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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

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BOOK: Missing Mom
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Jonathan Allan Eaton

February 16, 1941

January 8, 2000

Beloved Husband and Father

There was no matching headstone for Gwendolyn Eaton, yet. That would come later. Mom’s grave was, well—a fresh-dug hole, with steep vertical sides. It was discreetly covered with a shroud of synthetic turf but I’d peeked.

Reverend Bewley led us in another prayer. This time, for the repose of Gwendolyn Eaton’s soul. In a sudden brisk breeze, “Bob” Bewley’s carefully wetted, slicked-down hair lifted from the curve of his scalp to reveal it was an ingenious comb-over.

Clare hadn’t been crazy about the idea, but she’d given in to a request from Mom’s Senior Swim Club friends that they be allowed to release doves in the cemetery. The ceremony ended with several elderly women trying to coax three doves out of a wire cage, which took some time. Finally, two emerged from the cage flapping their wings agitatedly into the foliage overhead; the third held back, wary and confused, until at last I lost patience, grabbed the cage and tilted it sharply so the dove had no choice but to tumble out onto the ground, and flap its wings in a panic to escape. “Go! Fly! Get as far away as you can!”

It must’ve been me, that shrill voice.

 

I will punish her, I won’t call her
.

I don’t need her love! Not me
.

 

After Mom’s burial, Mom’s funeral luncheon.

Where, once again, Mom’s home-baked breads were served.

“Isn’t this just like Gwen!”

“She would take such pleasure, if she knew.”

For it happened that, when Gwen’s relatives, neighbors, friends checked their freezers, it was discovered that they’d stored away bread Mom had given them. Clare had a full loaf of raisin/yogurt/twelve grain. Aunt Tabitha had buttermilk/cinnamon/pumpkin seed—“Maybe just a little stale.” Alyce Proxmire had small portions of several loaves including High-Fibre Sugarless/Saltless Carrot/Wheat Germ that Mom baked especially for her. And there were scattered others with Oatmeal Muffins, Almond Squash Pound Cake, Date-Nut Brownies, Grandma’s Molasses Brioche, even gaily frosted Christmas cookies of Gwen Eaton’s, they were eager to bring to the funeral luncheon to be served with the catered food Clare had ordered.

Oh, it would be a festive occasion! I hid upstairs.

A tentative knock at the door and there was my niece Lilja blinking at me. “Aunt Nikki, I don’t want to be downstairs, either. But Grandma would want us to, you know.”

Downstairs, I hid in the guest bathroom. Fantasizing a romantic/lurid interlude with a lover. Or, a cigarette. Marijuana, crack cocaine. Anything to wipe my mind out!

There came a sharp accusing knock on the door. My sister’s knuckles against wood, recognizable anywhere.

“Nikki. Get your ass out here. People are asking about you, don’t you dare embarrass Mom, and me,
unlock this door
.”

This was shocking. This was serious. Clare hadn’t spoken to me in such a way since high school. I had no choice but to unlock the door, immediately.

For the occasion Clare was what we’d call “revved-up.” It must have been the medication Dr. Myer had prescribed, her eyes were unnaturally glistening and her speech rapid, percussive. Having so many guests in her house was a natural high, putting color in her cheeks like rouge. As an “executive wife” Clare was expected to “entertain” her husband’s numerous colleagues and clients, which obligations she fulfilled in the way of a teacher executing a lesson plan. My practical-minded sister had virtually stopped having family gatherings except a catchall open house on Christmas Day.

As Mom had naively observed, you’d almost think that Clare didn’t much like her family, wouldn’t you?

“C’mon, Nikki. You’re on.”

Clare was the one who was
on
. Stylish in her nubby black trouser suit that fitted her snugly, almost sensuously you might say, at her generous hips and stomach. Her face was a startling glowing-creamy cosmetic mask that obscured, at least at a respectful distance, the sharp vertical lines between her eyebrows. Her eyebrows flared provocatively and her lipstick was Revlon Fire Engine Red, she’d been wearing since high school. Beside Clare, I was looking like a disco casualty. Not-new but still serviceable black “silk” (i.e., silk-seeming) trousers with flaring cuffs, a three-quarter-sleeved smoke-colored see-through designer shirt designed (of course) to be worn over naked breasts but, in this case, worn over a tight black T-shirt top with no pretensions other than sexy. Nikki’s signature smear of purple lipstick but no makeup otherwise. I’d tamped down my hair so that it lay almost flat on my head, a punk chicken with wetted feathers.

