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“The tears of dad” by late John Updike

I am reading the French translation of “The tears of dad” by late John Updike. The title is one of 18 novellas, a compendium of reminiscences of an 80-year old writer, of younger periods during Junior and High school friendships in the city of Alton (Pennsylvania) and how life unfolds through various characters and alternative courses.

Most of the stories have common denominators:

First, they start during the Great Depression in the 20’s and 30’s where families could not afford to have but one child.  The child grew up among four pillars of grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother.  This unique child was the progeny of all of these people and they cared for the child as the most precious possession.

Second, many families of well-to-do ended up broke but behaving as if they were better off than the neighbors.

Third, teachers are described as constantly worried and not able to feeling happy or spreading happiness in the family. (Even now, teachers are the lowest paid salaried working people, regardless of their dedication and continuing education process…)

Four, religious differentiation among the Christian sects of Unitarian, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist…are clarified through the living cases of marriage behaviors.  For example, the girl friend is visiting the family of her prospective husband and mixes her underwear with her boyfriend in the suitcase, which drives the mother of the boy from Pennsylvania  into a silent rage that lasted for many years.

Fifth, the stories end up in describing the feeling and changes in old ages.  You are left with sad questions, sorting out where your life have gone wrong and what alternatives might have made a difference.

The story of “Elizanne or the forgotten stroll” struck a chord in me and I wrote about it in a previous post. A side story in “Elizanne” recounts a visit to the hospital to Mamie Kauffman, a classmate terminally ill of bone cancer.  The author is in Alton for the 50th reunion of the class of 1950.  He was 17 of age then, and it was impossible for these kids to figure out how the year 2000 might turn out, loaded with doomsdays predictions. Mamie was a round-faced passionate and dedicated student; she was the spokeswoman of the class and a natural gentle leader.

Mamie had three grown-up children; her husband left the house 40 years ago and she had to raise a family on her meager salary of teacher of primary classes. Mamie said: “I was inundated with demonstrations of love after my invalid state.  The night my hip let loose, the male nurse in emergency turned out to be one of my students. Occasionally, I am impatient with the Lord, and later I feel ashamed: The Lord gives us enough strength to just endure”

In big cities, you witness many atheists who prefer to die in silence, like animals hiding to die stoically.

Mamie resumed: “Shirley Mac Laine said that life is a book: All we have to do is to guessing which chapter we are reading. I know that I am reading the last chapter of my life, and all I should be doing is reflecting and…but I don’t believe.  I am not scared of death.  Deep in me, I know everything will go fine…When I die, I’ll still be here.  It is the trip that means nothing to me.  The funniest part in my life is that soon I will be transfered to the rehabilitation center, where my 90-year old mother is confined. Mother was a heavy smoker and never missed or refused a drink.

In the story “Free”, you have married Henry having extramarital affairs with married Leila.  Henry’s mother, not suspecting an affair, said: “She has such beautiful eyes!”  Henry decided to stick with his lawyer of a wife Irene.  Irene is dying of cancer and Henry never left her bedside for the duration of the illness.  Irene said: “I knew that you found me boring, but I didn’t know how to be otherwise.  I guess that we failed to buy tickets for paradise”.  Henry decides to pay a visit to Leila in Florida, after 40 years of separation.  Leila had married several times and is older than he knew her.  Henry spent the afternoon with Leila chatting and then Henry said: “I have to return”.  “return to where?” said Leila.  “To the same hotel in Florida that Irene and I used to spend our vacations” replied Henry. “You always returned to her.  But today you are free” said Leila.  “What is to being free?” retorted Henry, “a state of mind.  Our story was as free as it could have been”

In the story of “Fragile wives” married Les Merrill is also having extramarital affairs with the energetic, lively, and beautiful married Veronica Horst.  Les sticks with his wife because he has to care for his two kids.  Veronica is stung by a bee at age 28 and almost dies of anaphylactic chock, and saved by her short and darker skinned husband.  Les is jealous:  He had wanted to be the one to have saved Veronica, but he knew that he would have been helpless in this case.  Veronica turned out to be fragile of health and suffered from many physical illnesses.  Les is about to divorce his wife Lisa as he learned that Veronica is divorcing.  Lisa discovers that she has a breast cancer; the legitimate bee sting counterpart.  Les felt soiled by these body things, and was sure that it was impossible, he had this urge of running away.

And many more stories to read before you reach 80.

