journey began with my birth in 1947 on a sheep farm in southeastern Pennsylvania. As I lay in my crib, sleeping only three crow miles away in another small sandstone farmhouse was a 15-year-old boy who was dreaming of graduating from high school and leaving for Harvard. His name was John Updike, and although our paths wouldn’t cross for another 36 years, when they did, my life would change.
My grandmother was one of the last one-room schoolteachers in the county, and she taught me to read when I was only four. When my kindergarten teacher discovered that I could read, she allowed me to read the other children to sleep after lunch. Then as I stayed awake, lost in the Word, she sneaked a quick cigarette or flirted with the janitor.
During my elementary years, I read everything on my father’s bookshelves, from the bombastic twaddle of the Bomba the Jungle Boy juvenile series to the unabridged version of Moby-Dick. In addition, I tore through the school’s classroom libraries, culminating in an orgy of reading in sixth grade when I set an unapproachable record of writing one-page book reports on the 150-odd books that I had read. And somehow I had found the time to write a series of fantastic sci-fi tales set on each of the nine planets—my first creative attempts.
I continued reading heavily, if indiscriminately, throughout junior high, finding that I had an affinity for the gritty urban realism of Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, and the lurid white trash tales of Erskine Caldwell. But when I found my father’s hidden copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer when I was in ninth grade, suddenly my definition of literature evolved. This, I told myself, is how I want to write! Although I overheard my father dismissing Miller as “just another pornographer,” I was captivated by his unique style, his love of language, and, above all, his passion. His fervent criticisms of America’s failure to live up to her promises, even though written in the ’30s, would soon be appropriated by the social critics of the ’60s, and his sexual high jinks rendered quaint by the decade’s rapidly declining morals. But he instilled in me the belief that I could succeed if only I kept trying, and he introduced me to authors I had never heard of: Lawrence Durrell, August Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, and a host of nineteenth century French and Russian writers, among others Flaubert and Gogol. Miller, an autodidact himself, was the breed’s best teacher, an irony that didn’t escape me.
Then in tenth grade, the first of my “coincidences” occurred. My new English teacher, Mrs. Ethel Lipnack, was a native Brooklynite who by some unfathomable happenstance had made landfall at my backwater high school. The first day of class, she asked each of us to write a personal essay that described our aspirations and hopes. The length and language were up to us—it wouldn’t be graded and no one except her would ever read it. Most of my classmates suspected that the assignment was a ploy by her to gain the whip hand over us, and either refused to comply—the essay was strictly voluntary—or warily scribbled a few paragraphs of inoffensive, blackmail-proof pap. But I, who was in danger of becoming what was then called “a juvenile delinquent,” wrote a lengthy Miller-inspired screed that explained in surrealistic excess why I hated school and intended to become either a professional trapper in the Alaskan wilderness, or a renegade writer à la Henry Miller. After I handed it in, I half-expected to be hauled before the principal, a dour ex-Marine notorious for his utter lack of humor, but instead Mrs. Lipnack complimented me for my audacity, praised my small talent, and encouraged me to continue writing. “I’ll read anything you wish to write,” she promised. And just like that, a potential troublemaker who ran with the wrong crowd was gently nudged onto a different path.
When I confessed my admiration for all things Miller, she disclosed that she had grown up in the neighborhood that he had described in Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn. She even remembered Miller’s witchy-bitchy wife, June, striding down the block in a long black cape, wielding a foot-long cigarette holder like a scepter. And while Mrs. Lipnack deplored Miller’s excessive sexual passages, and as a Jew was leery of his borderline anti-Semitism, she never criticized my choice of reading material—she was an old-school liberal who would defend to the death the right to free expression. So, she read my bad poetry, introduced me to Faulkner and Hemingway, and proofread my manuscripts. Her class became a welcome oasis in the intellectual desert of my provincial school, a sterile wasteland staffed by a goodly number of incompetents, not-so-secret boozers, a practicing pedophile, a semi-loony fabulist, and a depressing variety of shopworn geezers limping unsteadily to retirement. Mrs. Lipnack convinced me that I had talent, gave me courage, and showed me the way. I looked forward to her daily class, and then one morning she wasn’t there. Her husband had died.
