Editor’s Note: Major newspapers this week carried obituaries and tributes for author John Updike, who died Tuesday at the age of 76 of lung cancer. A former longtime summer visitor to Menemsha, Mr. Updike wrote the following essay about the Vineyard that was published in Peter Simon’s 1989 book, On the Vineyard II.
By JOHN UPDIKE
When I think of the Vineyard, my ankles feel good — bare, airy, lean. Full of bones. I go barefoot there in recollection, and the Island as remembered becomes a medley of pedal sensations: the sandy, rough planks of Dutchers Dock; the hot sidewalks of Oak Bluffs, followed by the wall-to-wall carpeting of the liquor store; the pokey feel of an accelerator on a naked sole; the hurtful little pebbles of Menemsha Beach and the also hurtful half-buried rocks of Squibnocket; the prickly weeds, virtual cacti, that grew in a certain lawn near Chilmark Pond; the soft path leading down from this lawn across giving, oozing boards to a bouncy little dock and rowboats that offered yet another friendly texture to the feet; the crystal bite of ocean water; the seethe and suck of a wave tumbling rocks across your toes in its surge back down the sand; sand, the clean wide private sand by Windy Gates and the print-pocked, over-used public sand by the boat dock that one kicked around while waiting for friends to be deferried; the cold steep clay of Gay Head and the flinty littered surface around those souvenir huts that continued to beguile the most jaded child; the startling dew on the grass when one stepped outside with the first cup of coffee to gauge the day’s weather; the warmth of the day still lingering in the dunes underfoot as one walked back, Indian-file, through the dark from a beach party and its diminishing bonfire. Going to the post office in bare feet had an infra-legal, anti-totalitarian, comical, gentle feel to it in the days before the postal service moved to the other side of Beetlebung Corner and established itself in a lake of razor-sharp spalls. (When Bill Seward ran the postal annex in his store, it was one of the few spots in the United States that delivered mail on Sundays.) Shopping at Seward’s, one would not so carefreely have shelled out “Island prices” for such luxuries as macadamia nuts and candied snails had one been wearing shoes; their absence, like the cashless ease of a charge account, gave a pleasant illusion of unaccountability. A friend of mine, who took the photographs in this book, used to play golf at Mink Meadows barefoot. My children and I set up a miniature golf course on a turn-around covered with crushed clam shells; after treading this surface for a while, it did not seem too great a transition, even for a middle-aged father of four, to climb a tree barefoot or go walking on a roof. The shingles felt pleasantly peppery, sun-baked.
These are summer memories, mostly August memories; for that’s the kind of resident I was. Now it has been some summers since I was even that, and a danger exists of confusing the Vineyard with my children’s childhood, which time has swallowed, or with Paradise, from which we have been debarred by well-known angels. Let’s not forget the rainy days, the dull days, the cranky-making crowding, and the moldy smell summer furniture gives off when breezes don’t blow through the screen door one keeps meaning to fix. Beach pebbles notoriously dry to a disappointing gray on the mantel. The cozy roads and repeated recreations can begin to wear a rut. One wet summer we all, kids and cousins and friends of cousins, kept walking down through poison ivy, not barefoot, to look at a heap of large stones that was either a ninth-century Viking cromlech or a nineteenth-century doghouse, nobody was certain which. Still, there was under it all, fair days and foul, a kicky whiff of freedom, a hint, whispered from the phalanges to the metatarsals, from the calcaneus to the astragalus, that one was free from the mainland’s paved oppressions.
Going barefoot is increasingly illegal, and does have its dangers. One house we rented overlooked Menemsha Bight from a long porch whose space boards had the aligned nicety of harp strings or the lines of type in a book. One of my boys, performing some stunt on these boards, rammed splinters into the soles of his feet so deeply a doctor across the Island had to cut them out with a surgeon’s knife. I wonder if even the hardened hippies still pad along the tarry streets of Oak Bluffs barefoot as they used to. At Jungle Beach, I remember, nudity spread upward to the top of the head and became doctrinaire. But then nudism, interwoven with socialism in the Island’s history, has always had a doctrinaire side. Being naked approaches being revolutionary; going barefoot is mere populism. “Barefoot boy with cheek of tan” was a rote phrase of my own childhood, quaint even then. But that boy existed and can be seen, not only in illustration of Mark Twain but also in Winslow Homer’s level-eyed etchings and oils of his contemporary America, a place of sandy lanes and soft meadows. There are few places left, even summer places, where one can go barefoot. Too many laws, too much broken glass. On Long Island, the cuffs of one’s leisure suit will drag on the ground, and on the Cape, pine needles stick to the feet. Even on Nantucket, those cobblestones are not inviting. But the presiding spirits of Martha’s Vineyard, willfully and not without considerable overhead, do preserve this lowly element of our Edenic heritage: treading the earth.