My mother smoked like a chimney. She went through two, maybe three packs of cigarettes a day. She drank like that, too. She watched the booze like a hawk, even fired a housekeeper/nanny I loved dearly she told me many years later, because my mother had secretly marked the rum bottle. That’s how she knew the housekeeper was drinking it, she said. My mother drank Bacardi Light on the rocks. Once in a while she added a splash of water.
Cigarettes were another story. She left packs all over the house. Some were half gone, some were empty, some were new. She smoked Benson & Hedges, hard pack, with a recessed filter. Nice fresh cellophane-wrapped packs were in the carton she kept in the pantry off the kitchen, next to the dishwasher. When I was a kid, everyone smoked. That was the day when smoking was supposed to be “healthy.” I still remember a billboard a couple of miles from our house with a picture of a doctor in a white coat smoking a cigarette as he smiled off into the distance.
My mother kept book matches next to the cigarettes in the pantry, too. That was before disposable lighters. Lighters in those days were the size of your palm. They were heavy, stainless steel, often engraved with your initials, and you had to change wicks every once in a while, then fill them with lighter fluid. Matches were simpler.
When I was twelve or so, it seemed like everyone I knew started experimenting with smoking. It was easy to take my mother’s cigarettes, some matches, and go to my friend’s house across the street to meet a few other girls behind the neighbor’s garage, and attempt to smoke. One pack lasted a long time. Four of us would stand there and choke and gasp and spit in the name of smoking. Lungs do not like cigarettes. Neither does your brain. They make you dizzy as hell. They taste and smell dreadful. After a while, though, your body somehow adjusts. And not much longer after that, you simply must have a cigarette. Thus was born a nation of nicotine addicts.
By the time I was 15 or so I was a regular smoker. I bought my own cigarettes, and they certainly weren’t my mother’s brand. As long as I didn’t smoke a whole lot, my mother really never said anything. Once when a family friend said he’d seen me sitting in a deli with some friends having a snack and smoking after school, my mother told me I shouldn’t do that because it didn’t look good. Life to her was all about appearances.
By the time I was a senior in high school I smoked in the house. My father had quit when I was very little. One day I walked into the living room with a pack of cigarettes in my hand. My father was watching TV. “Can I have one of those?” he asked.
I thought he thought I had candy in my hand. “These are cigarettes,” I said. “You don’t want one of these.”
“You’d be surprised what I want,” he replied.
I looked at him, down at the cigarettes, and kept walking. I thought he must be kidding. But I paid attention after that to the cigarettes in the ashtray of his car. I borrowed his car regularly. I found a butt every once in a while that wasn’t mine, or my mother’s brand of cigarettes. I had thought the butts were from one of the men who worked for my father. He was always giving them rides. Now I wondered if maybe they were his. It was news to me he snuck around in his car, smoking.
One summer day I was sitting in the living room having a cigarette and my mother walked in. “I forbid you to smoke in the house,” she announced. “I don’t want you smoking here now, put that out.” I looked at my mother like she was nuts. She had never previously indicated a problem with my smoking in the house. “I’m serious,” she said. “I don’t think you should be smoking at all.” The living room had a big sliding glass door with a screen in it. The door was open. She waited a minute for me to respond. “You may not smoke in my house,” she repeated emphatically.
I walked over to the glass door, opened the screen and stepped outside. I turned around to face my mother and continued to smoke, making sure to exhale back into the house. “I told you not to smoke in the house,” she snapped.
Later at the dinner table after my father came home from work, she regaled my father with this story, putting great emphasis on my disrespect and how I shouldn’t be smoking to begin with, that smoking was bad for you, and how urgent it was that I quit immediately. My mother could preach a good sermon when she put her mind to it.
My father let my mother go on for a few minutes while he ate. He usually endured my mother’s tirades in silence. He was as likely to be the subject in question as was I, or even the dog.
This night he looked at me and rolled his eyes. He put his fork down and looked directly at my mother. “Why don’t you try quitting yourself first,” he said, picking up his fork again. “Then you might have a leg to stand on.”