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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

Missing Mom

BOOK: Missing Mom
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MISSING MOM

A NOVEL

Joyce Carol Oates

Scattered throughout the text are references to bread-baking taken

from B
READCRAFT
by Charles and Violet Schafer

(Yerba Buena Press, San Francisco, 1974).

In Memory of
Carolina Oates (1916–2003)

contents

Last time you see someone and you don’t know it will be the last time. And all that you know now, if only you’d known then. But you didn’t know, and now it’s too late. And you tell yourself
How could I have known, I could not have known
.

You tell yourself.

 

This is my story of missing my mother. One day, in a way unique to you, it will be your story, too.

May 9, 2004. One of those aloof-seeming spring days: very sunny but not very warm.

Gusts of wind rushing down from Lake Ontario in mean little skirmishes like hit-and-run. A sky hard-looking as blue tile. That wet-grassy smell lifting from the neat rectangular front lawns on Deer Creek Drive.

In patches lilac bushes were blooming up and down the street. Vivid glowing-purple, lavender like swipes of paint.

At 43 Deer Creek, my parents’ house, where Mom lived alone now that Dad had died, there were too many vehicles parked in the driveway and at the curb. My brother-in-law’s Land Rover, my Aunt Tabitha’s old black hearse-sized Caddie, these made sense, but there were others including a low-slung lipstick-red sports car shaped like a missile.

Who did Mom know, who’d drive such a car?

Damned if I wanted to meet him. (Had to be a him.)

My mother was always introducing me to “eligible bachelors.” Since I was involved with an ineligible man.

It was like Mom to invite people outside the family for Mother’s Day. It was like Mom to invite people who were practically strangers into her house.

I parked the car across the street. I’d begun to whistle. It seemed to tamp down my adrenaline, whistling when I was in danger of becoming over-excited. My father had whistled a lot around the house.

Mother’s Day: I was bringing Mom a present so soft, so gossamer-light it seemed to have no weight but lay across my outstretched arms like something sleeping. I’d spent a frustrating half-hour wrapping it in rainbow tin foil, crisscrossing the foil with multi-colored yarns instead of ribbon; I had a vision of the sort of wild/funny/funky look I wanted for the gift, and had to settle for this cross between New Age and Kindergarten. I’d taken a half-day off from work to find an appropriate gift for my mother who presented a riddle to her grown daughters, for she seemed in need of nothing.

Anyway, nothing we could give her.

We’d wanted to take Mom out, of course. My sister Clare and me. Why not, for once, a Mother’s Day meal in elegant surroundings, the Mt. Ephraim Inn for instance. No need for Mom to prepare one of her complicated meals, work herself into a state of nerves inviting guests at the last minute like a train hooking on extra cars, careening and swerving along the tracks!

No need. Except of course Mom resisted. Maybe when Dad had been alive, if he’d insisted on taking her out she’d have consented, but now Dad was gone, there was just Clare and me hoping to persuade our mother to behave reasonably.

You know how I love to cook. This is the nicest Mother’s Day present you girls can give me, my family visiting and letting me cook for them.

Then, vehemently as if protecting her innocent/ignorant daughters from being swindled
Pay prices like that for
food?
When I can prepare a meal for us for a fraction of the cost, and better?

 

There were three ways into Mom’s house: front door, side door, through the garage. Most days I used the side door, that opened directly into the kitchen.

The door to which Mom had affixed little bells that tinkled merrily, like a shopkeeper’s door, when you pushed it open.

“Ohhh Nikki! What have you done with your
hair
!”

First thing Mom said to me. Before I was through the doorway and into the kitchen. Before she hugged me stepping back with this startled look in her face.

I would remember the way Mom’s voice lifted on
hair
like the cry of a bird shot in mid-flight.

Mom had a round childlike face that showed every emotion clear as water. Her skin was flushed as if windburnt, her eyes were wide-open greeny-amber. Since Dad’s death she’d become a darting little hummingbird of a woman. Her shock at my appearance was such, I’d have sworn what I heard her say was
What have you done with my hair?

Innocently I said I thought I’d told her, I was having my hair cut?

“Cut.”

Meaning, what an understatement!

I was thirty-one years old. Mom was fifty-six. We’d been having these exchanges for almost three decades. You’d have thought we were both accustomed to them by now, but we didn’t seem to be. I could feel Mom’s quickened heartbeat like my own.

