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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

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BOOK: Missing Mom
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There is a romance of mystery, but when my mother Gwen Eaton was murdered there was no romance, and there was very little mystery. For within four hours of her reported death her murderer had been tentatively identified by Mt. Ephraim Police and within twenty hours he’d been positively identified. Within forty-eight hours, he’d been arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, theft, criminal trespass, and credit card violation.

None of this was like TV or the movies. Believe me. It was not suspenseful or what you’d call exciting. It was revealed to us, Gwen Eaton’s family, those whom newspaper obituaries call “survivors,” as a rapid-fire recitation of facts so bluntly presented, we were like Little League batters at the plate as adult hardball pitches slam by at one hundred miles an hour. Maybe we’d assimilate these facts at a later time, but only later.

And maybe not ever.

Mom had been murdered at approximately 11
A
.
M
. of the morning of May 11. Approximately forty-five minutes earlier, at the Mt. Ephraim Tiger Mart service station on Route 33 north of town, evidently on her way to the Northland Mall, Gwen was seen giving a ride to an individual who approached her on foot as she was waiting for her car to be serviced. By chance this individual, a Caucasian male twenty-nine years old with a history of methamphetamine abuse, was known to the proprietor of the Tiger Mart who, after news of Gwen’s death was broadcast on local TV that evening, would call police to report what he’d witnessed.

Once the hitchhiker was in Gwen’s car, he forced her to drive back into Mt. Ephraim and to 43 Deer Creek Drive where he would ransack the house looking for cash, credit cards, pawnable items, and he would stab her with a weapon similar to a Swiss Army knife some thirty-three times, including six separate stabbings in the throat. He then fled in Gwen’s car, with some of Gwen’s jewelry and household items. At approximately 11:45
A
.
M
., a man attempted to use Gwendolyn Eaton’s Visa card at the Wal-Mart on Route 33 south of Mt. Ephraim, but fled when a cashier called a store manager to examine the card with a woman’s name on it. (This transaction was captured on Wal-Mart videotape.) Forty minutes later, the same individual succeeded in using the card, forging Gwendolyn Eaton’s signature, at J & J Men’s Discount Clothiers a few miles farther south on Route 33 where his purchases were: a $23.98 cotton shirt, a pair of $29.99 chino trousers, a pair of $34.99 running shoes, and a pair of $2.98 socks. At approximately 12:45
P
.
M
., this same individual approached a gas station attendant at Hal’s Mobil Service at the intersection of Routes 33 and 39, asking for the key to the men’s room, where it was believed he changed his soiled clothes. (He was wearing a canvas jacket, not visibly stained, over a bloodstained T-shirt and jeans. He laughingly attributed the way he looked to an “accident with a chain saw” he’d had while trimming trees that morning.) The attendant became suspicious and noted the license plate number of the 2001 silver-green Honda this individual was driving, which he’d report to police that evening after the 10
P
.
M
. local TV news.

A bundle of bloodied men’s clothing—T-shirt, jeans, socks—would be discovered next morning in a Dumpster behind a McDonald’s twelve miles west on Route 39: so carelessly jammed into a J & J Men’s Discount Clothiers plastic bag, it was spilling out and immediately caught the attention of the trash pickup workers who reported it to police.

At approximately 7
P
.
M
. of May 11, in a Radio Shack near the Dunkirk, New York, exit of Interstate 90, the murderer attempted to purchase a $376.99 CD/video player but again fled when the salesman questioned the Visa card with a woman’s name on it; this time, the murderer left the card behind.

By 10:25
P
.
M
. of May 11, a tentative I.D. of the murderer of Gwen Eaton had been made by New York State police. Fingerprints found in Gwen’s house would substantiate the I.D. The murderer had a prison record: he’d served five years of a seven-to-ten-year sentence at Red Bank Men’s Facility for drug-related felonies, check forgery, and burglary. He was tracked to his grandmother’s residence in Erie, Pennsylvania, about twenty-five miles beyond the state line, where the stolen 2001 Honda registered in the name of Gwendolyn Eaton was found in a barn and where he was taken into custody without offering resistance.

Amid numerous items in the car, officers found Gwen Eaton’s emptied wallet. Beneath the driver’s seat, a bloodstained Swiss Army knife.

“See, most criminals are stupid like I told you. Especially meth-heads looking for quick cash.”

It was Detective Strabane who told us these things. Though he frowned and squinched up his monkey-face, swiped at his nose and shifted his shoulders inside his dun-colored sport coat (not only unbuttoned but missing one of its plastic buttons) you could see that the plainclothed officer had all he could do to suppress his excitement and elation. Oh, he felt good about this professional police work!
He
had been at the prow of it, you could be sure.