The substitute teacher—a tall, lanky, shabbily dressed gentleman in his sixties, introduced himself as “Mr. Updike,” and informed us that he’d be our teacher until Mrs. Lipnack returned. He admitted that he had no idea what we had been studying (mostly nothing—ours was what was called the “General” class, whose fate was to accept our diploma with the left hand, pick up a shovel or wrench with the other, and proceed forthwith to the nearest ditch or factory), so he expressed his intention to just talk about whatever crossed his mind, with the hope that we might learn something that would serve us in life. Then he began to speak, and what a performance it was!
Leaping from subject to subject like an ibex sporting atop the Alps, he paced nervously to and fro, casting beseeching looks at his befuddled audience. His style was that of a gifted if slightly confused bard, and he not only overcame the initial hostility of our disinterested class, but won it over by dint of his charismatic personality. For three days each class was more of the same: extemporaneous disquisitions on whatever his hyperactive mind lit upon. He mentioned his son’s recently published novel, Rabbit, Run, in passing, admitting that its theme was probably a bit too mature for our tastes, and it was evident that he had little expectations that any of us would ever read it. During Mr. Wesley Updike’s brief tenure, our class may not have learned how to diagram sentences—I doubt if even H. L. Mencken could have taught us that—but over 40 years later not a single class reunion attendee had forgotten him. And when I eventually read his son John’s fictionalized tribute to his father, The Centaur, I immediately recognized its hero as the man who had held our semi-civil class of rural hooligans spellbound until Mrs. Lipnack returned from burying her husband, a novel-worthy feat if ever there was one.
Although I knew that John Updike had been born in Shillington, a contiguous suburb of the shrinking mill town of Reading, the largest city in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and had moved to an isolated farm in the post-office-less village of Plowville, I hadn’t realized just how close his parents’ small homestead was to our now-sheepless farm. Then in the late ’70s, after I had graduated from high school, lived in Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury for a few seasons, and returned to stay in a home on my parent’s property, I read all of Updike’s early work. By carefully deciphering thinly disguised landmarks and clues, I figured out the location of the celebrated sandstone farmhouse of his youthful stories and novels. And when I retraced John and his father’s snowy route home from “Brewer,” which he’d described in The Centaur, I discovered that the roadside barn where a teenage John had shot pigeons in “Pigeon Feathers” and his tiny, sloppily pointed house were no more than a six- or seven-minute drive from our going-to-brush farm. As I slowly drove by, I noted with satisfaction that a few pigeons were still perched like dirty cherubs on the barn’s ridge; ours had left with the sheep in the early ’60s. A battered roadside mailbox bore the hand-printed name, “W.R. Updike,” and when I got home I found his mother’s phone number listed under her deceased husband’s name. Wow, I thought, talk about hiding in plain sight!
I didn’t begin writing seriously until the late ’70s, when I sensed that “time’s wing’d chariot” was about to pull a holeshot on me and leave me smokin’ my slicks at the starting line. Looking for encouragement, I wrote a long, rambling, drunken letter to Henry Miller, who was then living in Pacific Heights, California. He replied with a short handwritten letter that praised my “drunken speech” and urged me to continue writing. Thus, we began an unlikely correspondence until his failing eyesight ended his ability to write: his last postcard was written by his nurse, who informed me that he had gone almost totally blind. But during our short exchange, he had repeatedly encouraged me to write without regard to the critics. His motto, he confided, was a quote from the misanthropic French author, Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “I piss upon my critics from a considerable height.” And to stress his sentiments, he had printed upon his stationery his own aphorism: “Keep writing—they’ll hear of you in Katmandu before they do in New York City!” And so I did.