This time, the situation was pretty tame. I hadn’t run away from home as I’d done as a teenager, or, worse yet, returned home abruptly and unexpectedly from college refusing to explain why. I hadn’t announced that I was engaged to a young man my parents scarcely knew, nor even that I’d broken off the engagement. (Twice. Two very different young men.) I hadn’t quit my current job in a succession of boring jobs. Hadn’t “gone off” with a not-quite-divorced man nor even by myself cross-country in a rattletrap Volkswagen van to backpack in the Grand Tetons, in Idaho. All I’d done was have my hair cut punk-spiky style and darkened to a shade of inky-maroon that, in certain lights, glared iridescent. No strand of hair longer than one inch, shaved at the sides and back of my head. You could say this was a chic-druggie look of another era or you could say that I looked like someone who’d stuck her finger into an electric socket.

Mom smiled bravely. It was Mother’s Day after all, there were guests in the other room. Wasn’t Gwen Eaton known in Mt. Ephraim, New York, in the Chautauqua Valley seventy miles south of Lake Ontario, as uncomplaining, unself-pitying, good-natured and good-hearted and indefatigably optimistic?

Hadn’t her high school nickname been
Feather
?

“Well, Nikki! You’d be a beauty, no matter if you were bald.”

Rising now on her tiptoes to give me a belated hug. Just a little harder than ordinary, to signal how she loved me even more, because I was a trial to her.

Each time Mom gripped me in one of her fierce hugs, it seemed to me she was just slightly smaller, shorter. Since Dad’s death her tidy little body that had seemed to have a rubbery resilience was losing definition. My hands encountered fleshy pouches at her waist and upper back, I saw the raddled flesh of her upper arms and chin. Since turning fifty Mom had more or less abandoned shoes with any kind of heel, mostly she wore crepe-soled shoes so flat, small, and round-toed they looked like a child’s play shoes. We’d been the same height briefly (five feet three, when I was twelve), now Mom was shorter than me by several inches.

I felt a pang of loss, alarm. I wanted to think there had to be some mistake.

In my party voice I said, “Mom, you’re looking good. Happy Mother’s Day.”

Mom said, embarrassed, “It’s a silly day, I know. But you and Clare wanted to take me out, so this is a compromise. Happy Mother’s Day to
you
.”

For the occasion, Mom was wearing a lime-green velour top and matching pants, she’d sewed herself. Pink shell earrings she’d made in one of her crafts classes at the mall and a necklace of glass beads I’d found in a secondhand shop. Her graying-blond hair was attractively if modestly cut, her skin looked freshened as if she’d applied some sort of cold cream to it, then rubbed the cream vigorously off. Since Dad used to tease her about having been a glamor girl when they’d met, Mom had become self-conscious about any visible sort of makeup and used even lipstick sparingly. In long-ago snapshots of the 1960s when she’d been a teenager, Mom had certainly not seemed glamorous. She’d been a blandly “cute” high school cheerleader with the doll-like features and achingly hopeful smile of thousands—millions?—of other girls immediately recognizable to any non-U.S. citizen as
American, middle-class
.

“Nikki, my
God
. What have you
done
.”

My sister Clare was staring at me, disapproving. There was a thrill to her voice as there’d been when we were girls and her willful younger sister had finally gone too far.

I ran my fingers through my spiky hair that was stiff like splinters with mousse, and laughed. Clare couldn’t bully me any longer, we were adults now. “Clare, you’re just jealous! Purple hair would look terrific on you except your family wouldn’t allow it.”

“I should hope
not
.”

In fact, Clare’s husband Rob (in the living room, with Mom’s other guests) might have liked to see Clare unwind a little. It was her children who would have been mortified.

Clare was a fleshy-ripe woman of thirty-five who looked exactly that age. Maybe she’d had a wild streak herself as a girl but it was so long ago, it scarcely mattered. She was the mother of two children whom she took as a grimly ordained task. She was the wife of a moderately well-to-do Mt. Ephraim business executive (sales manager, Coldwell Electronics) whom she made every effort to revere, at least publicly. Your first impression of Clare was
A good-looking, sexy woman
but when you looked again you saw the fine white crow’s-feet of disapproval, disdain etched into her skin. Her face was a perfect moon like Mom’s, seemingly boneless, petulant-pretty and inclined toward doughiness. Except where Mom was open-eyed and innocent, Clare was skeptical. She’d have said she expected the worst of people and was rarely surprised.

