Today, I watched my car as it was towed away, destined for charity auction and some vague promise of a tax-deductible donation certificate. It was my mom's car. She'd given it to me when she got diagnosed, so that I could visit her more frequently before she died, which ended up being about six weeks after we transferred the title. It's gotten me around for five years now. Much like (or not at all like) my fantasy of how long I'd get to have Mom around, the time came too soon to part with the '96 Corolla. I got side swiped in May, and due to ambiguous liability in the crash, and lack of collision insurance on my part, I just couldn't afford to fix it. And, really, ultimately, I can't afford the insurance, gas, 100,000 mile service and repairs and regular maintenance anyway. It was time to say good bye.
I wrote a slightly different version of this piece a few years ago, not too long after Mom died:
Mom lights a cigarette, and I go into my defensive stance. Recently, I've taken to pulling my tee shirt up to cover my mouth and nose, so I can breathe through the cleansing filter of 100% brushed cotton.
“They brainwashed you at that anti-drug conference, Bree.” She's offended.
“I was in junior high when I went to that conference.” My eyes are still on the TV.
“That's when you started covering your nose,” she insists.
“It's disgusting, Ma, I don't wanna breathe it.”
“You don't seem to mind when your friends smoke. I know B and your other friends smoke.”
“Mom, I'm not pickling in a house full of cigarette smoke when I'm with my friends.” I look over at her. She ashes her cigarette onto an empty plate nearby. “I hate it when my friends smoke, too.”
A commercial comes on; I can tell by the volume of the broadcast. There isn't a thought that Mom would eventually get lung cancer and die from it. Dad had died of a heart attack, and somehow I just figured she would, too. It wasn't clear to me then that smoking was implicated in heart disease as well; it just seemed like cancer was too obvious, too direct a consequence. I thought she'd just keep on smoking True Green 100's for the next fifty years, til she suddenly died at a very old age. Dad died too young; Mom would not.
I drive her car now. It's a 1996 Toyota Corolla, and owing to Mom's relatively short driving radius, it only has 60,000 miles on it. I've put on 10,000 of those just in the last eight months. It's smelling less of stale cigarettes now, but I think the tar and nicotine essence has a half life that will leach indefinitely from the upholstery.
Cradled in the drink rest below the dashboard is a diminutive ceramic mug, handle long broken off, rough nubs in place of the two points of attachment. It's a mug I made for Mom when I took a ceramics class my senior year of high school, and it lived for many years, largely unused, in her kitchen cabinet with other cups and odds and ends. At some point, long after the handle had broken off, it became her overflow car ashtray, and while the glazed cobalt blue stripes remain sharp and bright these twenty years later, the inside is coated with ashy soot and the ghosts of stamped out cigarette butts.
I remember vividly the “M.A.S.H.” series finale in 1982, when I was ten, the scene with Hawkeye on the bus and the South Korean woman who killed the chicken sitting in her lap, so that its shrieks wouldn't give away the envoy's position to the North Koreans. Only Hawkeye had to have a couple of sessions with Sydney, the visiting army shrink, to uncover his distorted memory of the incident: the “chicken” was actually this woman's baby.
“She smothered her own baby!” Hawkeye wailed in cathartic horror, the horror of the whole war.
I'm angry that the car still smells of cigarettes, the recirculated air from the heater kicking up more stale smoke every time I run it. I'm angry that she picked the ceramic mug I'd made her as a makeshift ashtray: what a wholly sentimental use of your kid's ceramics project.
As it was with M.A.S.H., it's deeply good that the anger and the grief give way to comedy, eventually.