Analysis of 'My Father's Tears' by John Updike

A Different Perspective

Bridge over river.
Image courtesy of Rebecca Siegel.

"My Father's Tears" by John Updike (1932 - 2009) was first published in The New Yorker in 2006. It is the title story of Updike's 2009 posthumously published collection of short stories.

Plot

The story is told by an older narrator reflecting back on the events of his life, but the events are not told in chronological order.

The story opens with a description of the only time the narrator ever saw his father cry.

The narrator was on his way back to college in Boston, and they were saying good-bye on a train platform in the narrator's hometown. As they shook hands, the narrator saw that his father's eyes "glittered with tears."

The narrator ended up marrying his college girlfriend, the daughter of a Unitarian minister. The narrator and his wife spent each June living with the minister's family in a Vermont farmhouse. The narrator reflects on the theological differences between his father-in-law and his father, a high school math teacher and conservative Lutheran. These religious differences were a source of tension between the narrator and his wife, who had four children. 

The narrator and his wife went on a trip to Italy "to see if we couldn't make the marriage 'work.'" While they were there, they learned that the narrator's father had had a heart attack. They began the journey home, but the father died while they were on their way.

After the father's death, the narrator and his wife divorced. At the narrator's 55th high school reunion, his father's name came up often because he had been a teacher at the same high school. At the end of the story, the narrator comments that he was unable to cry upon learning of his father's death.

Perspective

Even as a young man, the narrator recognized that his father's tears resulted from the difference in their situations. Reflecting on that moment at the train station, the narrator says:

"I realized, his hand warm in mine while he tried to smile, that he had a different perspective than I. I was going somewhere, and he was seeing me go. I was growing in my own sense of myself, and to him I was getting smaller."

The tears seem to be partly for the loss of his child, but also, perhaps, for the loss of his own youth. The son's perspective is rooted in beginnings and focused on the future, but the father's perspective seems rooted in endings and focused on the past. The narrator says:

"But my father did foresee, the glitter in his eyes told me, that time consumes us -- that the boy I had been was dying if not already dead, and we would have less and less to do with each other. I had taken my life from his, and now I was stealing away with it."

The boy is not just gone, but also has taken something from the father in his departure.

By the time the narrator tells the story, he is certainly older than his father was on the train platform. His older perspective might reveal something that he had misunderstood as a young man.

Describing the members of his high school class, who just celebrated their 55th reunion, the narrator states:

"But we don't see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children -- the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes."

The son understood that time had consumed the boy he had been, but unlike his father, he might not have understood that time would continue to consume him, even as he was "going somewhere."

I think it's no accident that the story opens at a train station. Though the narrator "goes somewhere" by leaving home for Boston, Vermont, and even Italy, he acknowledges in old age that he "never really left Pennsylvania, that it is where the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition."

Holy Water

Toward the end of the story, the narrator states:

"We are surrounded by holy water; all water, our chemical mother, is holy."

He talks about taking a flight from Boston to New York and being "rewarded" by "the sun's reflections on the waters of Connecticut." He compares this sight to the way his father's tears had caught the light, saying that he wouldn't have seen them otherwise.

The implication is that there was something holy and precious in seeing his father's tears. It was a rare opportunity made possible by the alignment of certain conditions. The tears, a sign of his father's love for him, become a bond between them, bridging time and even death as the narrator ages.

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Your Citation
Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'My Father's Tears' by John Updike." ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2015, thoughtco.com/my-fathers-tears-analysis-2990464. Sustana, Catherine. (2015, January 31). Analysis of 'My Father's Tears' by John Updike. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/my-fathers-tears-analysis-2990464 Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'My Father's Tears' by John Updike." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/my-fathers-tears-analysis-2990464 (accessed December 17, 2017).