Clare’s hair was that wet-sand color that was my own natural hair color, and Mom’s before Mom went gray, styled in one of those small-town-beauty-parlor-wash-and-wear-perms that fit all sizes of female heads like a Wal-Mart stretch wig. The most sensible of hairstyles for a busy housewife/mother who hasn’t time to “fuss.” When we’d been girls, Clare was always beyond me: smart, popular at school, sexy-but-“good.” Now, Clare was so far beyond me she’d practically disappeared over the horizon. I couldn’t imagine her Mrs. Chisholm life except as the reverse of my own. For everything about Clare was predictable and sensible: lilac polyester pants suit with a tunic top to disguise her thickening lower body, good black leather shoes with a neat little heel. Instead of my numerous funky-flashy rings and multiple ear-piercings, that gave my earlobes a look of frantic winking, Clare had her diamond-cluster engagement ring and white gold wedding band on the third finger of her left hand, worn like a badge, and her birthday stone (boring pearl, for June) on her right hand. Her earrings were proper little gold leaf-clusters, her husband had probably given her for Christmas.

Rob Chisholm. Out of nowhere he’d appeared, to save Clare’s life where she’d been languishing (in fact, complaining to anyone who’d listen) as a social studies teacher at Jericho Middle School in the next township. I’d imagined my sister glancing at her watch, noting the time, realizing it was getting late, time to get married! All she retained of her teacherly authority was her upright posture to put others, like me, to shame for slouching; and her air of barely concealed impatience for the slower-witted who surrounded her.

No need for Clare and me to hug, we’d seen each other recently enough.

Mom was fumbling to smooth things over, “Well! It will always grow back, Nikki! Remember, when you were in seventh grade, I’d just been elected president of the PTA at your school and I had to chair my first meeting and I was scared to death—I mean,
me
!—whatever were they thinking of, electing
me
!—some of those people knew me as ‘Feather’ Kovach!—so I hurried out to get my hair styled at that place next to the vacuum cleaner repair, Doreen’s it used to be, now it’s the Village Salon, and I said to Doreen, looking the woman in the eye, in the mirror, so there couldn’t be any misunderstanding, ‘Just a little off, please, about an inch,’ and wasn’t paying attention reading some mystery book, I think it was Mary Higgins Clark, you know how she draws you right in, you keep turning pages though it will all end sort of silly, and next thing I knew I looked up into the mirror and—my hair was gone! I was this pathetic skinned thing like a—what d’you call them, opossum?—iguana?—and I almost burst into tears crying, ‘Ohhh! What have you done! This looks like one of those pixie-cuts,
I am thirty-seven years old
,’ and Doreen peered at me sort of nearsightedly like she was only just seeing me, and seeing it was so, her customer wasn’t any kid, what on earth that woman was thinking I never knew, I mean I wasn’t one of her regular customers because I wasn’t a regular customer at any salon, but anyone with eyes should have seen, anyone with any sense should have known, I was hardly the age or the type for a pixie-cut! And Doreen says to me, such a profound thought she slowed chewing her gum, ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry but I can’t make it longer can I? Hair grows back, I promise.’”

We laughed. We always laughed hearing Mom’s pixie-cut story.

Waiting for Mom to continue, for there was a coda, what Dad said when he came home and saw her, but Mom was looking distracted, turned away just as a buzzer went off on the stove like an indignant wasp.

Hawaiian Chicken Supreme, a “scrumptious” new recipe Mom had acquired from one of her senior ladies at the YM-YWCA pool where Gwen Eaton was a much-loved volunteer swimming instructor.

 

Entering the old house.

Taking a deep breath, like a diver. Except even the deepest breath can take you only so far.

After four years of Dad being gone still I had to check the impulse to look for him. For always Mom was the one to greet visitors, Dad would appear belatedly as if surprised by the intrusion though willing to be a good sport about it.

After four years I wasn’t grieving for my father. I don’t think so. I’d adjusted to his death. (Though it had been a shock at the time: he’d been only fifty-nine.) Only just Mom seemed so bravely alone without him, in this house. Like a dancer whose partner has left her alone on the dance floor while the music is still playing.

 

“Nik-
ki
. Wow.”

This was Rob Chisholm’s greeting. In an undertone.

Rob was staring/smiling at my spiky maroon hair. And at my tiny puckered-black-crepe top that fitted my torso tighter than any glove, nipple-tight you could say; and at my bare, luridly pale feet in gold-spangled high-heeled sandals. (Thrift shop purchases!) The glittery rings and ear studs and bold magenta lipstick with which I’d outlined my pouty lips: these captured the man’s attention, too.

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