We stared at him, stunned into silence. Clare, Rob, me.

Finally Clare said, “‘Ward Lynch.’ That was his name. I’d gotten it backward. I met the man myself, once. At Mom’s. I’d thought he was a joke. One of Mom’s lame ducks, to tease about. Oh, Jesus.”

In the Chisholms’ living room (“cathedral-style” ceiling, hardwood floors) Clare and I were seated on a sofa, Rob was a few feet away in a chair. And there was Detective Strabane leaning forward, earnest and eager, elbows on his knees, in another chair. My niece and nephew had been banished upstairs, what the “policeman” had to say wasn’t for their ears. Clare had begun to cry, bitterly. Yet not hiding her face as you’d expect, just sitting rigid and furious, fists clenched at her sides. I knew that I was expected to cry with my sister, to hug her tight, but my arms were like lead, my legs were like lead, I hadn’t the strength to turn to her, couldn’t move an inch. She might have been on the far side of the room.

Reading
The Diary of Anne Frank
when I was fourteen
.

“Mom, you just can’t face it that some people are evil.”

And Mom said quickly, “Oh I know that, honey. Some people are evil. I know.” But speaking without conviction like someone agreeing the earth is round though in her heart she knows otherwise.

“Well. People have to eat, you know.”

These were Mom’s brave, bright words, after Dad’s funeral. At the crowded buffet brunch in Aunt Tabitha’s old stone house on Church Street. Where so many people were turning up—“company people” from Beechum Paper Products, unknown to most of us in the family—it was a good thing that Tabitha had prevailed over Gwen, hosting the funeral brunch in her house and not in the smaller house at 43 Deer Creek Drive. So many people, and all so hungry.

It was one of those January days: cold, blustery, bracing. A glitter of fresh-fallen snow and the ground frozen solid so there was no procession of hearse and cars to the cemetery.

The widow, exhausted and feebly smiling. Fifty-two years old and looking younger except for the hurt bruised look around her eyes.
How brave she is! Poor Gwen
.

Mom had insisted upon providing some of the food for Tabitha’s table including the home-baked bread for which she was known.

Saying fiercely, “My husband loved my bread. He would want it served. He would be so
pleased
.”

Practical-minded Tabitha had wanted the meal catered, wasn’t that the sensible solution? She’d been so shocked by her younger brother’s death (of a coronary thrombosis, aged fifty-nine!) she hadn’t any energy even to think about food, and poor Gwen, what a shock it had been for Gwen who’d actually been present when her husband died, collapsing in his own home in the TV room in his favorite old leather chair watching a rerun of his favorite TV program
Law & Order
(even new
Law & Order
shows were reruns, Dad conceded, but the formula was so soothing, somehow), how could Gwen be expected to prepare food at such a time?

But Mom insisted. Mom might have been exhausted, practically staggering on her feet, an untimely bladder infection kept her hurrying away to the bathroom every half-hour, and she was crying and swiping at her eyes, still in a fury of energy Mom managed to bake six loaves of Dad’s favorite bread—buttermilk/hazelnut/cranberry with a thick nutty crust—on the eve of his funeral.

“Oh, I couldn’t sleep anyway! I need something useful to do.”

Rising at dawn to prepare another of Dad’s favorite dishes, Waldorf salad (a gigantic quantity requiring three large salad bowls to be toted to Aunt Tabitha’s) with fresh-chopped pecans, to be served on iceberg lettuce leaves.

Gwen had never succeeded in training Jon to prefer any other lettuce over iceberg: “That’s just how his taste was formed, back in the 1950s.” Gwen spoke with a rueful little smile, fingers pressed to her bosom, sighing.

 

Why, they’re crazy. People are plain crazy. A man dies, falls over dead, struck down like a beast felled by a sledgehammer blow on the way to the slaughterhouse and people stand around talking about—what are people talking about?

 

“Well. People have to eat, you know.”

Sounds like Mom, doesn’t it? In fact, it was Clare.

After Mom’s funeral. At the buffet brunch in Clare’s house.

Have to eat. Have to eat. Have to eat. Why?

 

Mom’s funeral! As Clare said, “I can’t believe this.”

So many mourners crowded into the Mt. Ephraim Christian Life Fellowship Church they had to stand in aisles and in the vestibule, filled the choir loft at the rear, and were herded into the basement to listen over the sound system. (Where I wished I’d been instead of trapped in the first row of relatives between my quivery sister and Aunt Tabitha weepy and blowing her nose through an entire small box of scented blue Kleenex as Reverend “Bob” Bewley spoke of “our dearest friend Gwen Eaton, the most Christian lady of this community and the most beloved” and several times paused to blow his nose also, in the way of a bull elephant clearing his trunk.) Our Eaton relatives who’d tended to take Gwen for granted as just a housewife/mother who’d married right out of high school were stunned to see that Mom had so many friends but Clare and I knew better: most of the “mourners” crowding into the church scarcely knew Mom at all. They’d read of her violent death in the newspapers, they’d watched the extensive coverage on TV. Even Mom’s obituary was featured on the front page of the
Chautauqua Valley Beacon
.

