Clove Cigarettes (final)

The day our mom sat my younger sister
and me down to tell us that she smoked,
the windows had been 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 I’d found out months before.
My younger self 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 revealed how she’d been smoking off and on
for years; just cloves, she said, not real cigarettes.
As children, we constantly heard her espouse firm
beliefs in the evils of nicotine and tobacco
yet here she was, telling us she lit up
to smoke stress away 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, drawing smoke
into lungs. I laughed, marveling at how quickly
I’d forgotten what once felt so earth-shattering,
so unlike the woman who was my mother.
That was before I left the nest of home, leaving
behind notions of the singular identity
and infallibility of parents. She cackled too,
after I explained my laughter.

But the look on my young sister’s face
was one of shock, as if the world had lurched
beneath her feet, as if our mother had suddenly
sprouted wings. She watched as we shared
this amusement without her, too upset
to find it entertaining. 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 when it can’t quite fly
yet, and is completely flabbergasted
to find that its spindly feet just touched ground.

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