My Mother, Smoking

My Mother, Smoking

By David Daniel

A recent editorial in the Sun reports how Massachusetts’ ban on menthol cigarettes has cost the state a lot of tax revenue, while, simultaneously, tobacco sales in neighboring states without such a ban have spiked. I know almost nothing about public tax policy and scarcely more when it comes to habits and addictions. I have read that children who grow up in homes where there are smokers are more likely to smoke themselves when then get older. But none of this is a zero-sum game. Wins and losses depend on what’s being counted.

My mother would sometimes take a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and light one; her younger sisters, my aunts Evelyn and Mildred, would too. This happened only on occasion, at a family party or a patio gathering. They weren’t really smokers. The packs would stay in their purses for weeks. The way they held the cigarettes in their slender fingers, arms moving in graceful arcs, they might have been auditioning for a movie. I’d watch with a child’s fascination the smoke swimming upwards in fragrant blue streams. After, there would be the white stubs in an ashtray, each with a kiss of lipstick on one end.

I don’t think my father ever smoked. He never drank, either, despite having the name Jack Daniel; but that’s another story.

I did smoke for a while—thirteen, fourteen, in there. My younger brother Jack, Jr. and I would clandestinely tweeze long butts from ashtrays, or pluck them from the ground where workmen had dropped them, and smoke what remained. One time, we got hold of a whole pack of Winstons somehow and smoked them in our tree hut in the woods, one after another until the forest spun.

The habit never took hold, thank goodness. I’ve got enough to think about now: old arteries, creaky joints, the memory mist that’s not quite fog yet but give it time. I can recall the family afternoons when my mother and her sisters, in glamorous trio, would light cigarettes, even if mostly to let them burn in an ashtray. I think it was a kind of granting themselves permission, their way of slipping the traces for a time, kicking over the cart.

Their kid brother smoked sometimes, and drank a little too; but he was sophisticated, a Harvard man. Their father, my grandfather, gone by then, I remember dimly as a man of small stature, a light fog of gin on his breath as he told quietly funny stories. He smoked Camels and had a little copper ashtray in the form of a cowboy hat. I wonder what he would have thought of his daughters smoking?

Maybe it made them feel sophisticated. My glamorous red-haired mother and her beautiful sisters, war brides, content with their lives, their husbands and children, but perhaps wondering for a brief moment what other lives might be possible. Smoke rising in pale blue ladders . . . like dreams.

They’re all gone now. More and more I find myself, when I see an old snapshot or a scene from a black and white movie—the actors and actresses, they’re surely all gone now too. I’d like to think otherwise. It’d be good if some things were unchanged. I don’t hold out much hope. What is that? Smoke through a keyhole, as someone said? Time?

7 Responses to My Mother, Smoking

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very much like the mood of this piece, the low-key, wistful recollection of gestures gone by. Like the smoke, visible then gone. Your Winstons rang a bell, and I pulled the following passage from a narrative I’m working on:

    “. . . I smoked cigarettes with Andy Goyette every day for two weeks until I got sick of it. Somehow, we got a full pack of Winstons and hid it in a stone wall lining a farmer’s hay field that was a five-minute walk from my house. We’d meet there to smoke a few butts, talking about what’s in the minds of teenaged guys. Who’s going out with which girl? Who’s going to smash Pitou St. Clair at school?
    “My father smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes when I was a kid. Years later, he stopped one day, just quit. I can still see the package with blue lettering, brown camel, and golden palm trees and pyramid on the front. There was a weak joke related to the package. One of my uncles would ask me where I would hide if it started raining in the desert, under the camel or palm tree or inside the pyramid? If I answered, “The tree,” he would say, ‘All you have to do it turn the package around and go to the city on the back.’” . . . .

  2. Steve O'Connor says:

    Nice bit of smoky memoir, Dave. Something we can all identify with as the years roll on, and the people we knew fade away.

  3. James Byrd says:

    Dave Daniel is a successful stirrer of memories bringing other memories to the surface.

  4. Amy says:

    I love this–the ending is so beautiful–I don’t know how to articulate it–but it’s like it rises to those questions, and the rhythm of them that gets in you–the move from the specific and concrete with all those fine details, to become like smoke itself. Tim Coats mentions Proust–I didn’t even make the connection at first, Dave Daniel’s memory piece is so perfectly its own. If In Search of Lost Time is an orchestra, My Mother Smoking is a glint of light on a violin.

  5. Jason Trask says:

    This is an incredibly nice piece of writing. One of the things I love about the writing is the vocabulary–it’s not showy. Word smithing is for the birds. David Daniel is a phrase-smith, a sentence-smith, like so many great American authors before him.

    Here are a few of my favorites:
    “the smoke swimming upwards in fragrant blue streams”
    “the white stubs in an ashtray, each with a kiss of lipstick on one end”
    “the memory mist that’s not quite fog yet but give it time”
    “their way of slipping the traces for a time”
    “Smoke rising in pale blue ladders”

    Simple, beautiful phrases.

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