by Deborah Fries
Ellie and her daughter Tiff are sitting on the living room floor with the window air conditioner blasting on their faces. In front of each is a pile of battered but beloved books that Ellie brought back to Philadelphia from the final weekend of cleaning out her parents' house. Saved for disparate symbolic reasons, the books had been stuffed in Trader Joe’s bags and sequestered in an upstairs closet during the auction, far removed from the faded hardbacks she had taken down from the shelves in the den for the sale. Most of those books had been her mother’s—best sellers ordered from the Literary Guild in the Forties, dramatic novels by writers like Daphne du Maurier and Robert Penn Warren. She inspected each sun-bleached book before letting it go, organizing them all by subject and labeling the first editions. After so much tender handling, the boxes of her parents’ books were sold to a dealer for a dollar a box.
I used to read a lot before I had you, Ellie’s mother Sylvia told her when Tiff was born. But then one day when I was reading a novel, you kept tugging at my sleeve and asking me to play, and I realized how selfish I was being. So I stopped reading.
Ellie thought that giving up reading—or telling your child that you had given up reading for them—didn’t compute. Sylvia never gave up cigarettes or soap operas or her weekly hair appointments. She didn’t give up bridge club or shopping or golf lessons or the daily afternoon naps that required her daughter to play quietly in a distant corner of the house, writing and illustrating her own storybooks.
There was no way that Ellie could give up reading when Tiff was born. She’d been a graduate student and teaching assistant, alternately reading Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso to her students and Beatrix Potter and Richard Scarry to her baby.
“The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born—with illustrations of chicks and kittens?” Tiff—whose real name is Rachel but who at six coveted the transiently popular Tiffany and acquired its first syllable as a campy nickname—is incredulous. By the time she’d been ready for sex ed in the Eighties, the story had been told in comic book style with chubby naked parents, and a clever analogy that used the sneeze to explain physiology.
“I loved those illustrations,” Ellie explains, without apology. “Sylvia bought it for me when I was ten. A little late by today’s standards.”
Ellie’s parents also bought her impressive natural history books she’d coveted—thick but now mildewed volumes of illustrated shells and flowers, salamanders and shrews, compendiums of watercolor plates and photos that documented the world that once mesmerized her.
Tiff flips through the pile of badly foxed paperbacks found in her grandmother’s basement.
“I’m Sixteen and I Don’t Want to Die?—my God, who were you?” she asks her mother.
“That’s an Anne Frank-ish story I bought in high school through a paperback book club. I read a lot of scary books then because it was a scary time. We were expecting something apocalyptic to happen—you know—Bay of Pigs? Bomb Shelters? We were stuck between World War Two and nuclear winter.”
“You were Goth, Mom?”
“If you can be Goth with Peter Pan collars and shiny Weejun loafers and pearls, yeah, I guess I was. Our fantasies were very dark. Now that I think about it, just toss it.”
That is this morning’s shared task—to reduce the stacks of books and boxes of photos from the sold house in western Pennsylvania into a manageable collection of family ephemera. Tiff has flown out from Chicago for five days to help her mother deal with the loss of her childhood home, its contents and its occupants, just as she visited in May to help arrange Sylvia’s funeral and ready the house for the real estate market. Tiff’s visits are bookends that hold in the summer for Ellie, that mark the chapters of letting go.
“Oh—yes, yes, yes! The Poorhouse Fair!” Tiff exclaims, pulling a sad, brown paperback from the bottom of her pile. “I love Updike! This was his first full-length novel—may I have it?”
Ellie looks at her grown daughter, whose face and body offer no hint of relatedness, whose dominant paternal genes have curled her long dark hair, shaped her almond eyes, sculpted the thin bridge of her nose. Her petite and athletic daughter, who runs marathons, wears a size 2, speaks Greek easily with her dad’s family, who majored in government and refused throughout her undergrad years to take a literature course.
“Me too,” says Ellie, delighted, even though she stopped reading his books in the Eighties. “Sure, you can have it.”
