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  • On Not Smoking
  • Bonnie Jo Campbell (bio)

My mother-in-law, Mary Ledoux, has been haunting me, and it’s no wonder. Her ashes are still in the guest room after three years because we haven’t decided where to bury her—she spent her whole life arranging herself, putting herself nicely together, and most definitely she would not want to be scattered. Should we inter her in a rolling park-like cemetery in Galesburg, Michigan, where big oak and maple branches spread over the headstones? Or in Montreal, Quebec where she was born, where there may or may not be a family plot? Worse than this crime of indecision is our crime of keeping her ashes in a plain cardboard box, sitting between my dusty wicker sewing basket and the shoe-polishing supplies. Mary Theresa Catherine Ledoux was always well dressed, and yet we haven’t even purchased a decorative urn for her. The woman deserves an elegant container. We should buy her a replica of something Ming or Egyptian. Or something black with simple but stylish lines. She liked to wear black.

Maybe she is haunting me because she still harbors a grudge over that business of our having her committed (briefly) to a mental ward. We had to do something. Because she was having trouble breathing, Mary Ledoux self-medicated with so much prednisone that she went into a steroid psychosis, which made her irritable at first, then prompted her to wear her clothes inside out for special protection and to cut the phone line and wrap the phone and other electronic devices in multiple layers of plastic. She took it hard, our delivering her to the geriatric psychiatric unit of the local hospital, where she remained for several weeks, carefully monitored but without medications or cigarettes.

Christopher says that if his ma was haunting us, he would expect to smell cigarette smoke. If he hasn’t smelled smoke over the last year, it is only [End Page 1] because I sneaked my cigarettes outside or on the screen porch. I enjoyed many of those cigarettes, but sometimes my hand moved to my mouth as though not of my own volition. Why was I smoking? I asked myself, as I inhaled, exhaled. I studied a series of cigarettes as they glowed in my hand, as though any one of them might hold the answer to some critical question. Now that the leaves are off the trees, I can see across two back yards into the parking lot of the nearby minimum-security women’s prison, where a dozen captives enjoy their evening smoke break. I feel their relief at being outside the brick building, relief at finally pulling smoke deep into their lungs as they’ve dreamed of doing all day. Also, when it’s pitch dark, I sometimes notice a spot of orange light inside the cab of a truck passing slowly on our one-lane dirt road.

At the very least, I’m haunted by what Mary Ledoux said about cigarettes not long before she died. “Cigarettes are my friends, you see. My little friends.” She said this and studied her polished fingernails, perhaps finding fault with them, wishing she could afford professional nail care. She must have volunteered this information, for unlike her sons I would not have harassed her about quitting smoking, no more than I would harass my own mother or my three brothers. Mary Ledoux was born into a well-off family in a city of culture and beauty, and now here she was, living with us in the woods outside Kalamazoo on nothing but her social-security check. She was no more lonely than a lot of other people, I’m pretty sure, but coming face to face with anyone’s loneliness is unbearable in those few moments before you have a chance to push the loneliness into perspective alongside the other injustices of the planet.

The official and apparently final word on smoking is that it is bad—just plain bad, bad, cut and dried. There is little doubt about the harm smoking causes. But any time folks are dead certain about a thing, it worries me. Islamic suicide...


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