We turned off the Turnpike onto a macadam highway, then off the macadam onto a pink dirt road. We went up a sharp little rise and there, on the level crest where Schoelkopf’s weathered mailbox stood knee-deep in honeysuckle and poison ivy, its flopped lid like a hat being tipped, my wife first saw the farm. Apprehensively she leaned forward beside me and her son’s elbow heavily touched my shoulder from behind. The familiar buildings waited on the far rise, across the concave green meadow. “That’s our barn,” I said. “My mother finally had them tear down a big overhang for hay she always thought was ugly. The house is beyond. The meadow is ours. His land ends with this line of sumacs.” We rattled down the slope of road, eroded to its bones of sandstone, that ushered in our land.
“You own on both sides of the road?” Richard asked. He was eleven, and rather precise and aggressive in speech.
“Oh sure,” I said. “Originally Schoelkopf’s farm was part of ours, but my grandfather sold it off before moving to Olinger. Something like forty acres.”
“How many did that leave?”
“Eighty. As far as you can see now, it belongs to the farm. It’s probably the biggest piece of open land left this close to Alton.”
“You have no livestock,” Richard said. Though I had told him there was none, his tone was accusatory.
“Just some dogs,” I said, “and a barn full of swallows, and lots of woodchucks. My mother used to keep chickens before my father died.”
“What’s the point,” Richard asked, “of a farm nobody farms?”
“You’ll have to ask my mother.” He was silent a moment, as if I had rebuked him—I had not meant to. I added, “I never understood it myself. I was your age when we moved here. No, I was older. I was fourteen. I’ve always felt young for my age.”
Then he asked, “Whose woods are all these?” and I knew he knew my answer and meant me to give it proudly.
“Ours,” I said. “Except for the right-of-way we sold the power line twenty years ago. They cut down everything and never used it. There, you can see the cut, that strip of younger trees. It’s all grown up again. They cut down oaks and it came up maples and sassafras.”
“What’s the point,” he asked, “of a right-of-way nobody uses right away?” He laughed clumsily and I was touched, for he was making a joke on himself, trying to imitate, perhaps, my manner, and to unlearn the precocious solemnity his fatherless years had forced on him.
“That’s how things are down here,” I said. “Sloppy. You’re lucky to live in New York, where space is tight.”
Peggy spoke. “It does seem like a lot of everything,” she said, of the farm skimming around us, and brushed back her hair from her forehead and cheeks, a gesture she uses after any remark that might meet opposition, as a man would push back his sleeves.
It was true—whenever I returned, after no matter how great a gap of time, to this land, the acres flowed outward from me like a form of boasting. My wife had sensed this and was so newly my wife she thought it worth correcting. This instinct of correction in her was precious to me (my first wife, Joan, had never criticized me at all, which itself seemed a deadly kind of criticism) but I dreaded its encounter with my mother. Joan in her innocence had once gently suggested that my mother needed a washing machine. She had never been forgiven. My instinct, now, in these last moments before my mother was upon us, was to talk about her aloud, as if to expel what later must be left unsaid.
“Richard,” I said, “there is a tractor. It drags a rotating cutter bar behind it that cuts the hay. It’s the law in Pennsylvania that if your farm is in soil bank you must cut your weeds twice a summer.”
“What’s soil bank?”
“I don’t know exactly. Farms that aren’t farmed.”
“Who drives the tractor?”
“It’ll kill her,” Peggy said harshly.
“She knows it,” I said, as harshly.
Richard asked, “Can I drive it?”
“I wouldn’t think so. Children do it around here, but they get”—I rejected the word “mangled”; a contemporary of mine had had his pelvis broken, and I envisioned his strange swirling limp—“hurt once in a while.”
I expected him to insist, but he was distracted. “What’s that?” The pink ruin had flashed by in the smothering greenery.
“That’s the foundation of the old tobacco shed.”
“You could put a roof on it and have a garage.”
“It burned down forty years ago, when somebody else owned the farm.”
Peggy said, “Before your mother bought it back?”
“Don’t put it like that. She thinks now that my father wanted to buy it back too.”
“Joey, I’m frightened!”
Her exclamation coincided with the blind moment when I negotiated the upward twist in the road that carried us around the barn. A car hurtling down the road heedlessly would be hidden long enough to produce a collision. But in the thousands of times I had risked it, it had never happened, though the young locals out in their jalopies liked to speed along our stretch, to tease the dogs and to annoy my mother. At night they sometimes roamed the fields in pick-up trucks, spotting deer with their headlights. It was dusk now. I pulled safely around the barn, parked on its ramp, which was grassy with disuse, and told Peggy, “Don’t be. I don’t expect you and she to get along. I thought she would with Joan but she didn’t.”
“And she has less reason to like me.”
“Don’t think that. Just be yourself. I love you.”
