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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

Missing Mom (27 page)

BOOK: Missing Mom
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Come over to the cemetery, Clare? Around eleven this morning? I’ve got a rose tree to plant by Mom’s and Dad’s graves
. Pause.
We haven’t seen each other for a while. I’ve been missing you
. Double pause.
I ran into Lilja at the mall the other week, and
…Awkward pause shading off into silence and a brisk throat clearing.
Drop by if you can make it
. ’

It was as likely that Clare would show up at the cemetery as it was she’d show up at the house. My call was primarily to make her aware of me, and to make her feel guilty.


The yellow Rose of Remembrance tree was a perfect fit between my parents’ gravestones.

Now that Mom’s marker was in place, an exact match for Dad’s, this corner of Mt. Ephraim Cemetery with its predominance of Eaton names was starting to look comfy.


Such a silly sad word, I had to say it aloud.

Made you think of worn old furniture, tattered old slipper-shoes like Dad’s infamous moccasins. Dad’s recliner chair, the leather seat shaped to ghost-buttocks. Those boxes I’d discovered in the attic containing baby clothes, little-girl clothes, hand-knitted blankets and hand-sewn quilts and long-ago school report cards for Clare Eaton and Nikki Eaton and such special projects as a watercolor booklet titled “Sparkle Bright the Kitty Who Came to Stay” I’d made for Mom in fourth grade, on the back of which Miss Jaime (I’d adored, I hadn’t given a thought to in twenty years) had written
Nikki, this is BEAUTIFUL! Your mother will love this little gem


In early June, when we’d been on speaking terms, Clare and I and a few close relatives had come to the cemetery to watch our mother’s grave marker set into place. It was a larger, sleeker, more stately and much more expensive dark-granite stone than Mom would have chosen for herself. Now we had


Gwendolyn Ann Eaton

Jonathan Allan Eaton

April 22, 1948

February 16, 1941

May 11, 2004

January 8, 2000

Beloved Wife and Mother

Beloved Husband and Father


A “grave blanket”—a slab of turf unconvincing as a toupee on a bald head—had been laid on Mom’s grave, not quite matching the lusher grass growing on Dad’s. Numerous flowers still brightened Mom’s grave including glassily plastic lilies, bluebells, and roses. The Kovach touch.

Delicately Mom had suggested to her relatives over the years that artificial flowers weren’t a good idea, generally. Her bulldog cousin Lucille had stared at her in amazement: “The point is, they don’t

For years we’d been repeating Lucille’s sage remark.
The point is
they don’t DIE
. Even Dad, whose usual response to the Kovach tribe was to sigh and roll his eyes, laughed heartily at such wit.

My hands ached pleasantly, spading up soil and struggling to remove the thorny rose tree from its pot. That morning I’d had a call from Wally Szalla asking when we could see each other again and I’d been evasive about naming a date: “But soon, Wally. I miss you.”

This seemed to be a season when I told people I missed them while hoping I wouldn’t have to see them. Somehow, avoiding the task of sorting through Mom’s attic boxes took up most of my energy.

I was thinking that Mom would have been touched by Sonja and Sonny’s gift. Yellow was her favorite color for roses, she’d have told them.

How Mom would feel about my living in the house, I wasn’t sure. Of course, she’d be happy that Smoky was back in his old haunts and that he was gaining some of the weight he’d lost. She’d have been upset that Clare was angry with me; or, maybe, it was the other way around, I was angry with Clare.

You have your own life, Nikki. Save it.

“Go to hell. Save your own life.”

It was a relief, Mt. Ephraim Cemetery wasn’t cramped like St. Joseph’s but spacious and attractive and far better maintained. Most of the graves were carefully tended and some were routinely festooned with flowers. There was invariably the roar of a lawn mower or a leaf blower to assure you that things were being kept up. You still felt sad and more than sad but not so guilty, walking away.

In June, Clare and I had been brooding and teary and hadn’t much to say to each other. Mom’s death had been so fresh, it was like trying to breathe through layers of gauze wrapped around our heads. But I’d managed to say, in a voice just loud enough for Clare to hear and no one else, “Mom preferred St. Joseph’s, remember? That ‘special atmosphere’” and Clare had flared up at once: “Oh,
. You know what she’s like.”


Actually, I wasn’t so sure any longer that I did.

Then there were the people I avoided.

