‘Grandparenting’, by John Updike

Gosh John Updike divides people. He certainly does like to describe a woman’s breasts. On the other hand, for me, more than any other writer I can think of, he has put into words the intimate experience of being a parent – waking a sleeping child up to hold them over a toilet for a last-thing-at-night wee, for example. “Grandparenting” is the final instalment in the stories of the Maples, a couple who Updike returned to in fiction many times over the course of his and their lives, their marriage, child-rearing, divorce, remarriage, and then, at last, becoming grandparents. In this story, their oldest daughter, Judith, is living in Hartford, and both parents plan to be at the hospital for the actual moment of the birth. Richard’s second wife, Ruth, is deeply sceptical and drily scathing: “Let your poor daughter alone. It’s taken her ten years to get over the terrible upbringing you two gave her.” But, Richard protests, if he stays, and only Joan, his ex-wife, goes, with her respective second husband, the baby “will think Andy’s the grandfather. The kid will get – what’s the word? – imprinted.And yet the truth is that Richard remembers Judith’s own birth vividly, and cannot imagine not being there. In the moment of considering his daughter becoming a mother, he is filled with a rush of memories of being her father, from the first moment he held her onwards. The tenderness of Updike’s description of being what has this week been labelled a “girl daddy”, is exquisite. But the comedy continues. Joan still cannot tell whether Richard is joking; he and his former wife sit awkwardly on narrow hospital chairs “to avoid touching rumps”. When Judith finally gets moved to a delivery room, Joan sends her ex- and current husbands together to a waiting area, which provides many further awkward and touching moments. The Superbowl is about to start: “Mind if I turn on the TV?” Richard asks, naughtily, “we’re missing some great commercials”, before wondering what Andy is like in bed, and how long Joan had been having an affair with this man before he realised. This tense, hopeful moment of waiting for a new presence, a new being, to make its mark on the world, is captured absolutely. This story always makes me cry in more than one place, but I won’t give the WHOLE thing away.’

First published in The New Yorker, Feb 14, 1994 and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Maples Stories, Everyman Pocket Classics, 2009

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