Updated: Sep 23
My mother smoked for 71 years. She passed at the age of 86 with a final diagnosis of congestive heart failure. All said that the cigarettes had finally gotten her. I bowed my head in agreement at the time, but as I stood beside her casket seeing her life story played out in the chapters of her wrinkles, it occurred to me that if the truth be known, here lie a full time smoker that had died of old age. She had made it through the shooting gallery of smoker’s diseases and in the end it was really the 86 years that finally laid her to rest. But, like the black-labeled bully that they are, the cigarettes took the brunt of the blame. It’s understandable. It’s no secret that smoking is bad for you. As research exposed the horrid truth of what this fatal action can do, the death toll was broadcast. In this modern anti-smoking revolution, no one dares even think of tallying the forbidden statistic that my mother had fallen under – those who smoked and survived.
Her name was Jean McCormack, and she grew up in a world that centered on smoking. She was a fiery Irish teenager who, at age fifteen, would sneak off with her crazy cousin, Stella, to find mischief and smoke cigarettes like the grown-ups they were in such a hurry to be, and why not? For decades, most glamorous idols of the time were framed in smoking. Movies always cast a cigarette into a movie star’s hand. Smoking was unrestricted and everywhere. Bus, train, plane, movie theatre, or restaurant – it didn’t matter, people smoked. Even the elevators had ashtrays. I remember on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” there was an ashtray the size of a birdbath, sitting center amongst his guests. It acted as a hub for the witty banter as the stars dragged deeply on their tortured butts and billowed jokes into the room on great plumes of smoke. My mother would do the same. I can see her now, limelighted in a room full of guests, sitting in a brightly flowered dress, her legs crossed and foot tapping, her quick wit presiding over a galaxy of conversations. The jangle of her many bracelets was like a music box to me, as she punctuated her sentences with a Benson and Hedges Menthol, waving it as if she were conducting an orchestra. She, too, would drag deeply and talk through her exhales, her wisdom floating through the room on ghostly wafts.
Benson and Hedges Mentholated 100’s was one of the first things I was required to memorize. I learned it about the same time I learned my phone number and address. I was a child growing up in the sixties and no one thought anything of it when a mom sent her six-year-old to the corner store to buy smokes. They were 25 cents a pack and she would give me an extra nickel for candy. Even though George at the market would see me coming and have the pack already out on the counter, I would still recite the whole thing as instructed — “A pack of Benson and Hedges Mentholatum 100’s, please.” It wasn’t until many years later that I realized I had been saying “mentholatum” instead of “mentholated” all that time. I’m sure George found it endearing. I’d give him the 30 cents, shove the pack deep into my pocket, and trot on home whilst getting my teeth stuck in Bit-O-Honeys and Turkish Taffy.
Through the hearty years, my mom was a three pack a day smoker. Watching her chain smoke was as normal to us as the ticking of the kitchen clock. She would light the next cigarette with the last as she vacuumed the floor or ironed the clothes, and especially while chatting on the phone. She kept one lit in every room of the house, smoldering away in a menagerie of ashtrays so there was always one close. She had all the dark habits that come with smoking. She would smoke while she ate, taking puffs between bites. She would crush the butts into her uneaten food when she was done, even in restaurants. She would smoke while she was cooking; there was always an ashtray on the stove. She would drop the last of a butt into the remaining splash of her coffee making the quick fizzle sound. We’d always have to wash out the soggy nicotine mash when it was our turn to do dishes. She’d drop them into the toilet – I would use them for target practice when I’d pee. Many times she would fail to fully crush one out, and a smudge pot of burning cotton filters would choke the house. She smoked through all of her pregnancies, and would even joke with other pregnant women about how, in her third trimester, she could finally balance an ashtray on her belly. Back then it was common for women to smoke while pregnant; the dire perils were still unknown.
There were cigarette burns throughout the house and the old wallpaper and ceilings always had a tinge of amber soot. There were three especially dark nicotine spots on the ceiling where the decades of smoke had centered the most. One was over her reading/writing/sewing chair, one was over her easel where she painted portraits, and the third was over her piano. Only the saints would know how many thousands of hours of piano work had been spent there and how many cigarettes and coffees had been imbibed. Throughout history, puffing smoke has often been linked to the creative process. Many an historic snapshot has been taken of brilliant minds at work while lost in the vapors of the brushfires under their noses. One of Mark Twain, for instance, hunched over his typewriter, puffing on a stogie the size of a table leg – or of Einstein lost in a chalkboard of equations, hands clasped behind his back with a pipe in his mouth – or of Kennedy in the oval office during the Cuban missile crisis, not noticing that the cigar butt was about to burn his lips. Mom had a picture of Ravel composing with a fountain pen sitting on her piano. He was squinting from the smoke of his cigarette. She kept this picture close, a partner in crime.