On my bare luridly white feet, smoke-colored leather-and-Plexiglas platform shoes with a hint of glitter.

Clare’s swift assessing gaze took me in, wetted-head to shoes, pitilessly. However I looked, I was
on
.

“Oh, Clare. I just don’t think…”

“Then don’t! Don’t think. Like me.”

After a funeral service, after a cemetery trip on a bright windy chilly spring morning, mourners are naturally hungry. Food is their reward, and they deserve it. Still I was stunned by the quantity of food on Clare’s beautifully decorated dining room table. Mom’s baked things were a small part of it, really. The caterer had set out lavish platters of smoked salmon, cold sliced meats, deviled eggs, stuffed mushrooms; there was creamed chicken to be served over biscuits; there were rice, pasta, vegetable salads. There was even a huge bowl of Waldorf salad, prepared from Gwen’s recipe. And there were desserts. Many.

Always set out more desserts than you think your guests can eat, Mom used to say. So that they leave a few behind, and can feel good about their diets.

I’d never seen Clare’s house so crowded. Dining room, living room, glassed-in family room, vestibule. The showy cathedral ceiling seemed appropriate, as in a hotel lobby. “Oh, Nikki!
Oh
.” There came Alyce Proxmire lurching in my direction to embrace me in an unexpected hug, her rail-thin arms surprisingly strong, her breath hot and anxious in my face, so stricken with grief at losing her oldest friend she’d been suffering from insomnia, migraine, irritable bowel, and her white blood cells had “plummeted” leaving her vulnerable to infections. There came Aunt Tabitha in a black rayon dress with a drooping bosom, watery-eyed, sniffing loudly, suddenly looking old, befuddled: “Poor Gwen! Of all people! Hadn’t I told her and told her! Oh, hadn’t I told her! Not to become so
involved
, not with people outside the family, oh I
told her
! You and Clare know! And she wouldn’t listen! Oh, she listened, she pretended to listen, you know Gwen, you know that sly way of hers, that little smile of hers, if a cat could smile it would smile in that way—‘Yes yes I agree! but I intend to do just what I want to do.’ That’s what a cat would say, and that’s what Gwen was
think
ing! Oh, Jon’s sweet little wife, he married so young, Gwen never grew up, somehow. Oh, what a tragedy! Oh, Nikki, all our lives are in danger! Oh, I wish I hadn’t been so critical of your mother, Gwen did the best she could, oh that dear woman did the very best she could which is more than most people can say for themselves. Oh, and Gwen was so—
good
.”

There was the exalted Gilbert Wexley frowning and somber as he piled food onto his plate, speaking in a high-pitched voice of his plan for Gwen’s memorial service: “I know just the place for it. Not that church, the new Arts Council building. I will organize it! I have the staff! We at the Arts Council are so very grateful to Gwen for all she’s done for us, the bake sale, the crafts festival, fund-raising, her committee work, what a dear friend, what a lovely woman, there should be a plaque in Gwen’s honor,
I will direct my staff to look into it
.”

There was “Sonny” Danto in a dark suede sport coat, sharp-creased black trousers, a necktie that appeared to be made of black leather, vigorously shaking hands with Rob Chisholm as if they were old friends, offering him condolences in a rush of words: “Mrs. Eaton was the grandest lady, the nicest and most wonderful lady, you are so lucky to have a mother-in-law like Mrs. Eaton not like some, I can tell you, oh man can I tell you,” shaking his head and grinning as if, in fact, he couldn’t have told Rob, or anyway Rob would not have believed him. And there was Sonya Szyszko waiting her turn with my brother-in-law, in swishing black velvet with a plunging V-neckline, crimson-mouthed, wiping at her elaborately made-up eyes and blinking nearsightedly as if grief were a performance, she’d prepared for its public display and was eager to begin. There were Eaton relatives I hadn’t seen since Dad’s funeral, and there were Kovach relatives I’d have sworn I hadn’t seen before in my life. There was Aunt Maude, there was Uncle Fred, there were my cousins Jill, Barbara, Tom. There were middle-aged men speaking wistfully of “Feather” even as they heaped their plates with food. There were my high school girlfriends Sylvie, Janet, Annette, Noreen and there were my high school boyfriends Vic, Marty, Steve, Sonny, and Davy Petko you’d think would not dare to show up, that bastard. And there was my ex-fiancé Dick Gurski who grabbed me and held me so tight, I felt the hot throbbing length of him as if it was high school again: “Nikki, Christ. What a shitty thing. Your mom was
tops
.” Another of my ex-fiancés Lannie Bishop came to embrace me, his wife closely behind him regarding us with anxious eyes. “Nikki, darling. I couldn’t believe when I heard the news. Gwen wanted us to go through with it, why’d you back out?” I laughed nervously pushing away from Lannie: “We were too young, for heaven’s sake. We were just crazy in love and it would never have lasted.” Lannie squeezed my arm so hard it hurt: “It would have! We’d have had kids, for Christ’s sake. We’d hang in there like everybody else.”

