We've come a long way, baby

My mother isn't the only one bound to her addiction: Smoking is what makes her truly my mother.

Published June 29, 1998 7:34PM (EDT)

There is an apocryphal tale in my family that while my mother was in labor, driving
to the hospital during a snowstorm in February, she insisted that my father
pull over so she could run into the drugstore to get cigarettes.

There is another, mostly true story that I was born weighing only four
pounds, eight ounces, and had to stay in the hospital. When my father called
my grandmother to tell her the news, my older sister, who was staying with
her, asked why I couldn't come home. My grandmother went into the
refrigerator and pulled out a small uncooked chicken and said, "This is how
big your baby brother is."

My mother learned to smoke at a time when young ladies did not and
continued to smoke when all the ladies did. She was not told during her
pregnancy to stop. One can even be reasonably certain that her doctor
smoked. And whether or not my small birth weight can be attributed to her
smoking, I know that my own love of tobacco and all things smoking is a
legacy passed on to me by either the nicotine in my amniotic fluid or by the
same chemicals that gave me and my mother similar facial structure.

I don't think I became acutely aware of how much my mother's smoking had
affected me until once, while I was eating breakfast with a lover, she asked me to
pass the arts section of the paper, and I was suddenly hit with her breath,
a creamy bath of coffee and cigarettes, and in a flash my entire childhood
of Sunday mornings swept over me like, well, smoke. Suddenly I was awash in
images of my mother eating a bagel with whitefish and drinking coffee, of her
and my father lightly bickering over the Times puzzle, and of course, a
cigarette burning in the ashtray beside her.

My whole family smokes or has smoked. And even those of us who no longer
smoke do not consider ourselves nonsmokers. It's too much in the blood, too
much a part of who we are to ever really refer to it in the past tense when
referring to ourselves. Even my father, who has not smoked in more than 30
years, still has dreams of them, and sometimes, after a fine meal sipping a
VO and soda, would love to have a cigarette. The family smoking habit is
sort of like the way we are all Jewish. It is something you are born into.
You don't need to practice to refer to yourself as part of the culture. And
to deny it would be to deny the very core of who you are. But it is my
mother's smoking that makes her the matriarch of the habit, and while we all
wish she would quit, we all secretly know that she is bound to her
cigarettes by more than mere addiction, that something about it makes her
truly who she is and truly our mother. And it is not only a familial spirit
that haunts me, but an American one as well.

- - - - - - - - - -

The American affair with smoking is coming to its tragic close. Where
once there were nonsmoking sections, there are now entire states in the union
where you can't smoke in restaurants. Even smokers' havens are
slowly being taken away. Dunkin' Donuts are more and more becoming
nonsmoking institutions. There was something so utterly American --
verging on the holy -- about a cup of coffee and a cigarette in an all-night
shop. It reminded you that no matter who you were or where you were driving
from, you were allowed a moment of sanctuary. But now there are cigar bars,
the Disneyland of smoking, where people who don't really smoke like to go to
pretend they do. Where once entire narratives revolved around smoking and
smoking paraphernalia (Cary Grant never would have fallen in love with
Deborah Kerr if it weren't for his cigarette case), even the film industry
reflects the end of a once great romance. Now it seems only criminals and
cops smoke. But as America turns its back on cigarettes for possibly all the
right and noble reasons, there is still a lingering need, in the same way
that the lover who is most wrong for you is the one you continue to pine
for. It seems without cigarettes America may be healthy, but we are less
It has been about three months now since I've had a cigarette, after
about 16 years of smoking, with almost two packs a day for the last 10, and while
certain old movies, coffee shops and Italian dinners make me shudder a bit,
it is only when I see my mother smoke that I can feel the craving engulf me. It
is as if there is, in the back of my throat, a small, almond-shaped hole that
sucks everything I am into it, and the only way to close it up is with a
cigarette. I quit simply because it was making me feel terrible and 40
years older. So while visiting my folks every week brings me much joy, I
have begun to dread it, knowing that watching my mother smoke is one
of my greatest pleasures, but it could also prove to be my downfall.
My mother, some have said, is a vain woman, a trait I've
inherited. Part of my reason for quitting was that I was obsessively worried
about the way cigarettes made me smell. But my mother's vanity has kept her
beautiful. And the cigarette, like her rings and pocketbooks, is a necessary
accessory to the cause, each part playing its own fitful role in keeping the
whole going, a dynamic interplay of movements, sounds and smells. I can clearly see my mother reaching into her pocketbook, the crinkling of papers
trumpeting the retrieval of a soft pack of 100s. Then a deeper search that
uncovers an immaculate silver fuel lighter. Before she lights it, my mother
tends to talk with the cigarette bobbing in her mouth, and then the click of
the lighter and that first deep drag, as if it's her first breath and her
last, and all the Bogart movies in the world could not make me crave a
cigarette more.
It is possible I have romanticized smoking and am using my mother as a
way out of my own folly, to blame her instead of my own insufferable
addiction. But I will admit that while I am not smoking now, I will always
be a smoker, and it is simply that I am now choosing not to smoke. And I
love cigarettes, so much that at the end I was rolling my own, each one a small
crafted ritual. But I truly cannot blame myself entirely. Once, seeing my
mother tending her plants, a watering can in one hand and a cigarette in the
other, I knew I was doomed to never hating cigarettes. And it is the hating
of them that might be a possible prerequisite to quitting forever.

My mother's smoking is for me the last remnant of a time when all the
men wore hats and all the women smoked. It is odd to have a nostalgia for
someone else's age, and yet I am so kindred to her, it only makes sense that
I would sentimentalize my mother's history. And while I wish my mother would
quit so that I'd have more to be nostalgic about, her smoking so connects me
to her and to her own particular generation that I am bound forever to
her through it, much in the same way we are bound as Jews.

Two generations removed, great-grandparents took up smoking in the same
way they took up America. They gave up their old-world Judaism for things
like opera and communism, which they sought out in the cities where they passed
on to their children a Jewishness rooted in the actual, in the chaos of
America that actually seemed ordered when you simply remembered to eat
together on Passover. In my father's family, his grandmother smoked her way
into modernity, passing on through the matriarchal line a seed that bore
witness that being a mother didn't mean giving up worldliness. My mother
carried on this tradition, raising me and my siblings with her hair in a
scarf and a cigarette in her mouth. We were a family of the '60s and
'70s; Eastern European orthodoxy was someone else's memory. But my mother
made sure that Judaism echoed in our home. She lit the Friday night candles
as if every woman in her family were watching her. And after she cradled the
flames in her hands up to her eyes, she had a cigarette, a shared smoke with
all the mothers and grandmothers before her.

By Peter Bebergal

Peter Bebergal is a writer living in Cambridge; he taught at North Shore Community College.

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