My mother had started piano lessons when she was four, became a teenage prodigy at age fifteen and became a master of classical piano. Smoking was part of this too. It seemed that she smoked differently when she was playing. The creative spirit of her music was like liquid. The fires of her cigarettes would boil this liquid into a resounding steam that would pour from the piano, as if the smoke were actual tendrils of her thoughts and passions. She would have no memory of going from one cigarette to the next, as she would spend hours honing a Rachmaninoff piece. I’d sit and listen to her practice, watching the ashes fall into the keys, her being too absorbed to flick them into any of the trays.
Alas, the piano aged with her and decades of tar and ashes, along with countless knocked over coffees, started gumming and sticking the keys just like the congestion in her heart. My mother hadn’t died of congestive heart failure; she had died of congestive piano failure.
She tried to quit thousands of times. It would take her a good hour of hacking every morning to clear her lungs enough to talk. But, smoke on, she would. There were times when she would make attempts at quitting, but by the third day, a crisis was usually conjured up. “I can’t quit now!” she would say, “Auntie Sophia’s fighting with Elmer!” My oldest sister, Bonnie, was the strongest champion of trying to get her to stop. There was many an argument with my sister pleading for her not to follow her menthols into an early grave, and my mother firing back with something like, “Jacques Cousteau smokes!!” or “Without cigarettes, I’ll have a nervous break down!” I remember the family being grimly accustomed to her countless attempts, as her nerves would scatter like a bag of dropped marbles. We knew it was time to keep our mouths shut because her manifold was about to blow. There was a movie that came out in the seventies called “Cold Turkey”. It was about an entire town that quits smoking and was one of my mom’s favorites. One scene has someone trying to parallel park in the background, smashing the cars ahead and behind – bashing back and forth, mangling bumpers and shattering taillights. She would howl with laughter. Without cigarettes in her life, I’m sure she saw herself behind that wheel. But the fact remained that she did not have the mental software to quit. She wouldn’t stop smoking because deep in her mind, she didn’t see a real reason. Her quality of life was more important to her than her fear of death, and cigarettes held that corner stone. Even though smoking offered only promises of destruction, she still clung to it as though it were a lifebuoy thrown from a rescue ship. The more the world around her tried to separate her from her smokes, the deeper she’d sink her nails. In those seventy-one years, she watched as the non-smoking crusade spearheaded its steady march into the fleeing hoards of smokers, expelling them from the healthy world of our future. She would hiss and spit as each new banning law was passed, steadily restricting more and more areas from smoking. Tapping her nail on the counter she would say that the war on smokers started with the smoking ban on airlines.
“Well, Mom,” I would say, “A smoking section on a jet is like having a peeing section in a pool.” She’d just give me the brush-off swipe with her hand.
“What’s next, a law forbidding me to smoke in my own apartment?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her, so I would listen to her gripe and feign support. As she smoked through the years, it crushed me to realize that she was never going to quit. Watching my greatest mentor and genuine friend hack her way through another decade was agonizing as the odds slowly stacked up. But smoke on she would! The habit, the nicotine, the social action, and the entire smoking way of life had wrapped itself around her spine. Toward the end, even the doctors said that the shock of quitting at this point would probably kill her. I remember one of them saying, “Might as well let her smoke. She’s in her mid-eighties, now, and has won the game.”
She spent her final weeks in hospice care in a cheery “home” full of heroes. There was, of course, no smoking in the home and she was too weary to leave the building. Even then, surrounded with family and care, all her favorite treats sitting in nearby trays, oxygen tubes in her nose and nicotine patches on her arms, it was a cigarette that she longed for. “If I could just go outside and have a smoke.” She would say. She would have taken smoking into the afterlife if she could. My love for her entertained that notion.