Like “bugs” this was a large, loose category. Much of the time it included anyone who wanted to see me.

Ohhh Nikki! We miss Gwen so.

Just can’t believe that Gwen is…

…want you to know you are in our prayers. If there’s anything we can do…


One of these was Gilbert Wexley.

The exalted one, Mom had so admired.

Though I never called him back, Wexley left messages on my answering machine that were terse and cryptic:
We must talk
. I knew that he wanted to plan Mom’s memorial service and that his plans were becoming ever more grandiose and I could not bear it.

To my dismay I read in the local paper that Wexley had begun soliciting donations for the “Gwen Eaton Memorial” to be scheduled sometime in the fall, and for the “Gwen Eaton Citizenship Award” to be administered by the Mt. Ephraim Arts Council.

A stranger interfering in our lives! I could imagine what Dad would say, who’d distrusted “civic-minded” individuals from the secretary-general of the United Nations to the local, unpaid members of the Mt. Ephraim Township Board.

I called Rob Chisholm, to ask him to object. I didn’t want to speak with Wexley personally.

Rob said doubtfully, “Are you sure, Nikki? People in Mt. Ephraim want to do something for Gwen. I mean, in Gwen’s memory.” Awkward pause. Audible breathing into the receiver. “What happened is still so…raw. It’s like it happened to them.” Pause. Then, quickly, before I could register my objection by breaking into hysterical laughter, “They loved Gwen, that’s it. They don’t want to let go.”

“Well, they’d better ‘let go’! I can’t be involved in their emotions.”

This came out sounding like a plea. I’d meant to sound merely unpleasant.

I’d meant to have a brief, reasoned conversation with my brother-in-law, in lieu of my mean-hearted sister who wouldn’t speak with me, but here I was being emotional. Probably sounding, to Rob’s startled ears, like Clare.

Rob said, “Gwen would have liked this, I think. The memorial service, at least.”

“Oh, Rob. She’d have been embarrassed to death.”

What a thing to say. I would wonder afterward if in some weird jokey way it had been deliberate. Poor Rob could think of no reply except a mumbled, “Well. I’ll see what Clare thinks, she’ll probably agree with you.”

Pause. I would not ask after Clare.
I would not

“And how is Clare? I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

Rob didn’t answer immediately. In the background were ambiguous noises. (I’d called Rob at his office, penetrating the barrier of his secretary with a steely
Family matter! Urgent
.) His voice sounded forced-bright: “Clare is, well—herself. More and more, it’s getting that way.”

On that note, Rob had to hang up.


All summer I managed to avoid Gilbert Wexley. I understood, I think, that a memorial service for my mother was inevitable, I could not interfere and maybe yes, Mom would have wished it. Some things, Mom would say, have to be done and so you do them, and try to be gracious about it. But I couldn’t bear seeing Wexley, I didn’t trust the man. I must have been offended by something bullying and condescending in his manner toward Mom, at that dinner she’d given.
Your mother
Dear Gwen
Such a wonderful person
So missed!
Like Dad, I had to wonder.

“Nicole? Nicole Eaton? Is that—”

“Mr. Wexley! Hello but sorry, I can’t talk now. A friend is waiting outside in his car, he’s come to pick me up, ’

This encounter was in, of unlikely places, Voorhees Vacuum Cleaners: Sales & Service, in a strip mall on Route 31. (Where I was taking Mom’s hefty vacuum cleaner for repair. I’d grown to like the drone of vacuuming, the routine of sucking-up-visible-dirt into a disposable bag and tossing it away. Recommended for all grieving “survivors.”) Later I would figure out that Wexley had followed me inside, he’d been getting gas for his car close by.

Another time, I saw Wexley, or a tallish bulky middle-aged man who resembled Wexley, with identical toupee-looking hair and pompous manner, approaching me in the ghastly warehouse-sized/frigidly air-conditioned Wal-Mart at the mall, quickly looking away I sprinted up an aisle to escape. (Almost into the arms of a sexy black guy in his twenties who laughed, “Hey man! Must be on the team.”) (Thinking afterward this might be a way to meet men: sprinting, colliding with them, stirring in strangers a wish to protect, advise.) (Thinking, too, that I hadn’t had sex in about as long as my dyed-purple punk hair had been growing out.)

