Joyce Carol Oates, Janet Maslin, and the problematic second husband

Joyce Carol Oates with husband #2 at their wedding.
The more salient criticism many — not just Janet Maslin — have of the Joyce Carol Oates life/memoir is that this book, about her first year after losing her first husband, "fails to mention" that she was engaged to her second husband by month 11. Everyone rankled by this omission seems to think Oates' choice deliberate and disingenuous, inconsistent with their expectation (NOT the author's assertion) that this is an honest (and perhaps even complete?) account of her grief and loss.

One needn't be a remarried widow like myself to know that grief and great happiness — and that activity we so vaguely, distantly call "moving on" — can exist in one life at the same time. Feelings of great sorrow over loss can exist at the same time as we become attached to another mate, we can make large decisions while we are suffering (or even impaired). The surreality and vividness of living between and among two extremes is indeed one of the hallmarks of grief, as noted by commenters as revered as C.S. Lewis.


Joyce Carol Oates, Janet Maslin, and voicemail mementos

My little corner of the internet is  ablaze with responses to Janet Maslin's "brutal" review of Joyce Carol Oates' memoir, A Widow's Story, published yesterday (the review was published Sunday). So meta: all this commentary without anyone (except Maslin), as far as I can tell, reading the book itself, without responding to Oates' experience or perspective.

Because the review includes this sentence, which sounds — to me and many others — like an ad hominem attack, and thus, crossing the boundary of a book review:
A book long and rambling enough to contemplate an answering-machine recording could have found time to mention a whole new spouse. 
Let's deconstruct this. First, is an answering machine recording a small thing in telling a story? And second, is becoming engaged after a marriage a significant part of the story? Specifically, is it the kind of thing that, if you were writing a memoir about your loss, you'd be required to include in the book? Let's say, if you were one of the most prolific writers in America? And if one decides that you should put that engagement in your memoir, would it be dishonest to NOT talk about it in the same book as the voicemail recording?

So, first things first, because this is a juicy one, and it will take up the rest of the post (we'll do #2 tomorrow). I asked the thousand-or-so widowed people I talk with on Facebook:
Did you hang on to voice mail messages of your loved one? For how long? Were they important to you? If your late partner's voice was the GREETING on your voice mail or answering machine, did you leave it? For how long?
… And here are just a few of the tiny tales I received back:
My husband passed away March 6, 2010 and i still haven't had his cell phone turned off. It is the only place I still hear his voice. (Debbie)

I left my greeting for a long time...maybe almost 2 years? I just couldn't bear to erase it even though I know some people may have been made uncomfortable by it. Then something happened to it and I had the kids put a message on, I didn't want to replace it with my voice. I can still hear his message in my head, years later, clear as a bell. (Linda)

Never had any messages or his voice on a greeting all i have of his voice is the home movies, which took me 2 1/2 yrs to watch and can't even explain the feeling when i heard his voice after so long....(Rachel)

Yes, for some reason, I always kept several of his voicemails on my phone at all times. I have three saved. One was from 3 years ago when he called to tell me he knew the day before had been really tough (at work) and that he knew that day would be better and that he loved me. The second one, he just called to wish me a happy day. These messages are so important to me that I paid a company to save them and send them to me as MP3 files. So I have them forever, even if they get erased accidentally on my phone. I never get tired of listening to them. (Lorie)

My mother-in-law still has his voice on her answering machine, it was really hard at first but now 5 yrs later when I call I cross my fingers I get her machine just to hear him. (Dara)

I still have the "tape" from the answering machine. Its been at least 18 years. (Sandy)

I have my husbands voice message to me. It just says "I love you." Me and my daughter listen to it often. (Bev)

(My new partner) found Scott's cell phone in the drawer. "Hey Hon, I didn't know you had a Razor?" My response? "That's... Scott's phone, and I can't bear to get rid of it." I've let the battery go so I don't know if there is anything still on it. I'm thinking because the number is gone, so are the messages. There is (was) one from me on there. A happy one that he saved. (My new partner) found a place for the phone...I've always wished I would have saved the tape of my Mom's message. She's gone over 20 years now. (Lynn)

