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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.

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