Ten years ago today my mama left this earth. I wish I could say she left in a space ship or an airplane to take a ride and come back later but, no, she left permanently.

I know she is pretty mad about not being here. She loved life.

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I learned a lot from my mom. I learned how to be a mom from my mom. I learned it was all right to make mistakes as long as you learned from them. I learned how to dress and put on make-up and to make sure my hair never looked a mess. Mama was very stylish. She had a keen eye for bargains and she also knew how to sew. One of my favorite memories is going to the fabric store. While Mama poured over the Butterick, Vogue and Simplicity pattern books I would walk the aisles with rows and rows of fabric. The colors and patterns caught my eyes and I loved stroking the silks, the textured corduroy, the soft felt. Much of it was tacky but Mama could find the right pattern and the right fabric and accessories and put together a sharp looking outfit for herself or a sweet dress for Traci and me. We were six years apart so often she would use the same fabric but make a different dress.

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I loved watching the ladies behind the counter open the bolts and the fabric would spill over the side and then came the click of the scissors scraping off a yard or a yard and a half. Then we would make our way to the accessories area and pick out buttons, zippers, snaps – I love the snap machine! It was like a hole-puncher but you punched a snap onto the fabric. One year for Easter Mama made her and me a plaid pastel pantsuit. I loved matching Mama. It was in shades of yellow and gray with a trace of pink and the jackets closed with mother-of-pearl snaps. We layered lemon tank tops under the jackets.

Mama was always terrible at good-byes. The conversations always lingered. It would drive Rob crazy every time we drove the twelve or more hours to North Carolina and the morning we were packing to leave Mama would run into the house after a week long visit and come running out with a box or shopping bag full of stuff saying “I meant to go through this with you.” It might be a bunch of photographs or letters or some trinkets from my childhood. Something sure to engage me, distract me from leaving, from the goodbye.

When I found out Mama had lung cancer my heart cracked. I knew lung cancer was bad. That summer I made a few weekend trips alone and one week long trip with Phoebe and Chloe. Through it all Mama always stayed positive. She was determined to fight that cancer. She got mad if anyone spoke negatively about her survival.

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That last visit I remember looking across the living room at her and I knew she didn’t look good. It scared me. She was in Daddy’s leather recliner, asleep, with her head cocked back, the oxygen tubes forming a nearly visible mustache, which blended with her gray skin. She looked old. I fooled myself into thinking she looked this way from the chemo – which she barely had as she could not tolerate it.

That weekend Traci and I took Mama to Cato so that she could by her sister Rita something for her birthday. She chose Cato because it was close by – the mall would never have worked. We had to push Mama in a wheelchair with her oxygen tank on her lap. Traci and I were mostly quiet, listening to Mama’s frustrated directions. She chose a colorful blouse and a pretty grass green jacket. Across the crowded discount store Mama spotted a display of hats. Dragging clothes off the racks we pushed her chair to the hats. Mama considered a fuschia fedora for herself for when the chemo kicked in and she would go bald.

Earlier that summer Phoebe, Chloe and I had shopped in a vintage clothing store and bought Mama four colorful silk scarves for when her hair fell out. I remember the owner of the store being annoyed with the girls as they helped pick out the scarves. Chloe’s little hands touching the silk – that girl loved the feel of silk more than anything. At the age of one she took a silky pajama shirt of mine and cuddled it and always held onto “shirt-shirt” while she nursed. This collection of silk scarves was nearly nirvana to her and she contained herself like a true lady yet this hag gave her the eye of death. I have never given her my business again.

That last visit Mama had me pack up a sweater she had bought from the J. Jill catalog. It was her style exactly. She said she didn’t really need it, that she didn’t really like it that much. I sent it back. That same day we organized all of her insurance papers. Mama also gave me a floppy disc with a few of her short plays that I still have not had it in me to open up.

The day before I was heading back to New York, October 1, I asked Mama about Thanksgiving and Christmas. She said “you have Thanksgiving in New York, I won’t be feeling well from the chemo and then Dad and I will come to New York for Christmas.” I was so happy to have a plan for those holidays especially because I did not know what to expect. Mama died October 19, a Tuesday.

The Sunday before Mama died, Dad called to say Mama was not doing well and the doctor gave her about 10 days to two weeks. I talked to my brother, Mike. We agreed to fly to North Carolina on the same day – he from Boston, me from New York and we would drive together from the airport.

Rob arranged for his mom to come help with the girls. She came in on Tuesday. I felt raw. Tuesday, early in the day, Dad called to say Mama wasn’t doing well. I told him to tell her I love her and I didn’t want her to be in pain and if she needed to go that was fine with fine with me. That night Dad called, I answered and his words were, “ Leigh Anne, Mama’s gone.” I screamed and threw the phone. Mary picked up the phone as I lay on the floor wailing.

