I have become my mother. My hair is thinning. My smile gets wider each day with my contentment in life, and there are stacks of books next to every comfortable chair in my home. When my sons drive away I call after them, “Be smart. Be safe. Make good choices.” Ugh! I am my mother.
As much as that may vex me at times, there are many other times when I am very thankful. The fact that I do not smoke and have never smoked is because I am my mother. And contrary to what you may be thinking, it is not because she nagged me about the smart choice to not smoke. It is simply the result of some weird genetic phenomenon.
At the age of 14 I became curious about smoking. Since no one in my family smoked, cigarettes were not easily obtainable to test out my curiosity. However, I was a resourceful kid so I figured out that making my own cigarette would be easy.
I got a plastic straw and a box of matches and snuck off to the woods behind my house. I snipped the straw in half, making it just the right length, and began practicing holding it between my fingers the way I had seen the “cool” kids hanging out at the smoking area at school do. Yes! Imagine that. We used to have “smoking areas” at school. Seems absolutely insane now but I must say that back then I was glad. Those smoking areas made it possible for me to use the bathroom during the school day without having to cut through a thick cloud of smoke to find the stall. Who cares about their lungs, my bladder was grateful that they were outside in the “smoking area”.
Oh but I digress. Back to me in the woods with my plastic straw and matches. After practicing the proper finger holds, I crushed up some leaves and stuffed them into the straw. Aside from the red and blue stripes down the sides of my “cigarette” it looked perfect. Carefully I placed the cigarette between my lips, struck the match on the side of the box, cradled the flame and brought it up to the end of my cigarette. As I lit the end I inhaled gently (thank god). The straw and the leaves lit up like a torch! My lungs filled with burning plastic, leaves and dirt. The smell was awful but nothing compared to the fiery sensation in my throat.
Immediately, I realized I was a complete idiot! Suddenly I understood chemistry and the difference between paper rolled cigarettes and a plastic straw, and I was quite certain leaves did not equal tobacco. In utter and complete shame I coughed my way home and disappeared into the bathroom to guzzle copious amounts of water and throw up.
I never told a soul of my adventures with smoking. Never. But 30 years later, sitting in my parent’s living room with my siblings, we began to reveal to our parents, now in their seventies, the crazy, not safe, not smart choices we made as teenagers. In that moment of family closeness and laughter I revealed my shameful episode in the woods with a plastic straw and a match. Everyone laughed, but my mother could not stop laughing. She laughed and laughed until she was choking uncontrollably.
When she finally stopped laughing and caught her breath, she revealed her teenage smoking story which was exactly like mine, only with a parifin coated paper straw, plastic being unavailable in the 40s. She had not told a soul ever — not in 60 years. She could not believe her daughter had done the very same thing, at the same age.
Neither one of us smoke. Neither one of us was smart, safe or prone to good choices. But today I am ever so grateful that it is books stacked next to each comfortable chair and not an ash tray. I am my mother and that makes me smile!
Martha Reed Johnson is a professional storyteller and member of the Story Spinners, which meets in Laurinburg.