The Weight of Smoke
When my mom was thirteen, she threatened to kill her stepdad Jack with a steak knife. Grandma stayed with her husband and sent Mom to juvenile detention.
For a few months when I was in middle school, my family moved in with Grandma and Jack. We were building a new house in a new suburb, but it was behind schedule and we’d already sold our old house. Grandma’s house smelled like cigarette smoke mixed with dog, though her three German Shepherds had died years ago. The smell lingered, so much so that you’d choose to leave a nice purse or coat in the car when you visited. I’d learn it was a smell tinged with the remnants of alcoholism and abuse.
Living there, we were immersed in smoke. Jack had a cigarette in his hand from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed. Smoke was his personal halo. His skin was yellow-gray, his thoughts distracted as though his brain had never quite learned how to be sober after so many years of alcoholism. The only time he left the house was to hit up Media Play and Best Buy, purchasing stacks of CDs he’d never listen to and movies he’d never watch. They sat shrink-wrapped in the basement, gathering layers of smoke, dust, and debt. I didn’t understand for some time what it truly cost my mother to live in the same house with him again.
Even as an adult, I don’t know the full story around Mom’s time in juvie. I don’t even know what caused her to finally try to kill him. There could’ve been plenty of reasons. Jack’s drinking made him violent and mean. According to my mother, he stockpiled junk food that he would not allow her to eat. He called her a cunt and slammed her head onto the pavement.
Mom taught us two words to never say: “cunt” and “grandpa.” My brother and I never met her biological father—we only knew Jack, and even then he was not the Jack she had known. He was done with drinking by the time I was born, though he wouldn’t give up smoking until it nearly killed him. Until after Mom and me and grandma stood around what we all swore would be his deathbed, watching him breathe through a tube. His doughy white flesh spreading over the hospital bed made me feel, for a moment, sorry for him. During his time in the hospital, Mom started slipping me stories, filling in her past so that I could see why she had no sympathy for a dying man. When he pulled through, I wondered if maybe you could sell your soul to the devil.
I can’t help but wonder what pieces of this past are in me, what’s inherited beneath the surface. I have Grandma’s hips and Mom’s freckle in the center of my nose. I have her temper, too, white-hot, flashing out of nowhere. I know there are reasons why Mom is quick to snap to judgment, why forgiveness isn’t in her vocabulary, but it’s hard to separate the environment from the person it produced. What is nature, and what is nurture? What drives a teenager to pick up a knife and attempt to kill? How much of that lives on in me, and what might it take to bring it out?
Smoke has followed me my entire life. The stench of it lingers in my memory, settles in my mouth. Mom was a smoker when we were kids, and it seems strange to me now that she picked up the habit, learning it as she did from the man she wanted dead. It seems we can’t always help following in the footsteps of the people who raised us. I’ve never smoked, not even one puff. I keep within the lines and follow the rules. I don’t know what might happen if I break them.
Like my mother, I have felt rage run a current deep inside my bones, but unlike her, I’ve chosen to forgive. Like my grandmother, I’ve made myself small to let a man walk over me—but that was only once. Are we the sum of the parts passed on to us, some pre-determined amalgam of past generations? It is too soon and I am too young to tell if these patterns will hold or if I’ll break them, too soon to tell if, like paper lit aflame, in some alchemy of fire and smoke, we can become something new.
Amanda Kay is an MFA candidate at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. She is a contributing writer for Book Riot, and her essays have appeared in the Ohio River Review, and Greatist. She is the Creative Nonfiction editor at Newfound Journal.