Grandmother Betty watched cable television in the dark. And though her house was a monstrosity, she lived in the kitchen, staring at the tube in the adjacent den while opening and shutting the microwave door for her grown-up son, Michael, who was too mentally gone to leave home.
Betty fed her dog, Bo, Hamburger Helper, and swapped out her white car every six months before it could yellow like her neglected, stained dentures. My parents said she got those teeth for eating too many sweets. I’d never seen her without the fakes, but I thought about them all the time. Her teeth hijacked my dreams. I looked in bathroom cupboards and inside basement boxes, thinking I might find a stray tooth. No luck. She kept them secret.
Betty got me everything I wanted at Christmas. I sent a list, and the packages arrived. She slept in a separate bed from her husband, yet in the same room. She drank her coffee black and made second-morning pots, mid-day pots, evening pots, and go-to-bed pots.
But more than anything, Grandmother Betty was a champion smoker.
Looking back, I see Betty pulling up in front of our house for a weekend visit. I see her at my high school graduation. I see her laughing at the Chapel Hill News. I see her eating meatloaf and Pillsbury biscuits. I see her lounging by the pool as I jump off the high dive. I see her driving. And inside each vignette, Betty is covered in an ocean of smoke, ashing in her left palm as each buttery cigarette ignites near her lips. Smoking was her air.
At six years old, the mystery of Betty’s smoking excited me. And though my parents preached of the evils of nicotine and tar, besides Betty’s occasional, slaughtered cough, her smoking had little consequence except that I found myself feeling sorry for the cigarettes. She lit them up one after the other, and I watched as their lives began and went. I never understood the ones she killed off early when the entire shaft of tobacco seemed eager to burn and billow more smoke. But Betty didn’t mind. Another was always eagerly waiting, like an understudy who knows the actor will bow out sick. A hanger-on, a second-string, a fill-in, a co-pilot, a replacement. Betty gave them all a chance and loved them equally. Phone call cigarettes, making dinner cigarettes, washing the dishes cigarettes, reading the TV Guide cigarettes, tucking me in to bed cigarettes–this is the last one in the pack cigarettes. Like ants stake out crumbs of sugar and hoard their score, Betty kept a cabinet full of Winston cartons, stacked neatly next to the zipped-up china she never used. The shelves of cartons, however, meant nothing. Who was counting? What was to count? When the pack is done, another is opened…simple. But rather than be annoyed at the brief intermission of ripping plastic, and the quick jerk of a miniscule, golden rip-chord, Betty opened each pack with calm gusto. New friends were always waiting for a brief, intimate encounter.
My sister was hospitalized twice before the age of sixteen for her chronic asthma, and, as a result, Betty had a medical grade, air cleaning system put in her house to make her thousands of smoke clouds turn into clean, virgin air. Despite the system, our clothes and hair always took home the fumes. We smelled like ashtrays and washed our hair three times, trying to rinse out Betty. It never worked.
Whenever Betty was visiting our house, Mom and Dad forced her to the back yard. My sister and I watched from the bay window as Betty fought off our Welsh Corgi and Black Lab in the dead of winter between soothing, long drags.
The weather didn’t faze her. Most of the time, she didn’t even take her jacket. Alone in the cold, she meditated, contemplated…happily. With my face, pressed against the three-pain glass, I wanted her purple lighter. I wanted her sacred puffs. I wanted her cigarette. I wanted her magic.