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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

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BOOK: Missing Mom
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Quickly I intervened: “Clare is being Clare, Mom.”

Clare had been doubtful of the evening from the start. Tomorrow was a school day for Lilja and Foster and that meant getting up early and getting the children up etcetera. Worse, Rob seemed to be drinking more than usual. And enjoying himself more than usual.

I smiled to think this wasn’t Rob Chisholm at home.

Mom was asking, anxiously, “Don’t you think the evening is going well, really?” and Clare and I said, “Oh, Mom: yes. Of course.” I complimented Mom on such “lively, original” guests and Clare complimented Mom on “how pretty” the table looked. “But do you think people really like the food, or are they just having seconds to be polite?” Mom asked, all but wringing her hands, and Clare and I laughed at the very question: “Mom, the food is delicious. Of course.”

“But the Hawaiian chicken, Tabitha thought was too sweet…”

“Tabitha!” Clare laughed. “Didn’t you notice, she heaped her plate at least twice?”

“She said the rice was undercooked.”

“Because it wasn’t gummy,” I said. “Aunt Tabitha doesn’t know the first thing about serious cooking.”

“Well. Maybe.”

“Mom, please! You’re a terrific cook.”

Mom had promised more ice cream for the table, to accompany the remains of the peach melba and the kringle, and it was my task to poke through the crowded freezer in search of another pint. I tried not to be distracted by the numerous snapshots held by tiny magnets to the refrigerator, mostly family pictures. There were layers of these going back to when Clare and I were teenagers. My smiling parents in summer clothes, looking startlingly young and happy. Clare and Rob on their wedding day, also young and happy. Clare with infant Foster in her arms, looking like an athlete who has won a prize. Blond Lilja at age eight, squinting at the camera with a beautiful shy smile. And there was almost-eighteen-year-old Nicole in high school graduation cap and gown, over-exposed white in a dazzle of sunshine: “Nikki” not yet spiky-haired, darkish blond and smiling wistfully at the camera (held by Dad) in the grassy backyard at 43 Deer Creek Drive.

Strange, to see an old photo of yourself. All that was so crucial at that time (senior prom, boyfriend, sex) melted away now like last year’s snow.

I’d located the ice cream, raspberry ripple. The carton was covered in a fine frost-film, icy-cold against my fingers.

“…and Lilja, she scarcely touched her food. Oh Clare, I worry about her…”

“Please don’t.”

“But her wrists are so thin, little sparrow bones…”

Between Lilja and her adoring grandma there’d been a special bond, it had seemed. But not recently.

Lilja was a sensitive topic Clare refused to discuss with Mom, in fact with anyone. I avoided this subject as I’d have avoided a live wire. (I’d have taken my niece’s side, anyway. Rebelling against her so-efficient mother must have been delicious.) Mom knew better, but couldn’t help herself. Clare bustled about the kitchen in a way to make you think she was shoving Mom and me aside though she hadn’t so much as touched us. She grabbed the steaming teakettle off the stove, tossed two fresh bags of Almond Sunset herbal tea into the ceramic teapot, poured boiling water carelessly into the pot and slammed back into the dining room.

Mom said, hurt, “Well, I do worry. You read about anorexia, it’s on TV all the time. It isn’t just Lilja is thin, she’s so edgy and, I don’t know, not-there when you try to talk to her. This little sweater I want to knit for her, in a light cotton yarn, she hasn’t picked out the style yet and her birthday is only two months away…” Mom’s voice trailed off wistfully.

I could imagine Lilja’s polite interest in Grandma’s latest knitting project. I didn’t want to think how vulnerable Mom was to hurt.

“Well, Mom. Lilja will be fourteen. She isn’t a little girl any longer.”

“Oh, I know! Girls that age. I see them at the mall, and at the pool, they seem so self-sufficient, somehow. I smile at them and their eyes go right through me. When you were that age, Nikki…”

“Was I more immature, Mom, than I am now?”

Mom laughed, perplexed. Knowing this was a joke even if it wasn’t wholly logical.

