A Sandstone Farmhouse

by John Updike

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When Joey’s mother dies, Joey returns to the sandstone farmhouse built in 1812 in rural Pennsylvania in which she was born and died. Joey lived in the farmhouse from age thirteen until he graduated from high school. After he entered college, he lived mostly in New York City but returned periodically to the farmhouse to visit. His mother lived there alone during her last years, refusing to leave and, for a while, refusing to die because she felt that the farmhouse needed her. Joey, however, resented the move to the farmhouse in his early teens because he had to leave a house he loved, his friends, and the city life to which he was accustomed.

After his mother’s funeral, Joey begins to empty the farmhouse in preparation for selling it. He removes all the furniture and all his mother’s other possessions, many of which she had stored in the barn or left lying about the house, including stacks of canned cat food, old newspapers, and mail-order catalogues as well as collections of plastic grocery bags, string, and twine. He keeps only a few things from the time before the family moved to the farmhouse. One of Joey’s former wives takes his mother’s old dog. A man from the humane society traps the cats his mother fed and takes them away. Joey traps some of the mice and kills others with poison, throwing their bodies in the swamp near the house.

On Joey’s final visit to clean the house, he finds a dead flying squirrel drowned in the toilet; it had apparently fallen in, desperately thirsty after ingesting rat poison. He remembers a pair of flying squirrels from the first summer he lived in the house. Later, as he lies in his bed in New York City, he feels that the house calls to him and needs him. He always had wanted to be in the center of the action, and he discovers that for him the action had really been back at the farmhouse.

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