This went through pretty major revisions, so I want to keep both around. Let me know what you think!
The day my mom sat my younger sister
and me down to tell us that she smoked,
the windows were shoved wide open
to let in the summertime. I was eighteen
and laughing. I found the whole affair comical –
from Mom’s seriousness to the look of surprise
on my little sister’s stunned face –
because one of my close friends, a smoker
himself, had ratted Mom out months ago
after she asked him for a light. He’d said
he just couldn’t keep a secret from me
and so I knew, had been surprised, but then
the novelty had worn off and I’d forgotten.
We sat at the kitchen table and listened
as our mom said she’d been smoking off and on
for years; just cloves, she said, not real cigarettes.
She’d always espoused a firm belief
in the evils of nicotine and tobacco
yet here she was, telling us she lit up
to smoke away stress after long days at work,
as if this reasoning redeemed the act.
Her smoking was the perfect example
of the Do what I say, not what I do mindset
that ruled our house, repeated about speeding
tickets, curse words, and now, smoking.
She said that she couldn’t keep lying to us –
we were old enough to know the truth.
I laughed, marveling at how quickly I’d forgotten
what once seemed so earth-shattering, so unlike
the woman who was my mother,
and also a person. Mom cackled too,
when I explained why I was laughing.
But the look on my younger sister’s face
was one of shock, as if the world had lurched
beneath her feet. She watched as we shared this
mutual amusement without her, which she found
too upsetting to be funny. She blinked and opened
her mouth wide like a goldfish. Or maybe
she looked exactly like a young bird, open
mouth waiting for food from its mother.
She was the kind of young bird that falls
out of a tree because it can’t quite fly
yet, and is completely flabbergasted
to find that its spindly feet just touched ground.