I loved to make Mom laugh. These last four years it seemed the best I could do for her.

All this while Mom had been fussing with the coffee percolator which was made of glass that had become too stained for use with guests, coffee made in it had to be carefully poured into a gleaming silver pot to be carried into the dining room. And the ice cream, which I’d simply have passed around in its carton, naturally had to be scooped into a “nice” bowl to be presented with a silver serving spoon.

Nice
. That was the measure of Mom’s life.

As if she’d been tracking my thoughts Mom said suddenly, in an anxious undertone, “And you, Nikki? How are
you
?”

“Terrific, Mom. As you can see.”

I brushed at my spiky hair tufts with both hands.

Mom was peering at me, smiling uncertainly. Her greeny-amber eyes appeared moist as if, in fact, she was trying very hard to see who stood before her.

“You’ve been distracted by him, haven’t you. All evening.”

“Mom, please. Not that tired old subject.”

My response was quick, sharp. I would realize later that I’d been waiting for this, for my mother’s murmured words of the gentlest reproach, and that quivery look to her face, the rapid blinking of eyelids signaling
Your mother is blinking back tears
.
She is being brave on your account
.
She is a good loving mother of a willful self-destructive daughter intent on breaking her heart
.

“Nikki, it isn’t tired to
me
.”

“Look, you don’t know him. You’ve met him once, you have no idea how it is between us. So, please. Let’s drop it.”

“‘Drop it.’ What a thing to say. As if I could ‘drop’ my own daughter.”

“Mom, your guests are waiting for you. We’d better go back.”

“Oh, what do I care about them! I don’t know why I invited them, a kind of madness came over me. ‘More people! More people! If I can’t be happy myself I can make them happy!’—maybe that’s it. But I only care for my family, I care for
you
.”

Mom made a clumsy move to touch me, and I drew back. Quick as if a darting little hummingbird had struck at me with its beak, I’d reacted without thinking.

Suddenly we were speaking in low excited voices. My heart was beating with painful clarity, unless it was my mother’s heart beating. I could not breathe, she was sucking the oxygen out of the room. I wanted to push her from me, I was frightened of her power. I could not bear to be touched by her, as, in the waiting room at the hospital when we were told of Dad’s death, I could not bear to be touched by any of the family for the outermost layer of my skin had been peeled away, I stood raw, exposed. Mom was saying words I had heard in her mouth many times and imagined many times more, I must break up with that man, he has been such an evil influence in my life, even if he divorces his wife think how unhappy he has made her, and me. How can I expect him to marry me if he doesn’t respect me and how can he respect me if I don’t respect myself. How can I drift as I’ve been drifting. These years. Drifting downstream. As if I’d been rowing a canoe, and I’d let the paddle go, now the canoe is just drifting downstream, with me in it…

“Maybe you haven’t drifted enough, Mom. Family isn’t all there is.”

“Without family,
what is there
?”

Afterward I would think, Mom was asking this question sincerely.

Wanting to know, and how could I tell her. I could not reveal to her I didn’t know.

“Mom, you are not me, and I am not you. And thank God for that.”

All that I said was true. I had thought such mutinous thoughts many times. Yet now, suddenly I was uttering them aloud in a hurt, childish voice.

It was at this point Clare pushed open the kitchen door.

 

By 9:40
P
.
M
. the party had broken up. Finally.

Driving back to Chautauqua Falls I thought
I will punish her, I won’t call her tomorrow
.

Maybe the next day.

Maybe not.

When we were growing up. When we were harsh in our judgments of others as adolescents are apt to be. “‘Walk a mile in my footsteps, then judge me.’ That’s what my mother used to say.”

Mom wasn’t scolding us exactly. She spoke gently, and she was smiling. Clare understood the rebuke but I had such a literal mind I’d try to work out how you could walk in another’s footsteps: in snow? in mud? in sand?

Mom rarely spoke of her mother Marta Kovach who’d died when Mom was only eleven. She’d died of some mysterious “eating-away” nerve disease.

