I am saddened beyond belief by the passing of John Updike. His literary accomplishments will be written about and celebrated for the rest of time. But it his personal touch that I feel so compelled to say a little something about.
I have known John and his breathtakingly beautiful wife Martha for a quarter of a century, through his stepson Jason, with whom I was very close.
Jason and I went to boarding school together. The Updikes lived more or less just down the road from my parents. And there was a summer I spent massive amounts of time with them, playing tennis, sharing meals, even, dauntingly, sharing a crossword puzzle with John once, I recall. Who would ever want to do a crossword with John Updike!? How could you ever impress, compete?
But around John, and of course Martha, you always felt, if not an equal, included, and loved for whatever contribution you could offer. Their home was one of teasing and jousting and raucous laughter. At least that is what I experienced.
The twinkle ever present in John’s eye was enough to make anyone feel joy coursing through the moment. The sparkle, the humor, the light sarcasm, the sense that he always “got” it. And as he got it, he relished the moment of connecting with a line of thought, a joke, or simply the way things are. He was genius at feeling and appreciating the human condition in its many forms.
Though he wrote about certain aspects of American society, what he described transcended national and cultural boundaries. I remember being a student in the Soviet Union. Being in an “underground” music evening in Armenia, drinking cognac with locals and talking about John Updike. They claimed him as their own too. In Soviet Armenia.
He was a looming figure in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, and on the North Shore of Boston, where his friends came from all classes and walks of life. John was known for his warmth, his volunteer work at the church, his amazing wife Martha who also, by the way, was a social worker, and for their enviable relationship. They always looked the couple in love and in lock step. He always looked like a devoted family man.
I hadn’t seen the Updikes in maybe 10 years, as I live now in London. But I went to see them back in November while visiting my mother. Because I missed them. I had no idea that John was so unwell. I visited with Martha because John was suffering from pneumonia, and he was upstairs trying not to spread the germs. But he came down to say hello before I left. And I shared the Soviet Armenia anecdote with him. He looked alert and had been working away even though he was feeling rough. But he looked well. That is why the news is so hard to believe.
John was supposed to be headed to California to do a book signing, which, at this point in his career, he did not need to do. But he felt he should do it for his publisher. And for the young authors coming up through the ranks. Martha was concerned about his traveling. But he just felt compelled. Compelled to give something back. He must have felt a lot worse physically at that time than I understood. But his generosity of spirit, as usual, had taken over. And that love is what I will remember.
Amy Kellogg is a FOX News correspondent based in London.