Transgression by the Sip

Posted July 31, 2015

As number four of five children I should have known if I was alone with my mother I must be in trouble.

Early one morning she announced, “You and I are going out for high tea this afternoon.”

Reflexively nervous I asked, “Just the two of us?”

She nodded. My mind went wild. What had I done to deserve a one-on-one punishment so far from my room? A bit nervous and a lot confused I walked out the back door and visited our horse Queenie. She and Mom were close. Queenie might know what this was all about.

On that arid August afternoon I rode alone with Mom in the car. We made the leisurely drive in silence… I certainly wasn’t going to start a conversation.

Why would I give her opportunity to dispense wisdom laced with punishment? I pretended to be carefree and casually gazed out the window of her three-speed stick shift, banana yellow Camaro. It was a cool car, for a mom.

The between-place bliss a car ride affords encouraged me to relax my anticipation of punishment. I actually began to appreciate the scenery. The magnificent foothills of the Rocky Mountains lined our view to the west. Flat sage-colored land spread east as far as I could see. We passed an occasional herd of red and white beef cows, affectionately known as “Moo Dogs.” About ten miles later we pulled off the main street and turned into a short driveway. Mom parked the car.

The small wooden sign forced into the ground said Tea Room. Behind that stood a tall gingerbread house painted two shades of yellow with lots of brown trim. We got out and made our way up the walk and inside.

First floor rooms were dark and overly cozy with too much furniture in each. The décor was Victorian representing Colorado’s rich 19th century history in gold and silver mining. Layers of tasseled heavy fabric adorned the windows, tables and chairs. A series of adjacent rooms harbored lots of corners, each one dark in genuine character. We were politely seated in one of the front rooms near a bay window. I began to feel special.

Across from our tiny table for two sat a pedal harp. It was black and gold, magnificent! Mom brought me here for an extra special lesson about tea time. Clearly we had discovered a part of heaven and would never want to leave this magical place.

I studied the menu with care. My beverage of choice was TAB whenever I could get one. Today it would have to be tea. I can’t remember the blend we selected, nor the design on the porcelain cups from which we drank. I don’t even remember the finger sandwiches or the flavor of scones served.

Two parts of the trip were unforgettable. First, the pedal harp. Often used as inaudible stage ornaments throughout an orchestral performance, I discovered harps also make loud and breathtakingly beautiful sounds.

Second, between sips of tea sweetened with delicate rose–topped sugar cubes, Mom casually announced, “When I was younger, my mother taught me how to smoke.”

Mid-sip stop.

“What did you just say?” I must have been hearing things.

She repeated, “When I was a young lady my mother taught me how to smoke a cigarette.”

The mental picture of my elderly grandmother lighting up a cigarette wearing white gloves halfway up her biceps was too much. Acting as if this were common knowledge to pass from parent to child, Mom continued to chew modestly. I paused before asking for details.

If I extended this conversation it would require polite, inquisitive manners. Why? My mother was a smoker. Not your pack-a-day type. She smoked two L&M cigarettes every evening of my life. Every evening, anywhere. At the Holiday Inn in Orange County, California as we all rested up to experience Disneyland the next morning. At a hostel in Switzerland after we had cuddled into beds heaped with down comforters and pillows. Didn’t matter. Once children were tucked in and the night sky reported another day’s end the red and white cellophane covered soft pack would appear. She would sit outside on a balcony or patio wherever possible. And she smoked. Never one, never three, but two cigarettes.

During colder months at home she smoked at the kitchen table with our dog Mele close by. In warmer months she smoked on the front porch in a rattan chair. She drank a tall glass of iced tea and snubbed out the pair of cigarettes in a blue plastic ashtray occupying the top of an orange plastic parson’s table.

At school one year we saw a display of tar-covered lungs. One of us kids mentioned a connection between cancer and cigarette smoking at our dinner table. Mom’s voice dialed up so anyone and everyone could hear. “I have discussed this with Dr. Gillette. He explained that two cigarettes a day would not cause any real harm to anyone.” No discussion would follow. Dr. Gillette had delivered at least two of us. He was the trusted physician and a family friend. Enough said.