Jean McCormack died on March 13th 2013. A late snow fell on her grave, bending the nearby pine trees as if in sorrow. She had wanted to die in the warm spring. “I don’t want to be buried in the frozen ground,” she had said. Missing that final wish by just a few weeks may have been her last trade off for a smoker’s life. I had flown to Michigan with my wife and children, and spent most of the morning of the funeral with my sister, Rebeca. We were running a bit late as we made our way through the grey, slushy streets of Kalamazoo when I told my sister my idea. The siblings had all agreed to bring mementos and such to adorn her, and help her into the next world. We brought the deepest of cherished items – her mother’s ring, photos, drawings from my boys – things that punctuated her life. I told Beca it was my wish to toss a pack of smokes into her casket. She gave me a side look of warning, as we both knew that our older sister Bonnie would frown deeply on such a move. In her eyes, I might as well be throwing in the murder weapon! But I had this image of my mom in the afterlife, surrounded by her prattling girlfriends at the corner coffee shop. All of them with their old fashioned snap-top cigarette cases and matching lighters, lavish movie star cigarettes held high in their curled fingers with an eternity of immortal smoke over their heads. My mind was made up. Mom needed a pack for the road! I couldn’t imagine her spending eternity bumming smokes from her friends, so I turned to my sister and said, “Come on, Bec, I know we’re running late, but we need to find a liquor store and get a pack of cigarettes for Mom.” Realizing that this was the last cigarette run I would make for my mother stopped me short for a moment. It was bringing forth the barren truth of death. Funny how it’s the little things.
There weren’t many liquor stores around this sleepy part of town, but we finally found one hidden behind a scruffy lot. I walked into the cruddy store and asked the faceless bub behind the counter for the final pack.
“A pack of Benson and Hedges Mentholated 100’s please.”
“We’re outta menthols,” was all he said, never taking his eyes off the TV screen.
Out of menthols!! What to do now? Mom never smoked a regular ciggy in her life! I looked at my sister who gave me a strained smile and looked at her watch. I had to decide. Pros and cons started pin-balling around in my head. I was struggling to build a feeble case thinking that, well, she had passed after all, so how would she really know the difference. Can the deceased really tell? I bought the Benson and Hedges regulars (for seven-goddamn-fifty!) and headed for the funeral home.
The Home was somber with a touch of elegance. Professionally warm faces greeted me with countenance and led me to my waiting loved ones whom I had grown up with. Our collective hearts mingled and evoked the spirit of my mother into the room. And there she lay. Her stillness was profound – such a contrast to the symphony of her life. I watched as many items were gently placed in her casket, as one would dress a goddess. It was peaceful and serene. I found my time, and tossed the pack in. The move silenced the room. My sister Bonnie shot me a chilling look and things quickly prickled up. The family braced. But before words could be spoken, Gabi, ever the middle sister, stepped up to the tension wire with a perfect snip. Digging in her purse, she pulled out a Bic lighter and tossed it in, saying with a sunny smile, “Well, she’s going to need a light!”
A week later, I found myself back in San Francisco exhausted from the trip. It was then that mom came to visit me in the deepest of my sleep. Sure, it was just a dream, but not really. This dream/visitation was much more, taking me up and out on an eerie quest, separated from the material world by the thinnest of, well, smoke. My mom and I were in a crowded old-time diner. She was drinking coffee, eating cake, and, of course, smoking. She looked to be in her forties and was full of life as we sat long, and talked much. It was so good to see her again. Time stood still. Then, without a prompt, she got up from the table and said her final goodbye. As she reached for the door, she turned, saying,
“Oh, yeah, it was nice of you to go get the cigarettes, honey, but I could’ve used the menthols.”
I woke and sat straight up in bed! The room was quiet and dark. Now that I was awake, the dream seemed more real than ever. All my senses were telling me she really had just been there, her words still ringing. Even from the afterlife, my mother had a hold on my guilt strings. Couldn’t I have spent the extra fifteen minutes to find another store? After all, we are talking eternity, here – an eternity without menthols! I dropped my head into my hands, dumbfounded. I should never have underestimated the powers of the dearly departed.
It’s been a year and a half since my mother’s death. With the passing of my wife’s beloved grandparents, my wife and I decided to set up an altar for our loved ones for Dia de los Muertos. It’s a beautiful old Latino ritual that honors those who have passed and invites them to come visit. The vision of the altar is to laden it with things that your loved ones had enjoyed in life to beckon them. They are traditionally filled with favorite foods and such, and the spirits come in the night to enjoy the flavors that they miss. Because they no longer have bodies, they can fully indulge in whatever decadence they desire. It was as good a chance as any to right my dreadful wrong and finally deliver mom’s menthols across this beautiful mystic bridge of Dia de los Muertos. How wonderful to find another chance to touch the ones you love, even if it’s just to send them a pack of smokes. So we set up her picture along side of some raspberry candies and a cup of coffee, and laid a full pack of Benson and Hedges Mentholated 100’s in easy reach. Mom finally got her menthols. So, I guess it wasn’t the last smoke run I would make after all. Looks like I’ll be buying smokes for my mom for as long as time will allow – even if it’s just once a year. “Oh, and Mom, let me know if you need an ashtray. I’ll be waiting in my dreams.”