Well, some of these people knew Gwen from high school, or from her church and volunteer work, some could even claim to be related (the Kovachs were a large sprawling tribe of mostly disconnected individuals, as Mom described them, rattling about like loose buttons in a drawer), but they hadn’t any personal ties with her, really.

I wanted to think this! I didn’t want to share Mom with so many others.

 

The evening before, Clare and I had been instructed to arrive at Klutch Brothers Funeral Home (est. 1931) for what was called a private viewing. By this time, four days after Mom’s death, we were getting used to the idea that Mom was
dead
, we were about ready for Mom to be
buried
.

At least, we thought so.

At least, we wanted to think so.

That weird, stepping-on-eggs way people speak of the dead! Like “Gwen’s body”—“Gwen’s funeral.” As if the dead were somehow still present more or less as they’d always been except now there was this new, disembodied entity that was the spirit of Gwen with the capacity to possess a body, a funeral. Where Mom used to be exactly what you’d see when you saw her, now what you saw was “her” body.
But where was Gwen?
The worst was some dimwit calling from the Mt. Ephraim Township medical examiner’s office with the cryptic message: “Your mother’s cadaver is ready to be released.”

Politely I said, “Thanks! I’ll tell her.”

Startled silence at the other end of the line. Then we both hung up.

How Mom would have giggled at
Your mother’s cadaver
.

Like that old wisecrack
Your father’s moustache
.

Clare drove us in the Land Rover to Klutch Brothers. I tried to make her laugh telling her about the medical examiner’s office. I tried to make her laugh mispronouncing “Klutch” as “Klutz.” But Clare ignored me, frowning. She was taking medication to settle her nerves and help her sleep but I preferred my raw, ready-to-snap nerves and miserable nights. I was vain enough to believe that I could “do” my mother’s death the way I did most of my life.

Capably, that is. Not quite fucking up.

There would be no public viewing of Gwen Eaton, we’d been advised this wasn’t a good idea considering how she’d been injured. (Oh, how had Mom been injured? We didn’t want to think.) In fact, Mom had not had a public viewing for Dad, either: he’d made her promise never to display him like a wax dummy and so she had not.

“Mrs. Chisholm! Ms. Eaton. Come.”

The elder and more blustery of the Klutch brothers greeted us at the door. Took our hands, half-bowed. We had thought that we’d be asked to sign more papers, but Klutch led us directly to the viewing room for our “private time” with our mother.

We were told to take as long as we wished, there were no other viewings scheduled in the room that evening.

The viewing room was long as a bowling alley. Mom’s coffin was at the farther end amid a bank of ghastly white lilies. (I hadn’t thought the lilies were real, but they were. Pollen came off on my nose when I stooped to smell them.) Heavy burgundy-colored drapes covering windows and walls were stirred by gusts of air-conditioning like those spooky wall hangings in the House of Usher.

I knew: a primitive part of the human brain needs to see the dead individual close up to comprehend that the individual is truly dead and not just off somewhere traveling. So this viewing-ritual was necessary for Clare and me, maybe. Except Clare began sneezing and I began shivering convulsively.

I groped for Clare’s hand. She tried to ward me off, then gave in. Clare’s hand surprised me, dry and at least body-temperature. My own hands had been icy-cold for days.

Gripping each other’s hand, awkward as a three-legged race, we approached Mom’s coffin. It made sense to say
Mom’s coffin
since we could see Mom inside it, just her head and shoulders. Like a part-convertible canoe. Shiny as plastic, and so large! Massive. Mom would laugh, did we think she was an Egyptian mummy?

Mom had weighed only 108 pounds. Her murderer weighed 180.

All that was visible was Mom’s head, not her neck or shoulders. Her head had been carefully positioned on a white satin cushion. Her face had been virtually remodeled with some kind of flesh-colored putty. It was still a round face but appeared flattened somehow. There must have been bruises in the skin for vague purplish blotches showed through the putty layers like old water stains. Yet this was a wax-doll face attractively powdered, rouged, lipsticked in a warm rose-pink to suggest innocence, purity. There was the barest suggestion of mascara on the lashes of the shut eyes. The hair that had been graying now appeared lightened, almost silvery, fashioned in a way to evoke an era before Gwen Eaton had even been born: was it crimped? marcelled? Dad would have teased Mom for being a glamour girl and Mom would have been stricken with embarrassment.