Another time I sighted a brooding bulky oldish man trudging up a graveled path in the Mt. Ephraim Cemetery, in the direction of Mom’s grave, and I ducked out of sight. And yet another time, one dozen white roses were delivered to the house with the card
In Gwen’s memory always
. I had to wonder if Gilbert Wexley who’d been Mt. Ephraim’s perennial bachelor-about-town had been in love with my mother.

That would explain it, I thought.

I’d only begun sorting through Mom’s massive accumulation of cards, letters, mementos, clippings and snapshots, scattered through the house in drawers and envelopes as well as in albums, but so far I hadn’t discovered anything pertaining to Gilbert Wexley, which was a relief.

(Somehow, I was reluctant to examine Mom’s things. I still had a sour taste in my mouth, recalling how pitiless Clare had been rummaging through Dad’s desk drawers as if looking for evidence against him which she’d finally found in the calendars.)

When Wexley acquired my e-mail address he began to send me lengthy rambling messages about the memorial service and the citizenship award and what a “gaping hole” there was now in the world. I replied to the first of these messages in my staccato e-mail style—
Thanks for your interest in my mother
I can’t be involved in your plans but I won’t interfere
—but when the messages kept coming in a flood, I stopped reading them.

Messages Wexley left on my phone voice mail, I erased without listening to.

By late summer, things began to get strange.

Uninvited, Wexley began to show up at the house. Dared to ring the doorbell. I happened to know from something Mom had said to Wexley at the Mother’s Day dinner that he’d never stepped into our house before that evening, and maybe I’m a hostile personality, maybe my sporadic efforts to be more like my mother are just spurts of optimistic zeal, but I would not open the door to Gilbert Wexley whom I distrusted, no matter how Mom might plead for me to behave graciously. As Wexley stood at the front door daring to ring the bell a second time and adjusting his hair/toupee I crept up to yell at him through a screened window to please go away, I had a visitor and could not be disturbed. I saw the abashed man retreat to his car parked in the street where he sat as if stunned, or waiting, now I was truly in a fury and contemplated dialing 911 to report a stalker except there appeared after a few minutes the familiar Mt. Ephraim Police cruiser, the sight of which must have frightened Wexley for he hurriedly drove away.

More e-mail. More phone messages. Another unannounced visit, this time in the early evening of a day when I’d been feeling more mellow, not so prickly and mean, and there came Gilbert Wexley bravely up the front walk to ring the doorbell another time, carrying a briefcase to signal this was business, so I invited him inside explaining that I had only a few minutes to talk, and Wexley clutched at my hands avid-eyed, smelling of whiskey, speaking in a rapid incoherent flood of words that had only intermittently to do with the memorial service but mostly to do with how much Wexley missed my mother, how he’d grown to depend upon her, he feared he’d sometimes taken her for granted, such a good kind gentle decent generous woman, he feared possibly he’d even hurt her feelings, not intentionally of course but possibly he had, he was eager to see me, maybe he could take me to dinner, the Fayetteville Inn was a favorite of his, so much for us to talk about, he was “very impressed” with me, what he knew of “Nicole Eaton” and the few times he’d seen me, my articles in the
, how smart and talented I was, and how attractive: “You have Gwen’s specialness, Nicole, especially when you smile. You should smile more often!”

This was a cue. I was on my feet almost literally pushing Wexley out the door. Though he had something in the briefcase to show me, I wasn’t interested. Explaining that my man friend from Chautauqua Falls was due to arrive in ten minutes, he was the possessive type known to take down the license plate numbers of suspicious cars he saw parked in front of my house so that he could ask a state trooper friend to run them through the computer and find out where the owners of the cars live…

Wexley fled. Except for a few e-mails and phone messages he never bothered me again.


Clare: guess who’s stalking Mom. I mean, me
. Pause.
Only if you call me
will I reveal his name

The incident was too delicious to keep to myself. Like bait I tossed it out knowing that, this time, Clare would have to give in to curiosity and call me and so she did, with a pretense of only just casual, even grudging interest: “All right, Nikki, I give in. Who?”


A pause. Almost, I could hear Clare’s forehead crinkle.

“Gilbert Wexley.”

“Oh! How’d you know?”

I sounded like a balloon, rapidly deflating.

Clare laughed, in that thin-hissing-through-the-nose way of our father’s, when Mom had said something naive. “He’s been bothering me, too. But Rob dealt with him.”

Hanging up, then. Quickly.

BOOK: Missing Mom
11.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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