Leslie F. Miller

Smiling, Smoking Mom 

The week before my mother was to kill herself, she started working a second job at the Jewish Community Center in Zionsville outside of Indianapolis. We lived in Indiana during my family’s two worst years of existence. Dad sold costume jewelry for Turner and Rankin, a company owned by “Fucking Stan Turner”—as my dad called him before invoking Jesus H. Christ. Dad was a traveling salesman and only came home for weekends before he scooped us up and plopped us down in Indiana in the summer of 1969 to spend more time with us. I was seven and my sister Beth was four when we traded our Randallstown, Baltimore County, split-level with above-ground pool in backyard for a dingy townhouse in the Indianapolis suburbs so Dad could be closer to his company’s Cleveland, Ohio, headquarters, from which Fucking Stan Turner and That Asshole Mike Rankin fired him a year later.

That’s when my mom started working nights at the JCC and began plotting her suicide.

A week before Mom became a part-time home-economics teacher, which involved teaching women and girls how to sew and make tuna casserole, she hocked her two-carat engagement ring to buy groceries. She got $400 for her ring, and with it, she paid a bill or two and cheered up Dad, who spent all day circling and crossing out help-wanted ads, drinking instant coffee, pacing, and muttering cuss words under his breath. I knew the words and was fond of repeating them when I was pissed off (I mostly cussed at my dog and my sister). Mom bought two steaks, one for Dad and one for Beth and me to split (she didn’t care for meat and would eat her leftover tuna casserole). I got more steak because Beth hadn’t quite figured out the chewing-swallowing thing. Sometimes she’d leave food tucked in her cheeks for hours because the wad had grown too big to swallow. Each night, Mom stuck a finger inside Beth’s mouth to clear out the leftovers.

When the three of us got home with the groceries—steaks, potatoes, canned beans, tuna, peanut butter, lunch meat, and Nescafé for Dad, which he drank in a squatty glass mug etched with a map of the world—Beth and I flopped down in front of the TV to do homework and watch an ABC After-School Special. For a while, Hercules, our snappish Airedale, stayed with us, quietly panting and turning his head sideways when the TV dog barked. But when the doorbell rang, it set off yet another link in the chain of events that led to my mother’s suicidal ideation.

The girl next door, Jenny, wanted to borrow ketchup. Hercules would have been all over Jenny—she always smelled like her horse, Cocoa—but steak smelled better than horses. And when my mother went to fetch the ketchup from the fridge, Hercules was scarfing down the second steak. He nearly bit off Mom’s arm when she tried to snatch back part of the t-bone. The night wasn’t exactly ruined for us. After Mom had her big cuss and cry and made the decision she should have made after Hercules bit the mailman to take our dog to the SPCA, Dad hugged her and took us to Lum’s with a bit of money he’d got from hocking all of Fucking Stan Turner’s jewelry samples, except for one gold-plated star for Beth and a sterling silver star for me, which he was supposed to return to them. It paid the rent for at least two months. It also paid to have our phone number changed and marked “unlisted.”

Looking at the picture of her taken by Barbara, who got her the job at the JCC, you’d never know what she was thinking. In it, she’s smiling big and smoking a Pall Mall in the staff lounge. She’d quit her pack-a-day habit when she was pregnant with my sister and only smoked occasionally, like when she played mahjong or when she was stressed out, like the night of the dog-eaten steaks. The cigarette in the photo came from the pack she’d gotten on the way to Lum’s. You could still smoke in restaurants then, and I think two cigarettes and a Coke were all she had for dinner. Every day that week, Mom got home from her first job as a third-grade teacher at Pleasant Plains Elementary School, which she called Peasant Pains, added the day’s mail to the stack of unopened envelopes, and lit up. She stood with one hand on her hip, flicking ashes into the sink, and waited until my father came down from the den, at which time they’d fight about his job-hunting progress.  But we all knew he was looking as hard as any human being could look.