Wow, I was just looking at my phone today with the ONE message on it from Bill, he was going from one of his trips to hospital to come pick him up. I listen every once in a while. I am coming up on a year in 3 weeks. I was looking at the phone and trying to decide if I would delete it. I will miss him for everyday of my life, but I need to move forward. (Paula)

I have his voice along with the kids as my cell phone message and I never want to take it off. To me it's a way to tell the world, especially his family, that I will never forget. Even just talking about a simple message tears my heart. I miss him so much. (Danielle)

I don't have any voice messages, but I do have his cell phone, I now have people call me on that phone. There is one greeting saved with his voice on it. I play it every once in a while just so I can hear a little bit of his voice. Wish I had more. (Yoly)

At three years I still have my late husband as the greeting. He recorded it with the kids. Funny, I've been thinking it was time to change it but still I just love hearing his cheery voice every now and again. The voicemails are gone unfortunately when I changed the number. (Jenn)

My husband passed away almost 2 years ago, I am still paying for his phone so that I can call and listed to his greeting. It says he will get right back to me — I'm still waiting! (Celeste)

Didn't save anything on the phones, but we have Grampy reading a recorded book for each of the four grandkids, a video "interview" of him telling us stories from his life that our daughter made and best of all...during his last days I asked... him to "talk to me like you do when I'm sad or upset." I recorded that and a friend put it on cd for me. He just gave them to me last night and I listened in the car on the way home. I cried and cried, but it was just what I needed to hear. Every time I thought, "please say you love me again," he did! I've often thought I could go without seeing him because I have pictures and I could go without touching him because I have his robes that I can wrap myself in, but I wish I had a phone to Heaven so I could talk to him. Now with his message to me on the cd I feel I have that! (Michelle)

Are these tiny details not beautiful? Do they not illustrate emotional truths, about living without someone and having true human feelings? A modern convenience - a machine, a service — are a memento, giving us the warmth of a voice, otherwise uncaptured, saved nearly by accident on the phone company's server.

Would you leave out a detail like this from your story? This snippet is our generation's gold watch: an heirloom, a talisman, precious. Everyday and transcendent at the same time. Current, relatable, real.

I can bet you that that anecdote which Maslin picked on will be one of the parts that resonates the most deeply with readers.

How about art other than memoir? I'm honored to be able to share with you this special song about listening to a loved one's voice later on — sung by my sister after her loss, more than a decade ago — a song which she movingly performed at Gavin's memorial service:

And tomorrow.... I'll address Maslin's charge of "major omission" from my point of view as a remarried widow.


Very superstitious: one more omen, manmade

There was one more omen, and it was fairly early: after the second surgery, but before the failure of the first miracle drug, which was when I really started to ignore the drumbeat.

Gavin was a lot older than I was, and this ball was leftover from his childhood. Handpainted, blown glass, so fragile -- what glorious colors. It broke as I unwrapped it this last Christmas of his. Short Stack was nearly 2, so I don't know what I was thinking to hang this most precious of relics on our wobbly real tree. The last few pictures I have of Gavin are at this holiday, showing her his favorite wind up toys on top of a photography book, a gift that weighed as much as our little girl did. Little dear, she greeted our Christmas tree with joy as "apple doo!," for what reason, we never figured out (though it might have had one red ball on it).

He wasn't attached to this ornament, but it was one of my favorites, including from my history, and you may remember that I am a nutball about Christmas. And we had our eye intent on other round things, the pills that were promised after the new year, a long awaited investigational drug, just after approval, and in the nick of time: O holiday miracle medical.

I might have never forgiven myself for breaking it, but it's only a "thing," and I was sure, at this point, that I had even thrown out the photo.

But here it is. Isn't it lovely?


Very superstitious: the fox

And now that I think over it, superstitious beliefs have marked many of the momentous times in my life, especially the ones where some anticipation existed, and I sought reassurance or certainty or at least some hint as to outcomes: the weekend before my daughter was born I swore I saw a snowy owl landing in a meadow, off in my peripheral vision in a snowy field off the parkway. (It was the fluffy white belly typical of a Red-tailed Hawk, considerably less rare in our area, but equally showy).