There came Sylvie LaPorte frantic to hug me, and pull me along the hallway into the guest bathroom where she offered me a swallow, in fact more than one swallow, from the pint bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label she’d produced out of her handbag. I’d heard that Sylvie had a drinking problem since her divorce, in fact she’d been a drinker in high school. Sylvie hugged me hard, planted a wet, hot kiss near my mouth saying she’d freaked when she heard the news on TV, I would never get over losing my mom who was the nicest, kindest, most generous person she’d ever met, not that that was saying so much considering certain members of her family and guys in Mt. Ephraim but Gwen Eaton had been a saint, I would never get over the loss of her: “When I heard, Nikki, I just started screaming. I mean, I started breaking things. This meth-head murderer, he’s got to be given the death sentence. I’ll jam in the needle myself.”

The look in Sylvie’s tear-brimming eyes, I could believe her.

After Sylvie, I blundered into the Scourge of the Bugs with a plate of food, chewing deviled egg and staring at me with melting eyes: “Nicole! Please accept my heartfelt condolences for your loss. Your mother was a grand, gracious lady. May I call you? This week?” And there came Sonja Szyszko in chill rustling black taffeta and jasmine perfume, to grip me against her foamy bosom: “Your poor momma! How could such a terrible thing happen! In Mt. Ephraim where everybody is so friendly! Mrs. Aiten was my dear friend, I will never have another friend like Mrs. Aiten again.” Sonja was so shaken, I ended up having to comfort her.

Overhearing a two-hundred-pound cousin of my mother’s, Lucille Kovach, a woman with a flushed moon face and an appetite for pastries, speaking vehemently to another wide-beamed Kovach relation: “I loved Gwen. We were girls together on Spalding Street, she had a hard life. All this bullshit of the Reverend’s, like Gwen was some kind of angel,
she was not
.”

In the front hall, Rob was trying to calm Clare who stood at the door barring the way to an astonished-looking Reverend Bewley and his wife: “Reverend, we don’t want you in this house. You brought that murderer into my mother’s life.
You
are responsible for my mother’s death.” As Bewley opened his mouth to protest, Clare spoke in a shriller voice: “You! Call yourself a Christian! You are
Judas
.”

I pushed through a knot of guests in the hall, escaped into the kitchen where the caterer’s assistants were busily working. A young woman asked if she could help me and I said thanks, no. My hands were trembling as I poured wine from an opened bottle into a glass, and swallowed thirstily. Tart white wine, stinging my mouth in a way I liked. (Clare hadn’t wanted to serve alcohol at the funeral luncheon, only just sparkling water, sodas, coffee and decaf. Certain of the Kovach relatives, we knew from past experience, weren’t to be trusted with an open bar.) I had time to admire my sister’s custom-designed “country kitchen” that was twice the size of Mom’s and bore the approximate relationship to my kitchen in Chautauqua Falls that a football field bears to a Ping-Pong table: state-of-the-art appliances, gleaming Mexican tiles and copper pans hanging from hooks, that looked as if they’d never been used. Here and there amid the glossy color-coordinated surfaces were poignant remnants of Mom: a glazed pot with a lid marked
COOKIES
, a russet-red plaster-of-Paris rooster, terry-cloth dish towels. Beyond the kitchen door was the dining room, and an alarming tide of voices. So loud, so
alive
. I couldn’t help but wait to hear Gwen Eaton’s voice among them. It terrified me to realize I would not hear that voice again.

“Ma’am? Would you like—?”

“I’m
family
. I’m the sister of Mrs. Chisholm, who hired you.”

I poured a second glass of wine, left the bottle on the counter and went outside, onto the flagstone patio. Impressive: a built-in barbecue, hefty redwood lawn furniture, Martha Stewart–style waterproof cushions in a bright floral pattern. Unlike our mother, Clare hadn’t time or patience for gardening, even small flower beds. Her lawn was solid, sodded grass without a dandelion in sight and like most of the professionally landscaped lawns in Fox Hunt Acres, its showplace center was a swimming pool.

BOOK: Missing Mom
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