She Smoked Parliaments
By Deborah Burghardt
Editor’s Note: Deb Burghardt is one of my super-groovy travel writing students. We have also been doing one-on-one writer coaching for a personal memoir project she is working on. This story about her mother is part of that project. –DF
I felt sorry for my mother. She didn’t mean to drop her cigarette, yet she got punished just the same. I worried about that – as if she were my child, and I should have protected her from injustice.
Back when glamourous, full-breasted, platinum-haired actresses blazed across the big screen, exuding sex appeal with their sensuous cigarette rituals, Mum smoked Parliaments. I can still see her pulling a slender stick from the blue and white, flip-top box, resting it between her painted red lips, and spinning the wheel of a silver Zippo. As her head tilted slightly left, cigarette met flame, lips imprinting the filter like the stamp of a Chinese artist. On inhale, a delicious satisfaction spread across her face. On exhale, smoke rose above her like a swirling halo.
The early spring day started out ordinary for my younger sister, Merry, and me – rise, shine, toast, school, Dad off to work. Alone in the quiet house, Mum lit a Parliament to go with her mid-morning coffee, but the cigarette slipped from her fingers and smoldered between the sofa cushions. She reached toward the glow, tried to shift her weight, stretch farther, push the cushion to the floor. But Mum’s exposed nerves, their protective myelin sheaths worn away, did not relay the messages to her brain. The system designed to trigger movement failed.
* * *
In 1953, engulfed in a culture insensitive to disabilities, doctors had diagnosed Mum with incurable and untreatable Multiple Sclerosis. They believed intelligent people capable of contemplating their futures suffered stress, and stress they warned could exacerbate the disease. Thus, Dad decided not to share the diagnosis with Mum until he had no choice.
Communication breakdowns and extreme fatigue occurred gradually and intermittently to my independent and headstrong mother. What began as tingling in her limbs advanced to numbness and stiffness. Her tremors and unpredictable muscle strength escalated one day, causing her to collapse on a sidewalk less than a block from home.
After work, Dad raced to the guestroom where Mum lay resting, Merry and I close on his heels.
“You girls go to your room,” he said, “and shut the door behind you.” Before long, I heard Mum crying, and yelling at Dad.
“You’re a liar! How dare you!”
Her anger pierced my body. The pain in her voice reminded me of the time I fell against a metal doorstop, and gouged my knee open to the bone.
“Get out, Alden,” she said. “Get out!”
My father entered our bedroom and dropped to his knees. He pulled us to him, buried his wet face in our chests and shared the burden of a secret he’d kept for four years: “Your mother’s … sick. You’re going to have to be big girls now.”
I was nine. Merry, only five, started bawling. With everyone else in tears, I decided to save mine, concentrating on the way Dad’s scalp gleamed, pink between the black hairs of his crew cut.
* * *
As Mum’s Parliament continued smoldering in the sofa, she managed to call Dad from the phone he had installed nearby – a safety measure in her shrinking world. Terrified after hearing her coughing, garbled words, and the click that led to silence, Dad phoned a neighbor. “Louise, please, check on Barbara. Something’s terribly wrong. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
A plume of smoke escaped through the front door as Louise opened it. Stunned, she backed away, screaming for help. Two men working on a nearby roof came running. They charged into the house, carried Mum out, and risked returning a second time to remove the burning sofa.
I arrived home from junior high later that day to find the charred remains of Grandma’s burgundy brocade sofa sitting on the front lawn. I swallowed hard and shook my head. If only I were standing at the wrong address. Now, what?
It was one thing to have Mum’s problems be a secret we kept behind closed doors. A barbequed sofa on the lawn was sure to get the neighbors talking. I hated that – people asking about Mum like they cared, their faces pierced with pity for the poor Burghardt girls. But they didn’t know what I knew – the strength of Mum’s will and how hard I prayed to God every night for a miracle.
My parents stopped talking when I joined them in the living room. Never a good sign. Dad stood by the fireplace, still in his suit and bowtie. Mum sat in my wing chair, the chair whose generous lap I cuddled into after Sunday school to read Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
“Mum?” I knelt by her, my arms embracing her legs.
“I’m fine, my Lil’ Dumpling. Worry about the divan,” she said, patting my head. Nobody said “divan” except my mother. Or “Lil’ Dumpling” for that matter. I closed my eyes to avoid gazing at the space where she always sat, but the acrid odor of smoke permeated my denial.
“If it weren’t for those good Samaritans,” Dad said, his ruddy complexion pale, “your mother could have died today.” His voice quivered before dropping off the cliff from which we all dangled.
The next day an inside-page headline of the Greensburg Tribune-Review read: “Two Men Save Woman’s Life.”
The possibility of flames engulfing Mum and melting her like candle wax, or her suffocating from smoke inhalation, never fully registered with me. Worrying more about my friends’ parents reading the newspaper and spreading the word became my defense mechanism. Sure, those brave roofers deserved recognition, but how was I supposed to explain to my friends with “normal” moms that mine almost burned our house down?
In truth, the sofa fire had followed a series of mishaps where Mum had dropped a Parliament or missed her pink, glass ashtray. Telltale burn marks meandered like squirrel-tracks across the end table, sofa arm, and her clothing, but the fire changed the stakes. Dad insisted Mum stop smoking.