And the fox. The last sign was a half-rotted fox, tossed behind his studio, possibly by one of the "uncles" of our immigrant neighbors in the rental house. Dead for weeks, it had appeared of a sudden, during a time no one wanted to go out, in the middle of a period when he was lying on the couch disabled by his penultimate "miracle drug." February, doldrums, and snow and ice everywhere.
It pointed out I was the only one capable — of anything, actually, at that point. It might have had rabies, and while my kid couldn't walk yet, those neighbors could, and surely didn't know the risk it presented.

It seemed tragic and sent by fate: because the fox had been one of the good omens of this land, this third-acre in the suburbs, across from the bus stop. I'd found its scat shortly after moving in, and checked on its hideaway periodically. When we built a front yard fence, we left a slit for the fox to get across the street and back the park at dusk, when we knew these animals, common but smartly invisible, travelled.

One night, years before pregnancy, late after a Christmas party, our headlights caught its rich rusty tail and glowing eyes. We were in awe of the chance we'd been given to catch this crepuscular creature out of its hours, on our territory for just a moment. Surely it was a sign; when it was still around, despite changes, in the midst of infertility, fox scat was a sign that nature went on around us, that good things could happen in busy places.

I found that dead fox with a start, as if a bell tolled dully.

Dread, dread, dread. I hated that I'd found it, and that it was my job to take care of it. But what to do?
A call to animal control generated the idea: it needs to be tested for rabies. They offered to fetch it if I picked it up in a grocery bag and stored it in my trash can, safe from the kids.

Our fox was dead. A quiet secret had been taken from us, perhaps by rat poison. I dwelled and dwelled, till animal control followed up: "The raccoon you found….. Was too decomposed to test for rabies, but couldn't have transmitted it either."

A raccoon. It was a raccoon. 

My rejoicing was genuine, a jumping inside, but lasted only for a minute, because my dear husband was so far gone, so tired, so low, with so many minor injuries, and the major ones mounting up... no folk religion could hide the truth from me anymore.

Now it was time to start actively pretending.


Very superstitious: domestic omens toward the end

Almost from the moment Gavin was diagnosed, I was more superstitious than usual. Perhaps it's the absence of any formal religion in my history, perhaps it's just a safer way to "admit" what I could see but not say: the writing on the wall, that he would die. A way to externalize the stresses, and pretend that the rational observations I made (a medical establishment without solutions for his cancer, a man running out of 2nd choice options, a husband under 100 lbs) were actually spooky, perhaps even a bit silly and therefore somehow less real.

Is superstition a sign that your rational mind is falling apart, or manifestation of uneasiness, or a way to really know what's true?

The first sign was domestic. Setting up my studio, above his studio, Gavin wrestled with reinstalling my Ikea shelves. "Ivar," he said. "They should call it Beelzebub. Damn thing tried to kill me again today." I'd installed it once already, inside what was now the baby's room, and it wasn't easy, but he was not very handy. I was 8 months pregnant and had given up on moving big pieces of wood, no mattter how bad he was going to be at it, he'd own all the heavy work from this point out.

One day an Ivar upright smacked him in the shin for a bruise that lasted weeks. It was only January, but when he was diagnosed in September I felt sure, somehow, that this injury had led to either the cancer (no one dared guess for us how long it had been growing in him) or its metastasis (which happened before we found it out).

Why? I needed something. LIke the what-if's of a widow whose lost someone to a car accident, I had to have alternatives, objects, other parties to place in my story, whether or not they could hold blame well or be held to account.

Then there were his careless placements of aesthetic objects that might be good or bad, depending. The first was a Bolivian devil mask I'd purchased for him one Christmas as an apotropaia.  (I think I felt entitled to buy one solely because I alone knew what the word meant.) I wanted it hung facing our busy front door to keep bad spirits out, but he thought that was corny, and hung it in his office. It was staring down his neck.

