By Beverly Willett
Four years ago, my youngest daughter and I flew to Italy to celebrate her 16th birthday. I’d been saving up frequent flyer miles for a decade. She’d been setting aside birthday and Christmas money from her grandmother to buy clothes. We couldn’t afford the couture houses, but my daughter wanted to shop in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, before we took the train to Venice.
As our trip grew closer, I realized I’d never gone on a mother-daughter trip with my mother. Back then I never even heard of anyone taking what has become de rigueur today. But those were different times: My mother was born during the Depression; I was a late baby boomer. Unlike my citified daughter, I grew up in a family of modest means in a small rural conservative town. Even now, the rigid roles of parent and child are occasionally still evident between me and my own mom.
In fact, I didn’t even know she smoked until the week after my father died. It was the year I turned 30, and I’d stayed on after the funeral to help my mother organize papers.
I’ve got a secret, she blurted out one night as we picked at leftovers from the covered dish supper held at the church hall after the funeral, my mother breaking down to tell me she needed a cigarette.
How long have you been smoking? I asked, astonished.
Since I was 13, she said. A total of 43 years. My father had been a chain smoker, and Mom hid her smoke behind his during my growing-up years, lighting up only at night with a cup of coffee after I went to bed. Then again while I was in school.
“I knew smoking was wrong,” my Mom had explained. “I didn’t want you to do it.” Back then, whatever was considered dirty laundry was kept well hidden. And if not, it became a scandal. But Mom was distraught over Daddy’s death that night, and so desperate for a smoke, that she came clean.
When she did, I sat there transfixed, realizing for the first time that my mother was undoubtedly a more complicated woman than I’d ever imagined. She’d given me an opening by sharing her secret so I suddenly unloaded mine.
“I like to drink,” I said, spitting out the words. Drinking was against our Southern Baptist religion growing up, and I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until college. I’d kept that fact from my mother, too. And although she still adhered to her childhood faith, I eventually became an Episcopalian, where drinking is allowed.
So that night I told my mother I had a bottle of wine in the car, and minutes later, we sat at her kitchen table breaking bread, Mom with a cigarette dangling from her lips, puffing and exhaling through her nostrils, me sipping wine from her crystal dessert goblet. Me, feeling closer to my mother at that moment than perhaps I ever had. Stunned that she’d taken my revelation equally in stride.
Both full-fledged adults, it had nevertheless taken alcohol, cigarettes and death for us to fully let our guard down. It was a turning point in the slow evolution of our relationship.
I flashed back to this moment more than two decades later as I stood with my 16-year-old daughter in the shadow of the Duomo, the magnificent 14th-century white marble Gothic cathedral in Milan.
Should we go in? I said.
Can we sit outside in one of the cafes first? she asked. The piazza in which the Duomo sits is the city center, and the squares porticoes are lined with shops and cafes.
“Sure,”I agreed. We’d just gone shopping, and I’d snapped photos of her in the dressing room, smiling even as I struggled to rein in my sadness. My daughter was on the cusp of womanhood. The full transition was inevitable, and once it occurred, irreversible. I was savoring my daughter’s last days of childhood.
“You know I’ve had this dream since I knew we were coming,” my daughter said as we stood in the piazza, hesitating before she continued her confession. “I thought it would be cool for us to sit in one of those little cafes and have espresso and smoke a cigarette. My daughter knew how I felt about smoking. The scientific research had become indisputable. And more than a Marlboro pack-a-day had undoubtedly contributed to my father’s too early demise. Maybe my own mother had even somehow saved me from a lifelong habit I might have come to regret.
I drew in my breath as I formulated a response in my head for my own daughter. Somehow I figured this moment in the piazza was a turning point for us, too. I was petrified to make a wrong move. This girl with her still developing brain needed a parent for the many transitions ahead. I would always be her mother and she my child. But one day I hoped I could also be her good friend. And that it wouldn’t take as long for us as it had between me and my own mother.
Mine had been a difficult divorce, too. As the custodial parent who attended to the nitty gritty, I was concerned that I fell into the role of bad cop all too often. It was hard saying no when part of me wanted to say yes.
“Sure”I finally said to my daughter. But you know smoking’s not good for you.
I’m not going to be a smoker like Grandma, my daughter said, giggling as she skipped over the cobblestones and into a tobacco shop to buy cigarettes.
After she returned, our waiter led us to a table. A soft breeze blew through the square during the several attempts it took for my daughter and me to light up. I coughed and mostly pretended to inhale. My daughter looked as expert as Marlene Dietrich as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. “My friends are never going to believe this,” she said. I had to smile. Caffeine and cigarettes (and perhaps a bit of shopping), and for the moment we felt as one.
Beverly Willett lives in Savannah, Georgia after nearly a lifetime in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She’s a proud member of the Peacock Guild writing group at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.