Besides the previously mentioned authors, I had also been influenced by such disparate writers as Kerouac, Hemingway, and Robert Ruark, a bestselling author who wrote of the Kenya that Papa had somehow overlooked while he was slaying lions, as well as his early life in rural North Carolina. And although I admired Hemingway and Faulkner’s novels, I felt that the first said too little, and the second too much. I intended to strike a happy medium, with a dash of Wolfean (Tom, not Thomas) pizazz thrown in. Writing in a home echoing with the screams of four noisy children, a blaring television, and a ringing telephone was impossible, so I retreated to the empty barn, where I plunked my typewriter on the back of a hay trailer and started to write my first short stories. I took to heart the dictum that one should write about the things one knows, and what I knew was the rough rural characters that John Updike had never met, despite living his teen years in the bucolic isolation of Plowville—in reality no more than a handful of widely scattered houses, a church, and an intersection of two two-lane roads. So, while I intended to mine the same Berks County lode, I decided to do my mining in a different shaft, and the titles of my first tales were indicative of my method: “Suzie’s Panties,” the travels of a slattern’s discarded scanties; “Junkyard Mummies,” an epic saga about a boy who made frog mummies; and “The Theurgy,” a tongue-in-cheek recounting of the hero’s twin religious experiences: the first time he heard Hank Williams, Sr. sing “Lovesick Blues” on a honky-tonk jukebox and his reaction to entering a gigantic drive-in beer storage cooler and witnessing thousands of beer kegs stacked 20 feet high. “A and P,” they weren’t. But they were mine, and no mother had ever been half as proud of her offspring as I was of my stories. I sent them out to small magazines throughout the land, hoping that some editor would love them too, but they kept boomeranging back to a battered mailbox. But I remembered Miller’s advice, and never stopped writing.
Then one Sunday morning in 1983, I read in the Reading Eagle that Updike had returned from his Massachusetts home to attend his high school reunion. Half-hungover, with a wee bit of the Irish courage coursing through my veins, I looked up and dialed his mother’s phone number. When she answered, I asked if I could speak with John, hoping she’d assume I was one of his classmates. With the tiniest bit of suspicion evident in her voice, she asked who was calling. “Burl Corbett,” I replied casually, as if my unfamiliar name might just ring a bell she’d forgotten that she owned. “I live near Geigertown,” I quickly added, “and was hoping that he’d be kind enough to look at a few of my short stories.”
“Just a second,” she said pleasantly.
When John answered with an equally pleasant “Hello?” I explained in a rush that I was a novice writer and would appreciate very much if he would read some of my stories and tell me if I had talent or was just wasting my time. Much to my surprise, he told me to come right over, asking if I knew where his mother lived. I assured him that I did, thanked him profusely, and promised I’d be there within a half-hour. He said he’d watch for my pickup.
Wow! Here was my chance! I put three of my favorite stories in a self-addressed 9-by-12 envelope and threw on some decent clothes. I was so nervous, I was almost trembling, so at the last minute I decided to take along my three-year-old daughter, Amber, in the hope that her innate charm would deflect attention from my anxiety. We got in my truck, and off we went to see the wonderful Wizard of Words.
I drove through Geigertown and up a long hill to Weaver’s Orchards, where my grandmother and I had often picked peaches and plums. Just past the large pick-your-own strawberry field, which was leased from the Updikes, I turned left on narrow Moyer Road. A few hundred yards on the right, sitting among some tall pines, was the famed Updike homestead, smaller than even my parent’s small home. The Pennsylvania Dutch-style bank barn seemed to brood moodily, empty of livestock, hay, and grain, and a young boy daydreaming in its hayloft, listening to the summer music of a passing thundershower playing on its tin roof.
I parked in the dirt driveway behind Mrs. Updike’s aged Dodge Dart, a decrepit jalopy only a failed state inspection away from a destruction derby, and got out, clutching Amber’s hand and the envelope with my stories. I screwed up my courage and knocked on the front door. John opened it immediately, wearing a tweed jacket and a white turtleneck sweater. He was much taller than I expected and built like his father.