Ellie discovered Updike in her first semester at Bucknell, reading Rabbit, Run in her dorm room while snow fell outside her third-floor window seat. She spent long afternoons trapped inside his early books—drinking black coffee, smoking mentholated cigarettes, underlining favorite phrases in pencil—while assigned course work went undone. For the first time in her life, she discovered the magic of being seduced by both form and content, of hearing the voice a reader imagines lies within. And she’d been further enamored by what seemed like a shared sensibility—his conjured documentation of a familiar Pennsylvania landscape; the rutted frozen fields, the barns and pigeons. She learned to think in Updikean third person: Ellie Eshelmann set her horn-rimmed glasses on the oak desk and waited for George to finish his adolescent flirtation with the library aide, to turn and see her sitting in the winter light, waiting.
“You wrote all over your books,” Tiff notes, flipping through the remaining paperbacks.
“I have an idea,” says Ellie. “Before you leave on Sunday, would you like to make a pilgrimage to Shillington, see Updike’s house and the farm in Plowville? It’s not that far and I’ve wanted to take that trip since I moved back to Pennsylvania but never had anyone to go with.”
“Sure,” says Tiff, seemingly weary of involuntary immersion in her mother’s memories. “How’s Saturday?”
Traveling sixty miles west to Shillington should be easy, but it’s not. Once they leave the turnpike and enter the long and dusty construction zone that is U.S. Highway 422, Ellie loses all orientation to earlier trips made to the Reading area. They are being pushed blindly through chutes of Jersey barriers with semis in front and behind them. Both she and Tiff are nervous drivers, who find it hard to navigate new traffic patterns and participate in conversation at the same time. Both are used to the other asking for silence while the driver negotiates an on-ramp or an arrow-less left turn. Ellie knows her daughter still remembers the time they hit the curb when Tiff, then six, asked her to look at a loose front tooth.
Nervous driving and an appreciation of Updike’s prose. For years, every visit with her only child has offered Ellie the possibility of finding common ground, a genome project in which their interests and talents and temperaments might be aligned, as if the template of Tiff might be dropped upon Ellie and there would be points of convergence, a map of similarities not obvious to the outsider, a legacy.
“I didn’t realize all this road work was still going on. Nothing looks familiar and the directions from the Web aren’t right, not with these detours. I can’t tell if we’re in Shillington or Reading. What do the instructions the librarian gave us say to do next?”
Tiff’s tone betrays annoyance with her mother’s lack of certainty. “Find Philadelphia Avenue and New Holland Avenue.”
Ellie has been emailing the local library for three days in preparation for their trip. Based on their replies, it’s been a long time since anyone asked about a walking tour of Updike’s Shillington or directions to the family farm. But it’s common knowledge that his original boyhood home—now an ad agency—is a block from the library. And the librarian has gone out of her way to contact a high school friend of the author’s who has written a walking guide of Updike's worlds, both the places he claimed and the places he assigned to fiction. It’s a hot and sunny August day with a magical literary field trip awaiting the two women—something they will enjoy in the way that Ellie’s friends enjoy going to Longwood Gardens or Cape May.
“You missed it,” Tiff tells her mother. “We just passed Philadelphia Avenue. Are you having problems? Are you low? Do you want me to drive?”
“I’ll make a right here and go back.” They are in Shillington now, with small streets signs that are hard for Ellie to read through the canopy of leaves. It is a shady town, with houses made of variegated brick, protected by awnings and fat maples.
“I wouldn’t. I’d turn left. But suit yourself.”
Somehow, a combination of multiple lucky turns brings them back to the five-point intersection and the library’s parking lot. The air inside the car is charged with incompatibility.
“You’re acting like your blood sugar is low and I think we both really need to eat before we walk around in this heat,” says Tiff, closing the car door with more force than Ellie would use.
While Tiff browses through the special collection of Berks County authors, Ellie meets with the librarian, who sells her, for a copying fee, the document that Updike’s buddy has produced. Ellie has enjoyed the planning more than the trip, so far. She prolongs the transition by asking questions about a hand-drawn map that will direct them through more construction to the farm in Plowville, where the Updike family moved when John was thirteen.
“The new owners don’t want tourists coming their way,” says the librarian. “You might just take a picture quickly.”
“Thank you so much for getting this together for us,” says Ellie, who feels their trip is a singular experience that she can still rescue and make wonderful if she does the right things. On the counter is a sign advertising a summer library fund-raiser: Canna lilies, $2.00.
“And I’ll take four of the lilies,” she says, struck by the rightness of preserving the day with perennials.