But the declaration was given hastily, with a jerky pat of her thigh, for already my mother’s shape, a solid blur, had emerged from the house and was moving through the blue shadow of the hemlock that guarded the walk. It was this tree that brought evening into the house early; many times at this hour as a boy I had been surprised, looking out of the window, thinking night had arrived, to see sunlight like raw ore still heaped on the upper half of the barn wall. With a guilty quickness I opened the car door and waved and hailed my mother: “Hi-i!”
“Pilgrims!” she called back, a faint irony barely audible in the strange acoustics of the engine’s silence, as our Citroën hissingly settled through its cushions of air.
I was shocked by how slowly she moved along the walk. I had seen her outrace my father from the barn to the house in the rain. She suffered from angina and, though she had never smoked, emphysema. The great effort of her life had been to purchase this farm and move us all to it, but her lungs, the doctor told her, were those of a hardened city-dweller. Against the August damp she wore a man’s wool sweater, my grandfather’s, gray and ribbed and buttoned down the front, over an old pink blouse I associated with childhood Easters. The collie pup, the only dog not in the pen, kept dashing at us, barking and bristling a few feet from the piscine face of the Citroën, and then racing back to my mother. He nipped at her agonizing slowness of step; the pallor of his throat and tail-tip scudded in the gloom of the lawn. The lawn was tall with plantain and sadly needed cutting.
While Richard and I took the suitcases from the trunk, Peggy nervously hurried down the walk to meet my mother halfway, irritating her, I feared, with this unconscious display of quick health. The even spacing of the sandstones under her high heels made her seem unstable. I seemed to see her with my mother’s eyes, as a tall and painted woman toppling toward me, and simultaneously with my own, from the rear, as a retreating white skirt whose glimmering breadth was the center, the seat, of my life. Not fat, my wife, as a woman, is wide, with sloping swinging shoulders and a pelvic amplitude that affects me as a kind of radiance and that gives her stride a heartening openness, a sense of space between her thighs.
The two women kissed. They had met once before, at the wedding I had urged my mother not to attend. It had been held, a week after my divorce from Joan became final, in the downtown private chambers of a municipal judge whose son I knew. The building was a survival, with cage elevators and brown linoleum halls lined with office doors whose frosted glass suggested a row of lavatories. It had been June, hot. The windows were old-fashionedly flung open and the sounds of the East River lifted into the room. The judicial sanctum was capacious along obsolete lines of office space, and the furniture, which included a wooden bench where my mother sat, looked sparse and stray, as if these inanimate survivors of a vanished courthouse era had been humanly subjected to the bewildering thinning of mortality. My mother kept folding and unfolding and smoothing on her lap a tiny linen handkerchief which she would now and then, as if stung, dartingly press to the side of her neck. I had thought of her as being hopelessly out of place at this ceremony, but we were all displaced: my bride’s virtually adolescent son; the stiffish Park Avenue couple of whom the wall-eyed wife was Peggy’s maid of honor; the freckled ex-Olympic skier and ex-lover of Joan’s and professional colleague of mine who was, for want of a better, best man; Peggy’s father, a pink-faced widower who managed an Omaha department store; and, least expected, my hyperthyroid nephew-in-law, a Union Theological School student present as a kind of delegate from Joan and my children, who were in retreat with her parents beside a Canadian lake. In this weird congregation my mother was no embarrassment. The judge, a gentle old shark in a seersucker suit, was charming to her. As if filing a bulky brief, with burled brown hands that he held in the bent-fingered manner of a manual workman, he carefully seated her on the bench. There she patted herself and panted in rapid faint eddies, like a resting dog. Her coming here (by bus, with an hour’s wait in Philadelphia), which I had resisted, now seemed an extravagant exertion on my behalf, and I was grateful. I was conscious of her presence even at the pinnacle of the rite, when in the corner of my eye I saw Peggy’s firm chin redden and the dark star of her lashes alter position as her profile lowered toward the shuddering bouquet of violets clasped at her waist. She had read that a bride previously married carried flowers not white and had spent the morning phoning around the city for violets in June. I felt her then, my bride, for all the demure youth of her profile, as middle-aged—felt us both to be standing, in vulnerable poses of beginning, on the verge of some great middle, beside a river grander than its shores. Seen through the flung-open window beyond the judge’s robed shoulder, the river, tilted by our height, supported a slow traffic of miniature barges and, elevating through the tall afternoon in which Brooklyn was a glistening vision stitched with derricks, tipped into this room a breeze that nudged a few papers on the legally impassive oak desk. A single fly circled a knotted light cord. Then the vows were sworn and I had a sense of falling, of collapsing, at last, into the firm depths of a deed too long and too painfully suspended above completion. Turning to receive congratulations, to bestow and accept kisses from the few who had climbed to this height with me, I was confused to discover that my mother’s eyes were remote with anger and her cheek, for all the heat of the day, was cool.
Excerpted from Of the Farm by John Updike. Copyright © 2004 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.