The JCC staff lounge was an ugly square room with two card tables, ten folding chairs, a bunch of full ashtrays, a sink, and a refrigerator. No windows but two walls had framed wall-size murals—one of a beach with palm trees, the other showing an aquarium. Mom took Beth and me there that Friday after school because Dad had gone for an interview at a paint company. We weren’t to tell anyone that Dad lost his job, especially not Barbara, who was a gossip. So Beth colored, and I read The Phantom Tollbooth, which my mom had “borrowed” from the playroom (I still have the “Property of the JCC”-stamped copy). I looked up when the flash from the Polaroid went off, and Barbara let Beth wave the picture around the room until the image of smiling, smoking Mom materialized.

When we got home that night, Mom wasn’t smiling anymore. She brought in the mail that included a certified letter from the City of Cleveland. You could hear the panic in her breath and footsteps. She put the letter on the counter, separate from the pile of mail, dropping it like a boiling hot egg. Then she sent us to the living room to eat cereal in front of the TV.  When Dad came home from his interview, the two of them whispered loudly in the dining room, Mom gesturing toward the envelope in the kitchen. Neither of them touched it.

On Saturday morning, the letter was still in the same spot. Beth and I took Hercules to the park at the bottom of our court, and when we came back, Mom was on the phone. I heard her say “Baltimore.” The word stuck in my mind because I desperately wanted to go back home. We stood with the door partially open, listening, Beth fidgeting and asking “What?” a little too loudly. “Are you sure?” my mother was asking. “What if someone is waiting for them at the airport? …How long has that been a rule? …OK, thank you.” And then she hung up. We left Hercules on the leash and, tiptoeing, pulled him through the hall to the living room and let him out in the backyard.

Beth ran toward the kitchen when she heard Mom crying and asked her what was wrong. Mom asked if we girls would like to go visit Grammy in Baltimore. “Yes!” I yelled from the other room. We talked about driving there and were planning all the things we’d see on the way. Beth and I were excited, but Mom just cried again.

When Dad died in Baltimore last spring, I was almost 50. Beth and I found the picture of smiling, smoking Mom while we were helping her pack up the house to move. That’s when she told us the behind-the-scenes story of the week she almost killed herself. She would have, she said, “but you were too young to fly.” She was already so desperate, having hocked her ring and taken a second job. But it was the certified letter from the City of Cleveland that she refused to open and that had her making plans. She was so sure my father was being sued for not returning the jewelry samples that she couldn’t bear to learn the consequences. So she spent that weekend calling bus companies and Amtrak. Finally, she asked our grandmother to come for a visit so that she could take us back home with her. She would call in sick to school and kill herself in the garage while we were gone.

Beth was too young to remember much, but I recalled it all. I only didn’t know about Mom’s suicide plans.

“Your grandmother came and immediately started rifling through the mail,” Mom told us. “She’d click her tongue every time she walked by the stack of letters. And then she found the certified envelope. She couldn’t believe I hadn’t opened it and wasn’t planning to do it herself until I told her it was a federal crime to open someone else’s mail. She looked at the letter and slapped it down on the counter.” Mom paused the story and started laughing.

“And?”

“Your grandmother said, ‘Well, call the authorities, Carol! Your no-good husband racked up a one-dollar parking ticket.’ She told me I’d laugh about it one day. I guess the day finally came,” she said. Then, smiling, she set the photograph on the pile of things she wasn’t going to keep.

© Leslie F. Miller

Leslie F. Miller likes to break things and put them back together in a random, yet tasteful, order. She is the author of Let Me Eat Cake: A Celebration of Flour, Sugar, Butter, Eggs, Vanilla, Baking Powder, and a Pinch of Salt  (nonfiction, Simon & Schuster, 2009) and  BOYGIRLBOYGIRL (poetry, Finishing Line Press, 2012). Ms. Miller resides in Baltimore.