Two life-altering facts characterized my 1960s-era childhood. One: my best friend lived around the block, which made the daunting task of growing up more bearable. And two: our parents smoked cigarettes.
My respect for the addictive nature of nicotine came in the form of several epiphanies. The first arrived when I was six years old and I saw my mother’s long, jittery hand reach for the cigarette pack, and then witnessed the subsequent calm that swept through her after taking that first drag. This observation left me troubled. Somehow I knew my mother could never quit. She was going to die from smoking.
My best friend was not troubled. She didn’t seem to mind that her parents smoked, or that they chewed a lot of gum and drank inordinate amounts of Coca Cola. As individuals and as a family, they took life in stride.
They also loved to gamble. While my friend’s father dashed off to the horse races, her mother kept a steady card game going at the dining room table. Blackjack. Pinochle. Five Card Stud. An odd assortment of cars lined up daily in front of the house, everything from Porsches to beaters. Inside, a motley group sat around the table, jovial and energized. There was laughter. Cash. And plenty of cigarettes.
Things were different at my house. During the day, my mother cleaned and cooked and sewed – and smoked. She was the consummate multi-tasker, able to perform any number of domestic chores with flawless precision. She could smoke a pack, sew a dress, and time a roast to come out of the oven as my father’s car rolled into the driveway.
Granted, my mother was exceptional, but such skills were not uncommon in those days.
In fact, daily activities revolved around smoking and were encouraged or discouraged based on the convenience with which one could light up. For instance, attending a school play or recital (discouraged); duck hunting (encouraged); banking (encouraged, but only if you could wait in the car while someone else went in).
Also, dining and dancing (encouraged!).
Saturday night was my mother’s respite from domesticity. She and my father had a standing “date” to go out and cut a rug, so to speak. Preparations began late in the afternoon with bubble baths and hair rollers, and progressed to the actual layering of clothes, beginning with undergarments and ending with her bejeweled evening bag. This was the era of Playtex, renowned for its ultra body-shaping foundations, most notably the 18-hour girdle. My mother’s girdle was tough, made of material that could rival modern-day Kevlar. I’m sure she could have taken a bullet to the stomach and survived.
I wish her lungs could have been as strong.
By the time I entered high school, my mother had developed a chronic cough. It wasn’t just a hack here and there. It was major. At times, she’d lean over and reach out for something – a counter or chair – to hold herself up.
“Maybe you should see a doctor,” I’d say. I was young. I hadn’t learned yet how ridiculous that sounded.
“It’s nothing,” my mother said. “I got a vitamin stuck in my throat.”
At which point I had my second epiphany: Cigarettes + Addiction = Denial.
Over at my friend’s house, the vitamin scenario played out differently. “I won the Daily Double!” her mother announced as she waved her winnings from the horse track. Cancer? What cancer? Friends still showed up daily to commune around the dining room table. The woman lived by one code: light up and deal.
In both families, our mothers had been the ones who kept everything together. We depended on them. Over time, the paradigm began to shift. Then they had to depend on us.
My mother’s cough grew worse; her energy slowly waned. Almost imperceptibly, my father assumed one more household chore, drove her to another specialist, and took extended walks around the neighborhood while she lay in bed for longer periods of time. Emphysema wasn’t discussed, merely managed.
Just short of my thirty-eighth birthday, she said, “I want to be buried in my blue moiré.”
We’d never talked about death.
But now we were and, ironically, it involved fashion.
Without hesitating, I assumed the role I’d prepared for my entire life, which was to move toward the closet to find the dress and bring it to her.
“This one?” I asked.
She nodded yes.
And that’s when I had my third epiphany: It’s never been about me.
Contemplating an afterlife has never been one of my strong suits; there’s too much to embrace in this one. So here’s my final epiphany – a fantasy, really. It goes something like this:
“You got a cigarette? That Peter fellow confiscated mine at the gate.”
“I think I’ve got some stashed in my evening bag. I’ll check.”
“He let you in with that thing?”
“He was impressed with the gold studs.”
“Wish I’d known that. I would’ve brought my gilded-edged Pinochle deck…oh thanks… Menthol? I can’t stand menthol.”
“Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”
“Ha, that’s a good one!”
The women light up; take their first puffs.
“Say, that’s pretty good for menthol!”
They smoke in silence. Some musicians in white-tailed robes and bow ties walk by carrying instruments and set up on a stage that, strangely, wasn’t there a couple of minutes ago.
“Do you think they know any foxtrots?”
“I bet they can play anything up here.”
They smoke a while longer; finish their cigarettes. After the haze clears, they’re sitting in a dining room watching people play cards at a table. There’s one open chair.
“What’s the limit?”
“Are you kidding, lady? There is no limit.”
“Deal me in.” She takes the last chair.
The cards are dealt. The band begins to play, “Pennies from Heaven.”
And everyone’s happy.