The New York Times Book Review
Missing Momby Joyce Carol Oates
Nikki Eaton, single, thirty-one, sexually liberated, and economically self-supporting, has never particularly thought of herself as a daughter. Yet, following the unexpected loss of her mother, she undergoes a remarkable transformation during a tumultuous year that brings stunning horror, sorrow, illumination, wisdom, and even—from an unexpected source—a
Nikki Eaton, single, thirty-one, sexually liberated, and economically self-supporting, has never particularly thought of herself as a daughter. Yet, following the unexpected loss of her mother, she undergoes a remarkable transformation during a tumultuous year that brings stunning horror, sorrow, illumination, wisdom, and even—from an unexpected source—a nurturing love.
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Missing MomA Novel
By Joyce Oates
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Joyce Oates
All right reserved.
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?
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.
Excerpted from Missing Mom by Joyce Oates Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Oates.
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Meet the Author
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
- Princeton, New Jersey
- Date of Birth:
- June 16, 1938
- Place of Birth:
- Lockport, New York
- B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
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