There are certain pieces of my being that have been ingrained as absolute truth. Always show respect to your elders. You are considered a grown woman when you take your husband’s last name (and therefore are allowed to drink alcohol in front of the aforementioned elders.) And family before self.
But don’t you dare light up a cigarette in front of The Family. Ever since tio quit 13 years ago, it’s been understood that if you did smoke, it’s a habit that needed to be talked around similar to the way no one ever questioned the frequency with which 10-pound premature babies are born to sons and daughters of friends and cousins not too long after weddings.
“Five months early, eh?” Knowing eyes. Secret smiles. Brand new baby clothes, price tags already removed. Nothing smaller than 3-6 month in the gift bag. “She’s beautiful.”
My father, who gave up his Miller Lite for Lent every year but never made it to church on Easter Sunday because he was nursing the hangover he got started on at midnight, once told me that even after being married and having five girls, smoking was still off limits in front of his father. It wasn’t a habit Dad relied upon. More of a social thing in which he might or might not bum a smoke off a friend and be happy without another until the next cookout maybe a year later. But too many beers on too little food made Dad careless one day. Dad stepped out onto the porch with a friend only to be caught by my grandfather as he was getting ready to leave.
“He never said a word,” Dad said. “He just looked at me. I threw the cigarette on the ground and went back inside.”
My grandfather didn’t talk to my father for a week. My father never picked up another cigarette again.
At least when my grandfather was around.
I am standing in front of the courthouse, tears heated with the anger of betrayal falling from unblinking eyes as I look into the storm. My four sisters, backs braced against the reality they are choosing not to acknowledge. They stand close, arms interlocked, lips tight. My cousin stands with them, her eyes focused on her mother across the divide. Occasionally, one of my sisters almost loses control when a corner of their mouth starts to twitch. Even with my eyes trained over their heads, even with my focus directed on blowing smoke into the faces of the women who helped raise us, I understand that my sisters are fighting a battle between tears for what we have lost and laughter in response to my actions.
So do my aunts. They attempt to concentrate their nervous glances on the sky and on imaginary pieces of lint on their jackets, anywhere but where I am standing while our respective lawyers attempt to make peace before the storm of misplaced loyalties intensifies. We had lost our father. They, their only brother. There hadn’t been time to prepare.
“Do you think he would be proud of what you are doing?” My cousin had asked her mother before court. “Do you honestly believe he would stand back and let you hurt them like this?”
She laughed in her daughter’s face before walking away.
Family before self.
The lawyer told us not to say a word to them. They told us it was better this way.
And that’s just fine. Because with each inhalation, I stand straighter. With each new cigarette lit off the still burning butt of the one currently being smashed out beneath my heel, I redefine the word family. With each unblinking exhalation aimed directly into the faces of strangers we once knew, they can hear it.
We all can.
This post was written in response to a The Red Dress Club prompt asking writers to describe an emotional fight. What I have written above is non-fiction.