“I beg your pardon? Alden, don’t exaggerate,” she said. “For Christ’s sake, I only dropped a cigarette.” But even I could see the gravity of the situation.
Dad paced, running his hands over his head and down the back of his neck. “You must stop, Barbara. What if no one had been around?”
“Look, Alden, this is my life.” Mum raised her voice as if drowning out Dad would solve the matter. “You have a lot of gall denying me my one single pleasure. You try sitting around here all day long. See how you like it.”
Tears welled, tears she refused to shed. I’m certain she’d have stomped out of the room if she could have, but you can’t stomp with a walker.
“Barbara darling, no Parliament is worth your life.”
“Cut the melodrama, Alden. I’ll damn well have a cigarette, whenever I God damn please.”
Her comeback didn’t make sense. How was she going to get Parliaments without Dad’s help? She was confined to the house.
A terrifying thought surfaced from the depths of me: What if her railing against dependency was nothing but a futile cause now that her uncompromising mind operated separately from her uncooperative body?
Dad gazed at Mum, helplessness rounding the broad shoulders she loved about him from the moment they had met. I could tell he wanted to heal her, wanted to save the day. Ever the scientist, he’d grown incessant about finding a cure for MS.
“If I can find the cause,” he said, “I can find the cure. What’s the answer?”
Several theories qualified – rats in the water supply of their first Boston apartment, the stress of his moving Mum more than 500 miles from her beloved mother. And genetics. Her mother had suffered for years with rheumatoid arthritis.
Dad took a deep breath. Blew air out with a whoosh. Another slide of a hand over his head and down his neck. “All right, Barbara Boo Boo, I’ll purchase your Parliaments if you promise to drape fireproof material over your lap when you smoke.”
She took the deal.
I admired Dad for his creative mind – key to his success as a metallurgist assigned to invent the hardest carbide in the world for drill bits and tire studs. Sometimes though, his brilliance turned obsessive when applied to problems on the home front.
While I filed the fire in my “calamity-averted” bin, Dad donated generously to the fire department and studied fire prevention brochures as diligently as he did the Bible. When he bought yards of thick, braided rope from Westmoreland Supply, worry drove me to follow him upstairs to my bedroom. I watched as he tied one end of the rope around the leg of my bed, coiled the rest into a beehive, and positioned the beehive on the floor beneath the window.
Next, a training session for Merry and me: “Girls, in case of a fire, feel the door, blah, blah, blah,” he said, demonstrating by running his hands over the door as we rolled our eyes behind his back, “…door too hot or should the stairs be blocked, blah, blah, blah, cast the rope out the window and shinny down.”
Now he had my attention. I stuck my head out the window and estimated the distance to be just about three lengths of me. Who was he kidding? Count me out. My fearless sister – maybe. Although I had five years on her, she had six inches on me. That girl dove off the high board, hung upside down from swing-set tops, and didn’t even cry when she broke her arm.
“Looks easy,” Merry said.
That figured. No way was I, the “Belly-Smacker Queen,” chosen last for every team sport, shinnying anywhere. Besides, Dad called me “fragile.” I wasn’t about to leap to my death. I’d rely on good Samaritans like the roofers to save me.
* * *
A few months after my parents instituted the fireproof lap-cover, a prickly rash crept over my body. Pins and needles stabbed at my skin as if red ants had set up a picnic site. I scratched, jiggled at my desk seat, left school early, sat down, stood up, and cried into my pillow at night. The dermatologist asked if my family had changed bathing soap or laundry detergent and prescribed some cream.
“Bloody hell. I washed the lap-cover with your clothes.” Dad said when I told him about the doctor’s questions. He turned off the color TV he bought to make Mum’s days less dull. “Your clothes are loaded with fiberglass!”
And that was the end of that. Dad refused to buy cigarettes and Mum didn’t argue. I felt guilty. She shed soft, soundless tears from her Wedgwood-blue eyes. This scared me more than her screaming.
After the fire, life went on in our smoke-free, couch-less house. But it sounded different after Dad stopped buying Parliaments. No foil crinkling inside the flip-top lid, no lighter wheel clicking, no more whispered inhales and exhales. I never witnessed again Mum retrieving a stray piece of tobacco from her tongue with thumb and forefinger – an image exiled in memory.
To ease the transition, Dad arranged for Thomas’ Drugstore to deliver Russell Stover Nut, Chewy, and Crisp Chocolates to Mum every week. The one-pound box of love came topped with an elegant copper-colored bow.
Eventually the nicotine stains on Mum’s fingers disappeared, as did the Hollywood glamour I once associated with her smoking. Sure, she had chocolate-covered cashews, caramels, and butter brittle. And I no longer had to empty vile-smelling ashtrays. But at twelve, I didn’t covet fancy chocolate candy or care about cleanliness. I just wanted my starlet mother, my independent, in-charge mother, my stand-on-her-own-two-feet mother, back. I wanted her back, the way she used to be – in the days when she smoked Parliaments.
Deborah Burghardt’s creative non-fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals. As past director of Women and Gender Studies at Clarion University, she devoted 20 years to helping other women tell their stories. She and her husband divide their time between Clarion, Pennsylvania, and Fort Myers, Florida.
This story originally appeared in Eckerd College’s Sabal Review, Volume 10.