Even decades later the subject was too painful for Mom to discuss. It alarmed Clare and me, growing up, to realize that our mother had been a stranger’s daughter, she hadn’t always been our mom but a little girl of eleven who’d come home from school one day to a shingle-board row house on Spalding Street in downtown Mt. Ephraim to discover that her mother had “passed away” in her sleep and she would not be allowed to see her.

Mom had been in sixth grade at the time and would have to repeat the grade, everything she’d learned had been wiped away.

“It was like a blackboard being wiped down. I just forgot everything.”

Mom smiled wistfully. I wondered if it could be true: forgot everything? Her name, how to read and write? I doubted this.

We were alone together in the kitchen. Mom was looking so sad, staring out the window at the bird feeder where a swarm of small birds—chickadees, sparrows, juncos, a flashy red cardinal and his olivish-red mate—were fluttering and darting at the seed. Yet she didn’t seem to be seeing them.

I felt an impulse to hug her. But I was fifteen at the time, I wasn’t into hugging much.

Anyway, the moment passed.

Two days after the Mother’s Day dinner, late afternoon of Tuesday, May 11, the phone rang and since I was finally working, after an all-day procrastination of epic-neurotic proportions, I tuned it out.

A few minutes later it rang again. Somehow, the rings sounded like my sister Clare.

“Nikki! I’ve been trying to reach you. Have you spoken with Mom today?”

“Not today.”

Actually, not the day before, either. Wally Szalla had re-entered my life, the man whom Mom had said was an “evil” influence on me. Wally and I had not been communicating for six days, fifteen hours and forty minutes, and so had catching-up to do.

Not that I’d tell Clare this fact. Or Mom.

Though that morning I’d called Mom, around eleven. Knowing she probably wouldn’t be in, weekday mornings were Mom’s busy times, at the YM-YWCA pool with her aquatic seniors, church committee meetings, garden club, library/hospital volunteer, lunch with women friends, crafts classes at the mall. Sometimes, just outside digging in her flower beds. Driving to my first interview appointment of the day I’d left a hurried message via cell phone
Sorry I didn’t get to call yesterday, Mom. Mother’s Day dinner was terrific. Everyone had a wonderful time and the food was wonderful, I finished the corn soufflé for breakfast this morning, absolutely delicious, THANKS! Oh and hey, I think I’ve fallen for the Scourge of the Bugs. You were right, Mom, we’re a perfect match! We’ll name our firstborn little roach after you: Feather
.
Bye!
Mom would know it was a joke, I hoped. Not adolescent sarcasm.

Since Sunday, I’d come round to seeing the humor of the situation, and was feeling regretful that I hadn’t been very sociable after Mom and I had exchanged words in the kitchen. After the other guests left, Clare and I stayed behind to help Mom clean up; this was our usual routine when Mom invited us to dinner. We’d never let Gwen talk us into leaving her to a massive cleanup! But I hadn’t talked much; listening to Mom and Clare chatter about the party I’d tuned out; I’d been hurt by what Mom had said about drifting, drifting downstream, for possibly Mom was right, and I’d drifted now out of Wally Szalla’s life too, or he’d drifted out of mine, and I loved him, and wanted him to love me, and was feeling sorry for myself as you’re apt to feel on Sunday night preceding Monday morning and the hectic beginning of another work week, I’d left the house at 43 Deer Creek Drive as soon as the last rinsed plate was set in the dishwasher. (Mom had invited me to stay the night in my old room she’d converted into a guest room, but I’d declined. Had to escape!)

Had I hugged Mom goodnight, I wasn’t sure.

I thought so. Probably. Mom would’ve hugged
me
.

Clare was saying, “Mrs. Kinsler, Mom’s friend from church, called me to ask if I knew where Mom was, they were supposed to meet at the mall for their crafts class this morning at ten-thirty, then have lunch with some other women. But Mom never showed up, which isn’t like her, and never called to explain, and hasn’t been answering her phone all day.”

“Clare, it’s only a little after five
P
.
M
. What do you mean, ‘all day.’”

