When I was twelve, my best friend “Michelle” got the first Walkman I ever saw. Our mothers were best friends so I expected that once I told my mom that Michelle got a Walkman, she would run out and buy me one too. But my mother was not socially savvy in the ways that are important. She never cared about things like keeping up with the Joneses. She thought the Joneses were idiots. In fact, the more money she and my father made, the worse she insisted we live. Gone went my father’s Cadillac. Why drive a new car with excellent reliability when you can pay $250 for my cousin’s twelve-year-old Chevy Nova with rusted panels that was in the repair shop once a month? She loved trying to shock people by driving a shitbox. “Reverse Chic” my mother called it. “Irrational” was how the neighbors saw it.
My mother wasn’t fooling anyone pretending to be poor. A compulsive shopper by nature, by the time I was in high school she had amassed a fleet of these shitboxes. There was the Nova shitbox that started her collection, then came the Mercury Cougar shitbox, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme shitbox, the Buick Skylark shitbox, and the Pontiac Grand Safari shitbox.
She appeared to have a special fondness for buying the cars of the deceased. I drove to high school each day in the car previously owned by our deceased travel agent who died unexpectedly in her fifties. Another shitbox had been owned by the mother of a good friend who died after a long battle with cancer. No car cost more than a few hundred dollars and none could be described as attractive. They all suffered from rust covered in a lumpy Bondo DIY repair from my father. Not all the panels were the same exact color. Trim might be there. Might not. Matching hubcaps was never a guarantee.
She once bought a BMW shitbox and bragged to my sister about what a fancy car she had gotten, what a steal! she said. My sister replied that she was surprised my mother bought a German car, since she had always declared she would never travel to Germany or buy German products, unlike our Jewish neighbors who had no issue with driving a Mercedes a mere thirty years after the Holocaust. My mother looked at my sister, surprised, and said, “It’s not a German car. It’s a British car. The BMW stands for British Motor Works." “No, Mom,” my sister corrected, “It stands for Bavarian Motor Works. It’s made in Germany.” My mother was stunned silent. That car didn’t last long in her fleet.
At one point my parents had ten of these so-called bargains. “How many people can say they own ten cars?” my mother boasted. But she’d spend 10 times the amount she paid for the shitboxes just to keep them running.
As you would imagine, eventually my parents ran out of room in their driveway to park all their shitboxes so they started parking them on the street, in front of our house and sometimes in front of the neighbors’. There were just too many of them to keep contained. More than once a stranger called the house demanding that my parents take their shitboxes off the street. The cars were just too ugly for the delicate sensibilities of our upper-middle class neighborhood. “Thanks for calling,” my father would genially reply before hanging up. They kept those shitboxes right where they were.
Two weeks ago my mother turned 81 years old. This is especially impressive when you consider that she’s been a smoker all her life. Yes, I know, a doctor who smokes—you can take a second to absorb that. At the height of her habit, she smoked two packs-a-day. But the aging process has been hell. Now she’s only able to manage a single pack-a-day. It’s been hard watching her having to accept that she’s no longer able to do many of the things she used to.
Whenever I remember my childhood, I see my mother with a cigarette in her hand. Always. And always with at least a 1/4 of an inch of ash at the tip. I’ve seen her get it as long as 3/4 of an inch. It was amazing how long she could grow her ash, something of an ash erection, if you will.
I used to worry that she’d get sick from all the smoking but so far nothing. Nada. Zip. She’s one of the healthiest old ladies I know. So I’ve been thinking that since she’s been both a doctor and a smoker for the past 50 years, maybe she knows something we don’t know? Like wouldn’t it be crazy if after all this time we find out that the tobacco companies were right—smoking is the key to longevity!
I think the real lesson of my mother is, if you’re going to smoke, smoke a lot. I mean really commit. Because after a lifetime of smoking, my mother’s body is so toxic even the cancer cells don’t want to live there. There’s no healthy tissue left for cancer to feed on. Cancer would literally starve to death in my mother’s body.