Ellie puts the plastic bags of thick, hairy rhizomes in her tote, adjusts the heavy camera around her neck and tries to make sense of where to begin their tour. The librarian has given them a list of restaurant recommendations and an annotated walking guide to the town, mostly places mentioned in Updike’s The New Yorker essay, “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington”—a thick set of documents best viewed in an air conditioned restaurant, they decide.
“Let’s pick a restaurant with character,” Tiff says as they set out into the hot afternoon, and she leads the way down Lancaster Avenue, papers in hand.
For blocks after they leave the library, Ellie notices the prevalence of cannas in public places. Not yet blooming, tall and tropical, the ubiquitous rubbery plants beg the question: Updikean? Plants, like pets, she knows, reflect the tastes of discernable eras. The author lived here in the Thirties and Forties, once walked under some of these same trees. Men like Ellie’s dad, just returned from the war in Europe and determined to build solid lives, landscaped their new brick colonials with fast-growing shrubs. A drive-by of any neighborhood reveals that generation’s faded optimism—the single-owner, post-War houses still occupied by widows in their eighties, homes wrapped in overgrown azaleas and gnarly yews, shaded by giant hollies. And empty houses, like the one she closed just last week, awaiting turnover, for chain saws and shovels and an energetic young family with their preferences for burning bush, decorative grasses and cannas in raised beds or containers.
Along Lancaster Avenue, shady residential blocks give way to a treeless commercial district, hot sidewalks and after what seems like more than a mile, the retro but newly-remodeled sandwich shop they’ve been looking for.
“Thank God,” says Tiff when they enter the air conditioning, “I so need hydration.”
Over their tourist lunch of eggplant Parmesan sandwiches, the women study the maps and extensive narrative that Updike’s friend has compiled. Even after a cool drink and a full stomach, there is too much information for Ellie to process. She stares at the numbers on the maps, then the legends, without understanding which places were part of Updike's life or part of a story.
“This would mean more to us if we had read ‘A Soft Spring Night in Shillington’,” Ellie admits, feeling their pilgrimage has been short-changed by her lack of preparation. Not even a cursory reread of The Poorhouse Fair.
“You know, I’m really not up for the trip to the farm, Mom. Are you? Let’s just find the house in town and call it a day.”
“I’m sorry,” Ellie begins to fold the pamphlet.
“Sorry for what? That we’re not having a perfect day? That we didn’t read twenty books before we jumped in the car? Look, this field trip was a nice idea and I appreciate it but it’s really hot and there’s a lot of road construction between here and the farm and we don’t know what we’re doing. And isn’t the important thing that we’re spending the day together before I go back?”
Tiff pulls the papers toward her and Ellie lets go.
“I wanted us to do something special together. Something we’d both remember. Fondly.”
“This is special, and I will remember it fondly, Mom. You’re not like Sylvia or my friends’ mothers. We don’t just go shopping. We do a lot of meaningful and imaginative things when we get together.”
“But you’ll let me photograph you in front of the house.”
This is not a question. Ellie has been documenting Tiff’s life with her Cannon F-1 for two decades, using its manual 70-210 zoom to enter her world as closely as possible, to capture candid moments of childhood play and posed adult portraits. If she gets only two shots on this trip—Updike’s childhood home and Tiff in front of the house—she will have captured details of this irretreivable day, which are already dissolving like dappled light through the trees.
Maybe she’ll come back on her own after the construction is over, when the weather is moderate, when she has reread Updike’s early work and studied the map. She’ll come back on a fall day wearing serious walking shoes and a photographer’s vest. Maybe she’ll look at the town as if it were the one.
When she was a teenager, Ellie assessed every first date for soul mate potential. Now she looks at places with the same idealized longing: Is this the place where I can transition into retirement, live on less, teach at a community college, find like-minded friends? She knows Shillington offers more affordable real estate than Philly. Any one of these solid houses along Lancaster Avenue would do—a roomy home for less than two hundred thousand, with guest rooms for Tiff and her eventual family, a garden lush with no longer fashionable varieties—snowballs and bridal bouquet, lilies of the valley and hollyhocks. Cannas circling a bird bath. She’d hide notes in the garden for the children, who would run across the lawn in the dark with sparklers, making blue and yellow circles. At her house, they wouldn’t wear shoes in the summer, or bike helmets. She would have an unscreened porch with a metal glider and ferns in hanging baskets, potted camellias and green awnings. On rainy days, she’d show the kids her shell collection and teach them to use watercolors. She would have floor-to-ceiling oak shelves built and stained by a local craftsman; replace all her paperbacks with hardback books; invest in archival, acid-free albums and boxes. She could see herself with a taffy-colored Cocker spaniel. She’d order ladybugs from a catalogue to set free, and wear an apron when she cooked. She’d hang sheets in the wind to dry and place a lemon pie on the counter to cool.
