Pall Mall's, a Hefty Bag and Irish Spring (Memories of My Mother)
As Mother's Day approaches, memories of my mother float through my mind.
“All these stuffed animals have to go,” my mother declared through the side of her mouth, not clenching a filter-less red Pall Mall cigarette.
I had just returned from a two-week hospital stay and she was frustrated. She took the cigarette out of her mouth and, holding it between her index and middle fingers, made a sweeping gesture across my shelf and bed.
“Teddy bears, rabbits, dolls - everything into the hefty bag.”
“Please, not Tessie,” I pleaded.
“Do you want to end up in the hospital again?”
“No,” I said quietly.
“No is right. The doctors can’t figure out why you keep having these asthma attacks.” Smoke streamed from her nostrils like a dragon heating up for its next fiery blast. “They said it could be the stuffed animals so in they go.”
I wanted a pet desperately, but the allergist warned against animals because of my asthma, so I had an exaggerated attachment to the plush variety. I looked around at Sad Sam, Snoopy, Woodstock, Molly, Tilly, Paddington. Wasn’t this America? Weren’t they innocent until proven guilty?
I looked at my mother. Her fluffy blonde hair, usually worn in a softer version of the Mary Tyler Moore flip, was clipped back haphazardly. Dark crescents hung below her cornflower blue eyes. She was much too threadbare to entertain a conversation on due process. There’d be no judge. No jury. I hugged Tessie the turtle hard and gently placed her in the black plastic bag.
My mother's petite frame belied a toughness that was honed in Bayonne, New Jersey growing up during the Depression as one of ten kids in an Irish Catholic family. There was no complaining about what we were having for dinner or that you didn’t want to wear hand-me-downs when my mother would come back at you with the story of how she and her sister had to take turns going to school because they were sharing one pair of shoes between them. Her family came from Donegal, Ireland. Her father was a gentle man who loved children and drank his paycheck. She had a strong, strict and sometimes hard-hearted mother who did whatever she had to support her family, including leaving them for months at a time to work as a domestic taking care of other people’s children.
My mother had six children over eighteen years, with three lost pregnancies in between that were never spoken of. She kept her slight figure by living almost entirely on white bread and butter and strong black tea. She would put bars of Irish Spring in dresser drawers and in coffee cups that she placed on tables and bookcases all around our house. Her version of potpourri. She liked the smell, but more than that she liked that it was Irish. She worked every day, came home and cooked dinner every night, and was a professional chain smoker. Red Pall Malls. She had a cigarette lit in every room. It was like incense.
My mother and I had a complicated relationship, as many mothers and daughters do. But when she died of cancer, I was by her side, stroking her hair and holding her hand. And I miss her every day.