Although he greeted me with a smile and a hearty handshake, little Amber stole his attention. John bent down and picked her up, then with her in his arms led me inside. He introduced us to his mother, Linda Grace Boyer Updike, who smiled warmly and welcomed us to her home. John offered me a chair, put down Amber, and asked me how long I’d been writing. As I replied, his mother listened attentively but made no comments. Watching quietly as her famous son held court must have been an all-too-familiar role for her, while her achievements—she had published short stories in The New Yorker and written a lovely book of childhood reminiscences entitled Enchantment—were ignored. Throughout my short visit she remained in the background, or as much as possible in a tiny living room that, although taking up half of the downstairs area, wasn’t much bigger than 12 by 16 feet.
As I glanced around I thought, This is the room where all the drama of John’s teenage years occurred. Here was where the events of The Centaur and Of the Farm had been lived out. As John spoke briefly to Amber, I surveyed the room: the furniture was well broken-in, old but comfortable, the floral-patterned rug threadbare. Along the wall behind John’s chair was a room-length bookcase filled with first editions of all his books, a treasure of incalculable value that Mrs. Updike would bequeath to the nearby Morgantown Library, one of the few places besides church that she habitually visited. Amber sat peacefully in my lap, but I knew it was only a matter of time until she tired of our yakking and began squirming, or worse.
I broke the ice by telling John how his father had once been my substitute teacher in high school, adding that my wife’s class in another school district had also had him as a substitute. This perked up John’s ears all right, but I was there on business and I steered the subject back to my writing. I shudder now at my rudeness, my casual effrontery, but when I handed him the envelope of my… er… “unusual” stories,
I disrespectfully advised him to “take his time,” as though I were a lenient teacher handing out an assignment. If he felt offended, he didn’t show it, and perhaps I’m guilty of the writerly sin of exaggerating an effect, but the memory of my presumptuousness produces even now a quiver of shame.
Accepting the envelope without bothering to open it, he inquired which writers I admired. It didn’t occur to me that it would be judicious as well as polite to mention him, so I named Miller, Caldwell, and Hemingway as my primary influences. I had recently read a lengthy excerpt from Gordon Wescott’s The Grandmothers and had liked it very much, although I hadn’t been able to find the novel in the Reading Library.
“Isn’t that a coincidence,” John said, obviously surprised that I had read Wescott, “I just ran into him in New York City last week! If you’d like, I could pick up a copy for you at my favorite used book store the next time I’m in Boston.” I was impressed by his generosity, but declined the favor, assuring him that he was already doing me a huge favor by reading my stories. He assured me in turn that it would be no problem at all, but I politely (foolishly?) turned down his offer.
Perhaps fearing the worst, he asked if I wrote poetry, and I said no. He beamed with mirth when I quoted Faulkner’s famous remark that he had taken up short story writing because poetry was too demanding, only to discover that it too was beyond his skills, whereupon he became a novelist as a last resort. I admitted to John that I didn’t particularly care for much of the current poetry that I read; much of it seemed devoid of music. John agreed, commenting, “It just seems to spill down the page, doesn’t it?” From her rocking chair, his mother nodded and smiled.
I asked John nothing about his private life, and I already knew all I needed to know about his public life. He didn’t pry into my affairs either, although he did ask my age. Upon learning I was 36, he observed that plenty of other writers had gotten published late in life, which cheered me to no end. During my visit, he was solicitous and respectful; I had the feeling that he genuinely wanted me to succeed. His warmth towards Amber and me was deeply moving.
John spoke slowly and deliberately, carefully choosing his words before speaking, while I in my nervousness had been verbally stepping on his toes from the start, mistaking his oral commas for periods. I adjusted quickly, however, and learned to give him ample time to complete his sentences. His great intelligence was obvious; it was tangible, almost a physical presence, and coupled with John’s calm self-assurance lent him a dignified aura of authority. I instinctively liked him, but at the same time doubted that he and I could ever be comfortable spending a weekend together fishing on Chesapeake Bay and carousing at its harbor bars. Once we had lived a scant three miles apart, each sleeping in a second-floor bedroom in an old stone farmhouse whose tired bones creaked in the night; our parents may have even picked peaches side by side at the orchard; but now we were separated by more than just 15 years and 300 miles: our lifestyles were incompatible, to say the least. Although I wasn’t by any stretch of definition a “redneck,” merely poor, I was certainly familiar with those who were. And while John had lived his teenage years in the same rural milieu as me, he had never assimilated: his heart, mind, and soul would always partly remain behind in the concrete and asphalt streets and alleys of Shillington, the fictional Olinger of his novels.
