Why wouldn’t I read a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates? She is a widow, as am I, she lives nearby, and books from her prolific writing career have graced my nightstand frequently over the years. So I bought a copy of A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. It seems odd to say that I looked forward to reading the intimate details of her grieving, but I did eagerly await this particular memoir, even if the sharing of our grief was to be one sided.
While Oates’s writing is well known, she is a very private person and little had been written about her personal life. It has been said that her writing was not something she shared with her husband, despite his being an editor himself. Raymond Smith was the founder and editor of the Ontario Review. From time to time I would see him shopping at the local grocery. I met him once many years ago, when I was working for an errand-running agency in Princeton, NJ. I was called to the residence to meet the cats I was to feed while the Smiths were away. It was Mr. Smith with whom I spoke and it wasn’t until after my assignment ended that I learned he was the husband of the famous writer.
So much for my brush with greatness. Still, I knew the streets Oates traveled to be at her husband’s hospital bedside, her doctors’ names and the restaurants where she sat with friends in the days and weeks that followed Smith’s unexpected passing. I felt kinship with Joyce Carol Oates.
Reading A Widow’s Story reopened some wounds for me, as I suspected it might. Having trudged that same path, I so admired Oates, fragile yet persevering, and the beauty of her words at that awful time. My husband also died in hospital when it was expected he’d recover from a bout of pneumonia. I was awed that Oates had such vivid recall; my own first moments, hours and days remain a blur.
And so it was that I relived and reimagined those days when reading A Widow’s Story, feeling almost a partner in her recovery, her return to the world of the living. Then I segued into a search to see what was up with Oates since she wrote the memoir…and found that 11 months after her husband’s death in 2008, she became engaged, and in 2009 she remarried.
Talk about a sucker punch. While I was agonizing along with her, she was already in the throes of her next romance! She was baring her broken soul while simultaneously committing to her next husband. I have to say it—I still feel betrayed by this author.
I know I am projecting myself into an imaginary friendship. She owes me nothing. Oates is a storyteller, doing what she does best. At one point, she even wistfully recollects that a close friend said, “Suffer, Joyce, Ray was worth it!” But a few months later, her next husband comes into her life. I enjoyed the memoir, recommended it to friends—but since then I’ve often wished I could take it all back.
Pepper Evans works as an independent-living consultant, helping older adults age in place. She is the empty-nest mother of two adult daughters and has extensive personal and professional experience as a caregiver. She has worked as a researcher and editor for authors and filmmakers. She also puts her time and resources to use in the nonprofit sector and serves on the Board of Education in Lawrence Township, NJ.