I am reading the French translation of “The tears of dad” by late John Updike. The title is one of the 18 novellas, but the story of “Elizanne or the forgotten stroll” struck a chord in me. I’ll abridge and rewrite the story.

I graduated in 1950 from the Olinger high school in the city of Alton in Pennsylvania. I am back with my second wife to the 50th reunion, a reunion held every 5 years. At the age of 17, it was impossible to imagine that the fated year of 2000, loaded with doomsdays predictions, might be reached and even crossed.

As I entered the hall of the hotel where the reunion was taking place, Sarah led me to a lady and asked me “Do you recognize her?”  I could not remember such a face.  Sarah prompted me: “She has never joined us in any reunion.”  By a deductive process I managed to stammer: “Elizanne?”   In my youth I stuttered a little, and recovered from that deficiency, except in very intense emotional circumstances.  Elizanne had the acuity of an owl and her black eyebrows extended a feeling of surly look.  Elizanne radiated evidences that she has done well in her life, financially and physically.

I was glad to see Elizanne but could not find anything to tell her. At the end of the reunion, as we were getting out of the hall, Elizanne laid her hand on my arm and murmured in an urgent tone of voice: “For years I wanted to confide that you counted a lot to me.  You were the first guy to accompany me home and the first to have kissed me.”  I said: “I recall the stroll”, but i was not sure.  She said: “This kiss was the beginning of a long series of kisses or whatever you want to think”.

I replied:”You were fresher than the morning dew.  I am glad the initiation was a success story.”  She said sadly: “I just wanted you to know”.  She shook my hand for what it meant “See you 50 years later”.  I was thinking “Wait!” and blubbered instead: “You look magnificient.  Better than most of us”

I remembered that Elizanne was a member of the brass band, playing clarinet, wearing the formal dark red trousers with golden stripes.  The whiteness of her skin contrasted with her black long hair.  She had soft light down over her upper lip. I recalled by bits the conversation we had at her front door after the stroll.  She said: “here we are”.

I used to stutter when young, and although I had recovered from this deficiency, I still stutter during intense emotional situations.  I said: “You have a b-beau-beautiful house”.  She said: “Mother hates to cook and hates the kitchen even more. She is thinking of moving us to West Alton because the schools match better our standards. I assure you this means nothing to me.”I said:” My mother relocated us to the suburb, on a farm.  My dad bring me to school where he teaches and bring me back at 5pm. I must be waiting for me by now”

She said: “You will not remain all your life in Olinger”  I said: “Why not? Many have stayed.”  She replied: “Not you.”  She looked seriously in my eyes, frowning a little.  I thought she would turn her back and go in, but she sustained her stare.  I said: “My dad must be waiting. I should be going.”  It must have been late October and daylights were shrinking.

She said: “Tell me frankly.  Have I been blabbing non-stop during our stroll? I talk a lot when I am relaxed.  I cannot stop talking.” I said: “Not at all.  It was as if I was listening to a song”.  She stood there and I leaned my face sideway close to her mouth and I kissed her.  She captured my lips softly and warmly, and she pressed her mouth, as if she was searching for something.  I retreated.  Elizanne eyes were shining by the sodium light.  I kissed her again and tasted her tongue.  She retreated:  A car passed by.  She said: “It is not over. I have other things to tell you.”  I said: “Later on.  I want to hear everything. We have the time”.  My cheeks were burning hot, and I had a knot in my stomach.

I remembered that we danced, cheek to cheek, during a celebration party and I didn’t want to part from her body and face as the orchestra was finishing the interpretation of Stardust or Goodnight Irene.  I remember that we flirted for a quick season and she linked up with the fastest sprinter in school.

Elizanne face is haunting me now.  I need to ask her so many important questions. Is her current husband one of many? Did the brass band kissed in the bus after ceremonies? Who were her boyfriends at schools? What does it mean this scandal: Having been children once and ending up old, closer to death? If men have women for antidote to dying, what is the antidote for women? I was afraid that if I ever meet her and ask her these questions her returned answers would be most banal.

If Mamie is correct that we will live eternally after death, I cannot imagine a better way to spending eternity accompanying Elizanne home, touch her, kissing her, and listening to her on that evening of October.

Note:  This particular story struck a chord in me because I failed to tell a lady that she made me walk on air.  I failed to tell her 15 years later when she invited me to a Thanksgiving lunch.  Autobiographies and diaries are meant for these moments.  I posted them all.




May 2023

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