Amber was growing restless, and I sensed it was time to leave. I stood up and thanked him, then apologized to him and his mother for intruding upon their Sunday rest, although I had a hunch that they were both more amused than annoyed. John promised to read my stories and mail them back with a few words of advice, then escorted us to the door, where we said goodbye. Then I went home to await his verdict.
A month later, my envelope arrived, postmarked Boston. I ripped it open and raced through John’s page-long typed report that had crossed-out typos with hand-printed corrections perched atop each caret like, well, pigeons on a barn roof.
His opening sentence got right to the point: “Well, you’ve picked a hard row to hoe, and what advice can I give but to keep hoeing it?” I assumed he was referring to the cast of ill-bred, unrefined, and downright uncouth rural grotesques who populated my tales, and the difficulties he foresaw in convincing an editor to invite them into his magazine or quarterly. But this, I already knew.
John’s second comment, however, gave me the shot of adrenaline I needed. If he had ended his letter there, I would’ve been amply provisioned for my future campaign against the literary bastions I proposed to storm. With a shiver of joy, I read: “You don’t write badly—the stories move, and you don’t get bogged down in just words.” Hmm! That was like hearing Joe Torre affirm that I might just have the skills to turn the double play and hit big-league hitting! I was ecstatic!
John went on to warn me against excessive use of the vernacular, commenting that I sometimes do seem to get bogged down in dwelling on the rough talk of my male protagonists and attempting to reproduce their Southern accents. He felt that perhaps I had concentrated too much on their colorful-but-disgusting aspects and neglected to bring the reader any “news,” as he tactfully put it. And he wisely observed that “even the most disgusting of us isn’t only that.”
What could I say? I was guilty as charged! But in my defense, I had only just begun to write: I was still discovering my voice, practicing the scales so it could eventually sing. Then he made the disclosure that gave me the encouragement to continue writing. Apparently one of my stories—“Suzie’s Panties,” no less!—had affected him deeply: He confessed that it had made him feel “sad and wounded;” he sensed that humanity was crying out! Well! Upon reading that, I cried out! My gamble had paid off: I’d consulted the oracle and had been sent on my way brimming with confidence. Now the fate of my journey was in my hands.
He ended the letter by giving me a few practical tips, things that a proud autodidact like I was should’ve already known. After warning me not to take anything he’d just said too seriously because “we are all groping in the dark,” he none-too-subtly reminded me of the nature of our tenuous relationship: “It’s not my business to conduct a writing course by mail, even if I thought I could.” He signed off, “Best wishes, John Updike.”
So there it was: my visa to the exotic land of literature, hand-stamped by one of its preeminent suzerains. As he suggested, I kept hoeing my row, writing of the inhabitants of “Firetown” and “Brewer” and “Birdtown” that John had overlooked, and a year later I sold my first short story to Crosscurrents, a literary quarterly in California. Happy beyond description, I bought extra copies for my children and a number of special friends, including Mrs. Lipnack, who had retired from teaching and was living a lonely widow’s existence in the nearby city of Pottstown. And I bought a copy for John, too.
My once-close relationship with Mrs. Lipnack had grown frosty over the years. She, a born and bred New York City Jewish liberal, had been aghast when I admitted to her that I had not only been reading (and liking) Ayn Rand’s novels, but had actually voted twice for Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, she seemed pleased when I presented her with an inscribed copy, although that didn’t stop her from criticizing once more my atrocious taste in literature and my “reactionary“ politics. I never suspected when I shook her cool, dry hand when we parted that I would never see her again. We never met again, never talked on the phone, and she died 12 years later, alone and sick and heartbroken by the world.