“I mean, it isn’t like Mom to miss a date with a friend, or one of her classes. Even if her car broke down, she’d have called.”

Clare was trying to speak calmly. Clare was allowing me to understand that this might be serious, or it might not be serious. But she, Clare, the elder and more responsible of the Eaton sisters, was the one to provide information.

I couldn’t think how to reply. My mind felt shredded. I’d been trying not to think of Wally Szalla while struggling to make sense of the mottled quality of the tape I was transcribing, wondering if it was my example that caused Wally too to be drifting, years had passed since he’d begun filing for a divorce from his wife, wondering if it was my fault that the tape was so difficult to decipher or whether it was the fault of the new, compact, Japanese-manufactured recorder, that made me want to cry. I had only until tomorrow morning to type into my computer some sort of coherent and entertaining “human interest” feature under the byline “Nicole Eaton.” Now, I saw that the tape cassette was still turning, soundlessly. In my haste to answer the phone I’d punched the volume and not the on/off button.

“Fuck.”

“Nikki,
what
?”

“—I mean, I did call Mom around eleven this morning. But she was out, I just left a message.”

“And she didn’t call back?”

“It wasn’t that crucial, Clare. Just thanking her for the party, no need for Mom to call back.”

“But Mom always calls back…”

“Look, did you drive by the house?”

I’d asked this innocently, should have known better. Clare exploded, “Did I drive by the house! In fact yessss, I drove by our mother’s house, Nikki. In the midst of this crazed day, one errand after another, already I’ve driven Lilja halfway across town to a friend’s house, and swung around to pick up Foster from soccer practice, and waited for the plumber who finally came forty minutes late and now I’m due in fifteen minutes to pick Lilja up again and drop her off at home and drive out again to a late-afternoon dentist appointment I’ve already rescheduled not once but twice, and his office is in that new medical/dental center up North Fork, and you have the gall to ask me from Chautauqua Falls a very convenient thirty miles away did I drive by our mother’s house which is across town from my own, yesss in fact I drove by the house but Mom isn’t home, or wasn’t home around four, her car wasn’t in the driveway.”

“You didn’t check inside…”

“No. I didn’t ‘check inside.’ If Mom’s car isn’t in the driveway, she isn’t home.”

I supposed this was so. For Mom never parked the car in the garage as Dad had wanted her to. In all weathers it was parked in the driveway becoming ever more rust-stippled, dotted with white bird droppings like accent marks.

Clare spoke of calling Mrs. Higham, Mom’s neighbor across the street, asking her to look out the window, see if Mom’s car was back, I told her this sounded like a good idea, then Clare immediately objected, in a way that echoed Dad who dreaded neighbors becoming overly involved in the private life of our family as he’d have dreaded bubonic plague, “Oh, but that might embarrass Mom, you know how she prizes her independence, once Gladys Higham knows we’re worried about Mom she will tell everyone in the neighborhood, you know how people are, and Mr. Higham is retired with nothing better to do than gossip, it will get back to Mom and she’ll be upset with us.”

I felt a tinge of alarm. It wasn’t like my sister to fuss in this way. I said, “The last time we were worried about Mom, remember?—it turned out she’d been talked into emergency babysitting over at Rhoda’s.” (Rhoda Schmidt was a cousin of ours with whom we’d never been especially close.) “And before that, around Christmas, someone called us from the hospital, where was Mom for her gift shop shift, and she’d been at a movie matinee with friends, the woman at the hospital had made a mistake about scheduling and Mom was annoyed with us, and I don’t blame her. ‘I didn’t realize I had to report my hourly schedule to my daughters,’ Mom said. ‘Maybe you should put one of those ankle radar things on me, they put on parolees.’”

We’d laughed, Mom had been funny about it. But she’d been humiliated, for we’d called a number of her friends.

I did feel guilt, sometimes. About having moved away from Mt. Ephraim. About leading a slapdash kind of life, unmarried, unsettled-down, that life of drift and impulse of which Mom so disapproved. But I’d left home several years before Dad died, and Mom became a widow.