You were meant to think
Why, she’s only sleeping
. So peaceful!

Except this wasn’t sleep, and it wasn’t peaceful. More like a coma.

Clare sneezed violently, and blew her nose. I hated to give up her hand.

I watched to see if Mom was breathing. I thought it might be a matter of looking closely, patiently.

Clare appeared to be whispering to herself. I didn’t want to peer at her, was she saying
Oh, God? Oh, God?

It’s rare to see just a head poking out of a shiny wooden box. And the eyes of the head closed, so you can’t make eye contact. It took time for me to grasp that Mom’s neck was hidden beneath a kind of silky pink ruffle to her chin: someone had skillfully arranged it to disguise what the media persisted in calling multiple throat wounds. I felt such regret, I hadn’t thought to bring over the glamorous white ostrich feather boa along with the more ordinary clothes we’d provided for Mom to be buried in.

“Clare. I can’t.”

“Can’t—what?”

“Can’t do it.”

“Do
what
? Stop shivering, you’re driving me crazy.”

“Do this. You know.”

“I don’t know!”

“…Mom.”

“Well, you are. You are ‘doing’ it, just like me.”

Clare blew her nose, crumpled the soaked tissue in her fist and shoved it into a pocket of her nubby black trouser suit with the fluted tunic top, that fit loose as a skirt over her hips. She glared at me and gave me a poke in the arm. My shivering began to subside.

“You know that Mom would expect us to behave like adults, at least. You know Mom believed in rituals.”

“Mom didn’t! Mom laughed at things like this.”

“Mom pretended to laugh. But really she took it all seriously, and you know it.”

“Mom never pushed us, Clare. Beyond what we could do.”

“She tried! You’ve never wanted to accept it, Nikki, you couldn’t live up to Mom’s hopes for you.”

Did I hear this correctly? I let it pass.

“Clare, Mom looks so lonely there! I wish they’d made her smile.”

“The bastards. They’re supposed to.”

“And the way that ruffle-thing sort of bunches up over her ear, Clare. It makes her look frivolous.”

“Nikki, don’t touch it! There’s some purpose to it.”

“Mom would wonder why we’re whispering like idiots.”

“Mom would wonder why we gave her to strangers, to fix up like a voodoo doll.”

Clare went to stand on the other side of the coffin so that we could look down on Mom between us, head positioned on the white satin cushion. I wanted to think that a kind of low-wattage heat was being generated, lifting to Clare and me from Mom.

A long time passed. I had time to think
This is crazy
and to think
This is beautiful
.

Clare was staring at Mom so hard, I thought she must be memorizing her. My eyes kept filling with moisture so that I had difficulty seeing clearly as they did often in normal life: when I was looking at Wally Szalla, for instance. And Wally’s face would fade in, fade out of my vision without his knowing.

Finally Clare touched Mom’s cheek. Then I touched Mom’s cheek.

Clare stooped over to kiss Mom’s forehead. Then I stooped over to kiss Mom’s forehead. It was cool and smooth as ivory. It wasn’t any colder than my own lips. I was happy suddenly! I thought
Mom will always love me, this will be all right
.

Clare said, with that little thrill to her voice she’d had as a girl sometimes, as if making a secret vow, “We’ll see he is punished, Mom. With his fucking life.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard this, either.

 

Why, people are plain crazy. You knew.

 

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

There was a conspicuously smaller gathering of mourners in the cemetery. Still, more than we’d have expected. And many strangers.

In the early 1900s the Eatons and their in-laws had begun to take over a corner of Mt. Ephraim Cemetery. This wasn’t the Catholic cemetery in downtown Mt. Ephraim where my Kovach grandparents were buried but a larger, more attractive cemetery on the outskirts of town with a view of sloping meadows, pine woods, and the Chautauqua River. It was a mile and a half drive from the Mt. Ephraim Christian Life Fellowship Church so you had time to ponder where you were headed.

One day when I was in middle school, Dad came home whistling and looking pleased with himself: “Bet you can’t guess what I did today, girls!”

We were all Dad’s girls: Mom, Clare, Nikki. When Dad was in the right mood.

His news was, he’d bought a family plot, a “real bargain,” in Mt. Ephraim Cemetery. Not just for him and Mom but for Clare and me, too. “If you want to join us. If you don’t have other, fancier plans.”

Clare and I snorted with laughter. Our dad was so weird sometimes.

Eighteen years later Dad’s bargain grave was lush-grassy-green and looked all settled in. You had to suppose that the man was pleased with himself. We’d chosen his headstone after much deliberation: a large dignified dark-granite marker engraved

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