After diagnosis when he wasn't looking I unmounted it and hid it in the attic, then after he died, exiled it farther to his vacant studio, where the oil smells settled, cold. I wrapped it in silk to keep it from hurting anyone else. 

1997_Decay_of_the_Angel_The_Body_Ceases_to_Give_off_Light_409686D-R01-043 Another was a drawing of his own, one of my favorites, beautiful and striking but: one in a series of 5 illustrating Yukio Mishima's The Decay of the Angel. The drawing is called "The body ceases to give off light," and he hung it, again in his office, looking down on his right shoulder. What could be more wrong? He could not see the problem.

I let him stare at just the picture hanger for the rest of the year, till he'd gone so far downhill that he was never in his office.

To compensate, I placed two works of his that I'd sort of considered "too good" for us: his two lamps. I think he had to frame them himself, displacing lesser works and cutting mats, to get them to me, and unsell one that had been promised, for a pittance. But they were my favorites, and I hung them above the bed. The light that swelled from the paper in these drawings at least let me know we were doing our best, even if he didn't see the difference between one and another.

I've written about these lamps before -- they were a great comfort to me for a long time in that bed after he was gone.


(Now you, too, can see why he hated the way his work looked in photographs: they look gray, dim. These lamps are absolutely glowing, silencing more than one viewer with a gleam that comes from inside the paper).

Nature gave us one more sign, just awful in every single way, but that's a story for tomorrow.


Tangled gets grieving straight

It's not exactly a newsflash: the new Disney/Pixar movie will make you cry! But it's true, and as with everything Pixar, there's a heart inside that surprises you no matter what you expected.

Tangled is a hyped up, postmodern retelling of Rapunzel that, unlike nearly everything else in Hollywood, gets grief right.

The core of the tale begins when an infant girl with magic hair, born to doting parents after a difficult pregnancy, is kidnapped by an evil witch. One with marvelous hair, a worthy competitor … the witch's salt and pepper coils are depicted with nearly as much lush pleasure as the princess's pristine and glowing acres of flax. (Magically renewed, the witch looks tight and a little overdyed to me. A statement, to me, from a studio that can make any magic.)

Every year on their lost child's birthdate her parents — a flawless and kind King and Queen — release a paper lantern in her honor.

The sky lantern ceremony is beautiful and magical in a way that only the simplest things — a candle, paper, and the night — can ever be. As the King's subjects hand up thousands of lanterns to follow the first, no eye in the theater was left dry. This meant my 6 year old was pounding on my thigh to stop crying mommy for chrissakes. 

And now I feel, in a way, that I've actually been to a lantern ceremony of remembrance (they're used for weddings, too). Cartoon or not, this event is moving and also just. And as I smell the popcorn, I am reminded that this is a fairy tale, and why we have them: so we have something to look up to.

Because in this kingdom, the King and Queen's tears are honored each year, even at number 18. No one tells them to get over it or stop dwelling in the past. This village celebrates the life of a princess it barely knew with mead, flowers, and dancing in the streets, and closes with a sad sharing of hearts. And the ceremony itself — the lanterns bobbing in the night air, above water — brings together earth, sea, and sky. What else should ritual do but unite things larger than we are with our simple "here" selves?

Tangled contains the most moving, emotionally generous ritual of remembrance I remember in any American movie, and within a story that's entertaining, rich, and appropriate for families with kids of many ages (including a lot of boys, I am told -- the 10 year old boy with us cried, too.)

While it may be wonderful for others living with grief, I hesitate to recommend Tangled to families who have been through childloss. In addition to the fairy-tale ending (the child is not dead!) there is also an emergency rescue of a pregnancy that's important to the plot. I'm not sure the tears and emotional satisfaction of the lanterns justify going through all the other triggers.

Babylost friends, what do you think? Did this movie "work" for you at all, did it help you, was it true? Or is the general grief message just that? 

ADDENDUM: I'm a dolt. I forgot that someone imporant DIES and then comes back to life. This could be a trigger for any widow, especially with a loss from violent crime. I mean, it IS a cartoon, but if I'm going to take one scene seriously....


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