My grandmother smoked Kool cigarettes.
I used the gold cellophane strip that sealed the pack. A narrow piece of plastic posed as an adornment, end to end, fastened with a sliver of saliva.
“Do you like my bracelet?” I held my wrist up for the grown-ups to see.
My grandmother barely acknowledged me through her gauzy haze of smoke. She sat on the plastic-covered couch in the living room and stubbed the butts out in a glass ashtray perched on a wrought iron stand. The ashtray stand was thought to be purely ornamental, part of the heavy furnishings, like the drapery that was always closed, and the weighty accordion doors to the bedrooms that always came off their tracks.The stand made little claw imprints in the red sculptured carpet. I saw the imprints only when my grandmother vacuumed. Otherwise the impressions were hidden, like her smoking habit, like many things in this Brooklyn home.
In the late 1970s there were few public service announcements where a beating heart flat lines and the camera pans to a crumpled cigarette box, a crude reminder of cause and effect, intended to scare the Be-Jesus out of anyone daring to light up.
Yet, somehow smoking was wrong in a more profound way.
Italian grandmothers certainly did not smoke. They cooked elaborate meals on Sundays. They hung out their windows to fasten the linen with clothing pins on lines that flapped in the wind in narrow alley ways that snaked between semi-attached brick houses.
Smoking was for gin mills, not ladies in house dresses. The bell-bottomed, free-love mantra never infiltrated this enclave, which was like any of the ancient walled cities in Italy, except there was no massive stone gate to lock out intruders.
My grandmother and her sister who lived downstairs used the word “tarts” to describe women who smoked.
“Tarts, tarts, tarts.” They would spit the word out like the quick slaps in succession a mother would give her petulant child’s rear end.The bittersweet word dissolved quickly in the air, like cigarette smoke.
Their neighborhood in south Brooklyn was still one of the few all-white neighborhoods anchored by Bernadette’s, an ornate Roman Catholic Church. When people had stopped packing the pews, the church became like a giant compass, a reference point for directions.
“Two blocks right of St. Bernadette’s is the pork store.”
“Make a left on the corner of St. Bernadette’s, and you head onto the Belt Parkway.”
Evoking the name of the church was almost as a good as a prayer.
My grandmother would put her head out the window and yell at my grandfather, “Andrew, after you make the donation at St. Bernadette’s, get the Italian bread.”
What my grandmother did not know was that my grandfather had spent the last $2 in his pocket at the OTB. I learned OTB before my ABC’s. OTB was short for Off-Track Betting. Little OTBs stores – they were called parlors, more befitting a French salon than the grimy joints they were — dotted the neighborhood like poppy seeds on a roll.
Lots of stubbed out butts cluttered the floor of these stores. There were no fancy ashtrays on wrought iron stands, no ashtrays at all. Horse racing fans were not particular. This would have upset my grandmother if she had known where the majority of his Bus Driver pension had gone. But like the women folk, my grandfather learned how to keep things hidden.
“Semolina or regular?” he yelled back.
They had three daughters. Life was filled with mass and macaroni, served up in equal portions, with messes wiped away with equal parts holy water and soap. Until one by one the stains could not be absolved.
My mother, the oldest, ran away to escape the life of a dressmaker. This was decided before she was born and before she shamed the family by trading in her poodle skirt for dungarees to play skellies with the boys and light bonfires by the moonlight.
She died at a young age in a car accident, shortly after I was born.
Illegitimate did not have the same sting as tart. Neither was ever used to describe me.
“Nonna, how come my mom’s photo is not on the TV?”
My grandparents’ second daughter, my godmother, married at 17 to the boy next door with high-water pants showing his white socks, and moved to the suburbs of New Jersey. It was ok because his family name ended in a vowel too.
“Hand to God, I swear that family is good as gold,” my grandmother said one too many times.
My godmother came running back home the day after her wedding night, ushered inside quickly, before anyone in the neighboring houses could see the tears on the young bride’s face. A little face powder to hide the bruises and she was returned to her in-laws like a doll from the dry good store on the corner. Over the years, her visits were spaced further and further apart until they stopped.
My grandparents’ youngest daughter wanted to be nun, but instead became a heroin addict. Joan was supposed to be John. My grandfather decided the third child should be a boy. Things never turned out as expected.
Blind devotion to an elusive heavenly father or an elusive high? The thrill of the chase ended for Aunt Joan at 29 when she died from an overdose.
I loved to try her funny amber-tinted round sunglasses, cocking my head from side to side in the bedroom mirror pretending to be Janis Joplin with her sideways grin. “I can sing,” I said, looking at my reflection. “I can dance. I can be who I want to be.”
When she was told her wild child was dead, my grandmother collapsed like sand falling swiftly down an hour glass. Her head hit the green, peeling linoleum in the foyer.
It was a trifecta of disappointment for a generation and a culture that kept score. Three daughters. My grandmother then began to smoke openly on the stoop. My grandfather, too busy at the OTB, did not wrap his prize fig tree in plastic to guard against the winter winds. The leaves browned and yielded little fruit.
Inside their home, the rhythms of life also changed. The television ran 24 hours a day until the tubes burned out; a way to fill the loud silence. Hogan’s Heroes, All in the Family, and Gilligan’s Island with their laugh tracks intact filled the house. The kitchen, once warm with the smells of basil and tomatoes on the stove, was stale. Church was never mentioned again.
I left to go to college. “Bye Nonna,” I said. She stubbed out her Kool cigarette and gave me a hug.
When they passed on and I visited their home before the estate sale, I eyed a framed picture of myself as a child, their only granddaughter. It was on the dusty top of the Zenith, in a frame that was yellowed and sticky from nicotine smoke.
It was the only photograph in the house.