I would’ve sent Henry Miller a copy, too, but he had died in 1980. The third of my literary mentors, John Updike, was alive and well, so I called his mother and asked if I could give her a copy to pass on to him. She said that he’d be coming home in a week or two, and suggested that I give it to him myself. I agreed, and two Saturdays later I once again sat in Mrs. Updike’s cozy living room, this time without Amber fidgeting on my lap.
I proudly handed John a dedicated and autographed copy. He thanked me, then paged through it to my story, which at 20 pages was too long for him to read just then. He commented favorably on the quality of the printing and layout, and then laid it aside without reading my dedication. He asked how Amber and the rest of my family were, and I asked about his. Our conversation seemed a bit forced, a far cry from the easy camaraderie of our previous meeting. Again, his mother was content to sit quietly in her rocker, listening alertly. John seemed preoccupied, so after a short, inconsequential chat, I excused myself and left. Weeks later, Mrs. Updike conveyed to me John’s enjoyment of my story, a tragedy about an old woman who loses both her freedom and her farm, and with them, her life.
In 1986 I began writing an outdoor column for a local weekly, but I had the latitude to pursue human interest stories if I wished. I called Mrs. Updike and asked if I could interview her, and she consented, although she modestly denied that anything she might offer would be ink-worthy. But I thought that her own lovely writing had been overshadowed by that of her son and hoped to drag it into the sunlight, as it were. I also knew that the best part of her had passed into John. She and her late husband Wesley—the “Centaur”—were the uncredited ghostwriters of much of their son’s early work. And I had my own personal reasons, too. Her intelligence, old-fashioned manners, and her passionate adherence to traditional country ways reminded me so very much of my grandmother, my first teacher and mentor. For all of those reasons, I felt that Mrs. Linda Grace Hoyer Updike deserved a bit more than a corner seat in the living room of literature.
We met at her home on a cold February day. As we sat across from each other in the same chairs that John and I had used, I took a photograph of her petting her dog, Tessie, using only the snow-reflected light streaming through her front window. I took very few notes and we simply talked, like the neighbors we in fact were. I told her how much I had enjoyed Enchantment, commenting that she had quite an eye for nature. She responded wistfully, “I had no playmates, so I had to make friends with the flowers.”
Her house was still relatively isolated, with little traffic on the narrow road that bisected her farm. I speculated that her childhood world must have been even more peaceful. After a moment of contemplative silence, broken only by the tick-tock of a clock, she concurred: “Of all the bad things we’ve done to the earth, the worst was bringing in all the noise.” And with that heartfelt statement, I fell in love with her. I had finally met someone who loved the land as much as I.
When the interview and quarter-page photograph were published, she loved both so much that I had the newspaper make several 8-by-10 prints. I then made several handcrafted wooden frames, mounted the photos under glass, and gave them to Mrs. Updike to pass along to John and his children. In return, John sent me an autographed and dedicated copy of Of the Farm, his follow-up novel to The Centaur that starred his thinly disguised mother rather than his woeful father. It was a book I had always liked, and I suspect that it was his mother’s favorite, too, of the novels she had read. She had confided during our interview, although I didn’t print it, that because of the racy scenes and dialogue in several of John’s later novels, she had put them unread on her bookshelf.
I saw John twice more in my life, but only spoke to him once. On an early June evening in 1987, I had been picking strawberries with my wife and two of my oldest children. When we finished, I asked my wife to swing past Mrs. Updike’s house. In the driveway loading his suitcases in the trunk of a rental car was John, preparing to leave for his home in Massachusetts. My wife stopped, and I hailed greetings from the road, offering him some berries.
He looked up at his rustic “competitor” and grinned. “No, thanks,” he said, explaining that the Weaver family kept his mother well supplied.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I have 150 pounds.”
Laughing, he asked, “What are you going to do with that many?”
“Make a barrel of wine. I’ll drop off a gallon next winter when it’s ready to drink,” I promised.