How is it my fault!
I wanted to protest.

“Why don’t I drive over this evening, Clare. Between six-thirty and seven. If Mom isn’t back by then, I mean. You’ve already done enough running around, have dinner with your family and I’ll call you around seven. I’m sure we’re exaggerating all this, and Mom is fine. There are only a few places in Mt. Ephraim Mom is likely to be, right?”

“But she gets involved with people. She’s such a soft touch. If this is ‘Reverend Bewley’ exploiting her again…”

“Clare, stop worrying. I’ll call you after I check the house. In the meantime maybe Mom will call one of us back. Or we’ll get through to her.”

“Well. If you promise…”

“Promise! I just said I would, didn’t I?”

“You’re not always reliable, Nikki. A call from your editor, and you’re off. Or some friend. Or, well—your friend Szalla turns up, you might disappear for days into a time warp.”

“Wally has ‘turned up,’ you’ll be pleased to know. We had a time warp yesterday, thank you. And this evening I intend to drive to Mt. Ephraim to check out Mom, as I said.”

“Fine! Let me know. ’Bye.”

We hurried to hang up, a habit of years. Which one of us could get off the line first.

I was trembling, I wanted to think because of my bossy sister.

 

I checked the time: 5:08
P
.
M
. I would leave for Mt. Ephraim in about an hour.

I rewound the cassette and returned to transcribing the flawed tape, hunched over my laptop trying to catch crucial sentence fragments and key words, typing in frantic flurries for I had to e-mail the feature to my editor at the
Beacon
no later than 11
P
.
M
. that night. It had to be no more, and not much less, than 1,000 words to fit into the insert supplement
Valley News & Views
. The subject was a ninety-nine-year-old bluegrass and country-and-western performer named Jimmy Friday who’d had several hit singles in the long-ago 1950s and was still locally active, a Chautauqua Valley celebrity of sorts who performed wherever and whenever invited, produced his own CDs and had just published his memoir
Songs My Daddy Taught Me: The Mostly True Tales of Jimmy Friday
with a local press which was the ostensible occasion of the interview. At the time of the taping that morning I’d been basking in the erotic/emotional afterglow of the time warp with Wally Szalla and so in a mood to be utterly charmed by Jimmy Friday, as Jimmy Friday had been charmed by me, marveling at my punk haircut, wondering if it was too late for him, his hair was a beautiful floating-frothy white and he was in fact a handsome elderly man who required only a cane to walk with, he had a wicked sense of humor and a way of presenting himself that was both gallant and frankly sexual. About old age he’d been blisteringly funny. “The most praise we can hope for is
Oh
!
he isn’t completely deaf!—Oh! his wheelchair is so well-oiled!—Oh! his dentures don’t clatter
” except hearing these remarks now, or what was coming through of them in the tape, as I was trying to type with increasingly desperate fingers, causing the little spell-check alarm to cheep every few seconds, I didn’t think that Jimmy Friday was being funny at all. I swallowed hard and forced myself to continue until the tape stopped abruptly as if broken in the midst of one of my inane questions
Mr. Friday
,
what advice can you give to—

There was silence. I was alone in the empty apartment. Five rented rooms on the third, top floor of an elegantly shabby Victorian brownstone in a residential neighborhood of Chautauqua Falls approximately thirty miles from 43 Deer Creek Drive, Mt. Ephraim. Strange how, as I was here, I was also there. Well, I wasn’t really here, I was there.

Since speaking with Clare I’d been waiting for the phone to ring but it had not rung. I’d been waiting for Mom to call but Mom had not called. And I was made to realize that, if Clare hadn’t called to upset me, if Mom had called in her place, I would have peered at the caller I.D. screen, seen
EATON
,
JON
and probably would not have picked up because I was working: because I didn’t want to be interrupted in my work.

And it came to me
Here is what you deserve: never to hear your mother’s living voice again
.

I was frightened suddenly. It wasn’t 5:30
P
.
M
. but I left for home now.

BOOK: Missing Mom
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