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My Children at the Dump

January 12, 2016

By John Updike

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In 1962 the Updikes had just moved to Ipswich Massachusetts, where John occasionally took his three older children to the local dump, leaving their new baby with his wife Mary. When his affair with Joyce Harrington was discovered, Mary confessed to one of her own, and forgave him. But Joyce’s husband wanted a showdown, so the family decamped to Europe to let the dust settle. The drama led to a whole series of stories about adultery, culminating in his first best-seller, Couples. 

This poem, – “Love it now./Love it now, but we can’t take it home.” – tells why Mary would win; he loved his children more than his mistress.

The day before divorce, I take my children
on this excursion;
they are enchanted by
a wonderland of discard where
each complicated star cries out
to be a momentary toy.

To me, too, the waste seems wonderful.
Sheer hills of television tubes, pale lakes
of excelsior, landslides
of perfectly carved carpentry-scraps,
sparkplugs like nuggets, cans iridescent
as peacock plumes, an entire lawnmower
all pluck at my instinct to conserve.

I cannot. These things
were considered and dismissed
for a reason. But my children
wander wondering among tummocks of junk
like stunted starvelings cruelly set free
at a heaped banquet of food too rich to eat.
I shout, “Don’t touch the broken glass!”

The distant metal delicately rusts.
The net effect is floral: a seaward wind
makes flags of cellophane and upright weeds.
The seagulls weep; my boys bring back
bent tractors, hoping what some other child
once played to death can be revived by them.

No. I say, “No.” I came to add
my fragments to this universe of loss,
purging my house, ridding a life
no longer shared of remnants.
My daughter brings a naked armless doll,
still hopeful in its dirty weathered eyes,
and I can only tell her, “Love it now.
Love it now, but we can’t take it home.”

John Updike

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