He shook his head in disbelief. “Thanks anyway,” he replied, “but I haven’t drunk in years.”
I commiserated with him and wished him a safe trip home. He in turn wished my family and me well, and with a wave of hands I drove out of his life.
The next and final time I saw John Updike was at his mother’s funeral in 1989.
Mrs. Updike and I had become casual friends after the interview appeared. We occasionally spoke on the phone, and sometimes I’d return from work to find her waiting inside her parked car. Insistent upon her privacy to the point of being reclusive, she always declined my invitations to share dinner with my family and me, preferring instead to just talk a bit about this and that, she in her car and I squatting next to her lowered window. But she hadn’t stopped by for quite a while when I learned of her death from a neighbor, who had read her obituary in the morning Reading Times. Apparently she had died of a heart attack in her kitchen and hadn’t been discovered for a few days.
Three days later, I entered the Plowville Lutheran Church shortly before the 11:00am services and squeezed into a rear pew. I looked around but saw no famous faces, no members of the press, only those who remembered her simply as “Linda,” a kind and loving woman who had been their neighbor and friend. The fact that she had given birth to a celebrated author was secondary. She had been theirs in life, a part of their community, and now they had come to see her home to God. Her expensive cherry and bronze coffin sat before the altar, closed. Through the tall stained glass windows of the nave, the brilliant autumn sun fell in slanting bars across the burnished oaken pews.
The large church was three-quarters filled with mourners, and the crowd produced a low, anticipatory murmur, which was instantly stilled by the sudden appearance of the Updike family at the back of the church. John and his two sons and two daughters led the way, holding hands and smiling, as they swept down the center aisle, their wives and husbands behind them. After they were seated in the front row, the minister greeted the mourners and began his eulogy. From behind him, I watched John’s face in profile as he listened attentively, his expression alternating between wistful smiles and pensive contemplation. When Mrs. Updike’s favorite hymn “This Is My Father’s World,” was sung, I remained silent, unsure of the words and melody, but John carried my weight, singing loudly enough for us both.
At the conclusion of the service, I followed the cortege down an asphalt lane that pierced the center of the old graveyard. Visible on the right, maybe 75 yards away, was a Little League baseball field that bore the name of Linda’s husband: Wesley Updike Field. The pallbearers stopped under a tall pine, less than a hundred yards from the stone church that Linda’s father had helped build, and laid the coffin upon its bier, then stepped away. There were 50 or 60 people gathered around the grave, and the minister urged everyone to move in closer. I stood 20 feet from John; his mother lay between us. As the gathering recited the Lord’s Prayer, I studied the crowd’s somber expressions, then looked upwards for an omen: perhaps a circling hawk, or a passing crow, or even just a songbird that had overstayed summer in order to chirp a final goodbye to a wonderful lady. But there were none, only the autumn wind hazing its docile flock of cumulus sheep to cotes beyond the rolling blue hills that stretched north to Reading, the city her son had made famous as “Brewer.”
If John noticed me, he gave no indication. His attention, understandably, was on other matters. His children, whom I had never met, stood next to him, talking softly. The minister announced that a reception would follow in the church’s social hall, but I didn’t go. What could I have said that wouldn’t be said repeatedly by the others? No, it wasn’t for me, and I left John standing in the beautiful hilltop cemetery, surrounded by his family. I never saw him again, yet when I completed my first (unpublished) novel in 1990, he graciously wrote a short letter of recommendation for it, sight unseen. We corresponded a few more times, then lost touch as we went on with our lives. When he died in 2009, he was cremated; half of his ashes were buried in his longtime adopted home of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, and the rest sprinkled on his parents’ graves in Plowville. The writer was home at last from the literary wars, the circle closed.
Many years ago I read in one of John’s essays that he didn’t believe in helping neophyte writers; he felt that it was an impossible and usually thankless task. I was pretending to be a reporter at the time and knew that sometimes you can’t believe everything you read, even if you wrote it yourself. Refuse a polite request for help? Naw, that wasn’t the John Updike that I knew. The Centaur and his quiet wife had raised him better than that!