Reasons for habits can be hazy. I always felt Mom’s smoking habit was odd. She never lit up in a restaurant, at a dinner party in our home, or any place remotely public. Perhaps for her it was  truly a habit, not an addiction.

Shuffling through an old desk drawer full of family pictures once I came across a photo of Mom in an off-the-shoulder black cocktail dress. Laughing with friends she was elegantly posed holding a lit cigarette. She seemed mysterious, sophisticated, a bit wild, and exceptionally happy. Intriguing.

I was ready to dig for every detail about these smoking lessons. I mentally organized my impending interrogation. But paused.

Caution was required. Just a month before, I had smoked for the first time. A pack of cigarettes with words printed in Russian had sat undisturbed for years in the drawer of a living room table used to hold a deep red pedestal-footed candy dish and a lamp for reading. Mid-afternoon kept my brothers glued to Star Trek. Mom was busy at the neighbor’s across the road. My stealthy fingers silently removed two loosely wrapped cigs from the pack. I slipped a book of matches from the kitchen cupboard into my jeans pocket, nonchalantly walked out the back door, and headed for the tree garden on the west side of the house. There I would be guaranteed complete privacy.

My first inhalation was more of a choke than a taste. The tar burned the lining of both sides of my throat and my ear canals. Perhaps details of her lessons would clarify what I had done wrong.

“Do you mean Nana gave you lessons on how to hurt your lungs?”

Mom went on to explain that when she was younger, ladies over 18 were expected to smoke, or a least hold a cigarette in their hand on certain occasions. Indeed she reported, “Eleanor Roosevelt was seen smoking in public. That made it even more acceptable.”

The scene in that kitchen must have been illuminating: Mom and Nana, sitting in far away Cleveland reviewing proper techniques and etiquette for smoking. All of which would identify her as unmistakably upper class. Unbelievable.

“You mean there were rules about how and when to smoke?” I had to ask.

She described the specifics. “Of course there were rules including appropriate places where it was acceptable.” She added more details. “A lady should never inhale. She should hold the cigarette away from her mouth until a gentleman strikes the match to light it. And always sit with good posture until the cigarette tip is lit; never lean forward.” My eyes widened, my jaw relaxed. “And gloves should be worn to avoid marking her hands with the odor of smoke and discouraging fingernail stains.”

There it was. Her instructions for smoking, correctly.

A formal lesson like this seemed extreme. I couldn’t imagine my mother having that kind of conversation with me, ever. Instilled at birth, however, manners and the benefits of those prescribed habits were understood to be essential. In Mom’s social circles, etiquette was used as a method of division—those who practiced it versus everyone else. We were expected to be in the first category—always.

Exhaustive descriptions of the kitchen classroom lessons continued. Convinced this was one more way to advocate correctness in all things my curiosity waned. Instead my ears trained on the resonating notes of the harp suspended in the afternoon sunlight.

Just at that moment of restful space in music, reality intruded.

I understood the reason I was there. Her sudden interest in spending time alone with me in a tea room miles away from all things familiar…

Absolute clarity.

My heartbeat quickened. My face flushed. The air was old, oppressive. I sat up straight, folded my hands and rested them properly on my lap.

No doubt about it. Mom had discovered the missing Russian cigarettes.

The purpose of this lovely, relaxing day was revealed. Truly limitless were the techniques at her disposal for reprimanding children. Yes, she explained the rules of etiquette. Yes, they were important to memorize and practice. And yes, these rules had changed. Young ladies smoking in 1942 was expected. Ten-year-olds in 1968? Not.

But how could she know I was the thief? Where had I gone wrong?

Shifting my thoughts from panic to penance, I sat. We sat. The harpist left the room. The magic went with her.

Lesson learned.

Mom knew I had committed a wrong. She possessed paranormal powers of perception. She always knew.

This adventurous trip, just the two of us, was never about tea at all.