I don’t remember a time when Mama didn’t start her day with a coke and a cigarette. She calls smoking her nasty habit, even as prescribed chemicals work their way through her veins to fight back the damage she’s doing.
It’s something she has done for 40 years now, a habit she just hasn’t been able to kick. And she’s learned to live with it. At home she uses vinegar to fight the smell, and when she visits we open all the windows on the porch and turn on the ceiling fan so the rest of us can sit with her without our eyes watering.
For the week or so that she’s here, we don’t even call it the porch. It’s the smoke hole – the place where my boys can sneak in one-on-one time with Grandma. Jessie brings out his sketchpad, and Benjamin puts his Lego board on the floor and creates entire armies of ninjas. Colt pretends to be a dog and dances when he sees candy corn in my mama’s outstretched hand. The whole time Mama is telling stories of my childhood, of how my middle sister refused to clean the fish tank, of how my grandmother came unglued when Grandpa trimmed her dog’s hair so that he would look like a tiger.
The smoke swirls away. The ashtray fills, and I think of the advantages of this time with Mama on the porch. My boys go in and out the front door, enjoying being in her company. Dirty dishes and sticky floors don’t matter. They have her full attention from the time she lights the cigarette to when she snuffs the flame.
Sometimes I’m not even out there with them to see how they are getting too much sugar or to overhear what they are saying to a woman who is wise and adores them. It’s a level of independence that just can’t be found enclosed in the living room.
So, Mama is right. Smoking is a nasty habit, but I’m starting to believe that God uses the whole of us and wastes nothing – not even our mistakes and shortcomings. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for gifts and strengths, forgetting that God offers beauty for ashes.
Even the ashes that are of our own making.