By the time they find the Updike house on Philadelphia Avenue, she has almost convinced herself that she belongs in Shillington.
“Let me just get a wide shot of the house and then you in front of the house?” she asks, minimizing her need to document, also ready to get on the road.
“I’m too old for this,” says Tiff. “Will I be posing for you when I'm forty? You need a grandchild.”
First Ellie switches lenses to photograph the house from the sidewalk across the street. Even though it’s now an ad agency, the rambling white structure, with its friendly striped awning, still feels residential and evocative of an earlier era. But a silver SUV parked in front of the house taints the shot, making it impossible to deny the reality of the new century.
Tiff runs across the street, stands in front of the house while Ellie waits for a break in the afternoon traffic that will allow her to focus her zoom and frame her daughter beneath the awning, squinting in the bright sun and smiling, as if it were a soft summer afternoon and they were the author’s guests.
The Saturday after Tiff leaves, Ellie finds the bags of canna lily rhizomes forgotten and pushed back under the passenger seat of her Toyota. They are warm and limp like old ginger root and possibly ruined, but she opens each package, reads the directions and plants them in cool, shallow trenches near the irises that she dug up and brought back from her family home the week before she put it on the market. The transplanted irises bloomed in Philadelphia and she thinks it is just as likely that the Shillington lilies will grow, even with rough handling.
She is sipping iced coffee on her front porch and still cooling off from cutting back multi-flora rose and planting lilies when the UPS truck stops, and the driver brings her another box of books ordered from the Internet. She wipes her hands and opens her latest gift to herself. She has ordered an executor's guide to settling a loved one’s estate and a paperback memoir that includes “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” the required reading they’d skipped.
In his essay, Updike revisits Shillington in the Eighties, a lifetime after leaving unsophisticated, small-town life. He walks up and down its streets, reading his home town through the physical history its altered buildings and landscape reveal, noting change and loss at every turn. In the yard, he writes, the cherry and walnut trees I climbed are gone. The privet hedge is gone and replaced by a tall and forbidding one of arborvitae; little Shillington Alley, on whose gray stones I skinned my knees, has been paved and renamed Shillington Street.
She didn’t cry at the funeral or the auction or even at settlement, when she handed over her keys to the couple who now possess the house her parents built in 1952. She cried last when Tiff left her at the Philadelphia airport and she is crying again, ambushed by someone else’s losses. She imagines a time-lapse film of his street and her own, the trees and the people falling away, the ad agency sign popping up on the Updike’s lawn, a For Sale sign on her parents’. But in only a few years, her family will be forgotten completely in the town where she grew up, with no walking guide to evidence their existence.
There was so much more she could list, but what was the point? Tempted as she was to travel backward, to linger there as long as possible, she could not be the curator of her parents’ lives, not even her own. She had neither the time nor the room. She might find herself seduced briefly by flea market memorabilia or by the beckoning sets of old movies. She would find a Ginny doll or a silver sweater guard at a yard sale, or watch Jane Wyman turn on a frilly lamp and slip into a peignoir, and for a moment, all would seem retrievable. Every experience available for recall, most of it good, and she would wish that she lived in a larger house, with room for a few tables topped with shadow boxes and high, empty walls that could host a gallery of photos beneath track lights.
Ellie’s cell phone rings with the annoying polka tune that Tiff programmed as a joke when she was here.
“Hey, you— how’s the sorting and winnowing coming along? Are you in the middle of something?”
“No. Just taking a break. It’s still slow. I want to keep everything, but there’s no room. I planted the lily bulbs today, the ones I bought at the library.”
“Nope,” says Ellie, “just gardening allergies.”
“I understand completely,” says Tiff. “We’ve got ragweed kicking in out here, and my head is Histamine City. So..... I may have some interesting news to share—want to hear about my life?”
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