My mother, a green-eyed beauty from the South, got pregnant in high school and got married, at age 19. That’s what women did in the 1950’s. She became a wife and mother (of me), making the switch from going to dances in pretty pastel-colored dresses, to cleaning house and changing dirty diapers without missing a beat. She started smoking cigarettes in high school (Winston’s were her brand) and didn’t stop until she developed emphysema 30 years later. I, along with my sister, constantly nagged her about her bad habit. For years, I clipped “Dear Abby” letters from bereaved family members of smokers and articles on the hazards of smoking and sent them to her. I doubt she ever read them.
“I enjoy smoking,” she would respond, drawing out every single syllable with her wonderful Southern drawl, when anyone mentioned the possible effect of smoking on her health. She made it sound as though that was a justification. And so our pattern (my nagging and her dismissing) continued throughout the years.
She loved old romance movies, like An Affair to Remember and adored Katherine Hepburn. She drank cup after cup of coffee all day every day and constantly had a cigarette in her hand. One of my earliest memories is of her sitting in her overstuffed green chair in a haze of smoke, with an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts by her side. She tended to speak in exclamatory phrases, such as “No! You don’t mean it? Really? I can’t believe that!” She made everything sound extraordinary.
She was a fantastic cook and never used a recipe in her life. Southern dishes were her specialty--fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, biscuits, and apple pies. If it was Southern, she could make it and she loved to eat it too, never being a "salad" kind of girl. She was a tall, strong, well-coiffed woman who never complained, not when my father left her for another woman, and not even when she reached the point of not being able to breathe without an oxygen tank.
She loved laughing and talking with her friends, most of whom she had met in high school and who she remained friends with until the day she died. When they lived in the same town, they all got together and played bridge. Most of them smoked too. After we moved to northern Alabama, away from her hometown of Dothan and her friends, she talked to them all on a regular basis for hours at a time on the phone, all the while smoking and drinking coffee. They shared stories about their husbands and children, and later the pains of growing older, and in my mother’s case, becoming ill. They found something to laugh about in every conversation.
To the end my mother maintained her up-beat attitude, and amazingly never took responsibility for the effects smoking had on her life. She finally stopped smoking entirely when she could not breathe without gasping for air. She quit cold turkey, but the damage was done. The changes came gradually. At first she could not walk without effort, and then she could not ride her exercise bike. At one point she could not wash her hair without difficulty and could barely make a trip to the market for food. Eventually she became house-bound.
When she was first diagnosed with emphysema by her doctor, she innocently asked what caused it. When he replied that it was most likely a result of smoking, she replied, “But it could have been something else, couldn’t it? You really don’t know that it was from smoking. Right?”
Content copyright 2011-2012. Patricia Thomas. All rights reserved.
Causes Patricia Thomas Supports
Room to Read, UNICEF, Kiva, Save the Children, Pencils of Promise