I traveled alone Wednesday morning. I was grumpy, agitated. The lines at the airport were long. I had checked in and asked the ticket agent about an open-ended ticket. I had to say out loud “My mom died yesterday.” It was busy and another agent was trying to board a wedding party. She went to my agent and tried to speed her up or cut the line. My lovely agent quietly pointed at the screen – the other agent looked at me and moved on, less frantic.

As I waited to remove my boots and go through security a big, blond southern Christian lady with a loud sweater, looked at me and nearly sang, “It looks like there is goin’ to be a weddin’.” There was a group of young women all carrying white dress bags. “Yes,” I replied. “Are you in a hurry? Are you from New York?” she drawled.

I looked directly at her mascaraed blue eyes and I said “My mama died last night,” as I fell into her big colorful bossom. She hugged me just right. We got through security. She was sitting in one of the chain restaurants. “Do you want some breakfast?” she sang. I thanked her and told her I was going to sit by my gate with a cup of tea.

Many things happened on that trip: planning a funeral, buying a blouse for Mama to wear in the casket, choosing a casket, choosing flowers, buying appropriate clothes for my girls to wear, writing an obituary.

Dad, Mike, Traci and I had to choose flowers for her casket. We went with red as it is elegant and because she was a Red Hat. There were these beautiful tiny red orchids – I knew Mama would have loved them. The florist sucked in her breathe – I imagine she is used to sad people – she said she did not think she would be able to get them. We were in no position to put up a fight. We accepted her statement and chose an alternative.

Traci was with Mama when she died. Traci insisted that she do Mama’s hair and make-up – none of that over the top mortician makeup. She wanted me to help her. When I woke up the next day, knowing that I had to go help Traci decorate our dead mother I cried to Daddy, “ I can write a eulogy, I can give a eulogy but I cannot dress my dead mother.”

We got through the wake. The morning of the funeral came. I wore black slacks and a black kimono style blouse splashed with bright flowers. At the funeral home Daddy takes me by the arm and says “Come on, Leigh Anne, it’s time to say goodbye to Mama.” I couldn’t believe how strong he was through all of this and he knew exactly what to do and when to do it.

I nearly collapsed in his arms as he brought me for my final goodbye. Mama taught me how to do almost everything but she did not teach me how to say goodbye to your mama. Her mama, my grandmother is still alive.

I kneeled down at the casket and I touched her hand. I did not like the cold, lifeless feel of her hand so I pulled my hand back and looked at my beautiful mom with all of her hair. She never had much chemo in the end. She was wearing an emerald silk blouse under her black pants suit. Her nails were painted red to cover the ashen color they had become.

I told her she had done such a wonderful job with us kids that we would be ok, we would miss her terribly, but we would be ok. And I told her how jealous all of my friends were because she was my mom and not theirs and that she was the best mom in the world. I had to teach myself how to say good-bye.

Her casket had the lovely red, baby orchids.

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Why I Hate Cigarettes

March 29, 2014

I could start out and say I hate cigarettes because they killed my mother but that might seem melodramatic and it is not the original source of my loathing those nasty sticks.

Mama and Daddy both smoked, Mama smoked Winston’s and Daddy smoked Salem’s. I always thought that was cool because about two and half hours northwest of home was the town Winston-Salem. They smoked all the time and everywhere. I used to complain to Mama that her cigarette smoke was bothering me. The ghostly trail seemed to find me.

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“Yuck,” I would say as I waved my hand and broke up the fine white lines.

“Smoke follows beauty,” was always her reply.

I have images of her steering the wheel of her Cadillac with a cigarette balanced between her long index and middle fingers. I could smell the smoke mixed with her thermos of coffee and a waft of Adorn hairspray. Mama never went anywhere without her hair just right. And there was the faint scent of Chanel No. 5. None of it was as powerful as her Winston’s.

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She would occasionally send me to Little Giant, the convenience store on Hope Mills Road to buy her a pack. She would call up ahead and let the cashier know it was fine to sell her ten-year-old daughter the cellophane wrapped box. They were about fifty cents a pack. This was North Carolina in the 1970’s.

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My high school had a smoking area. I hung out on the periphery. All of my friends smoked but I hated it. (Full disclosure: I puffed a few times because I wanted to blow smoke rings – I actually did! Once!)

Freshman year of college my favorite class was Acting. I loved it! It was the class I lived for. No partying the night before. One particular night, all of the theatre students gathered in a spacious apartment in one of the Victorian houses off Tate Street. Everyone was smoking and drinking. Smoking weed, smoking Camels. I inhaled and got that nicotine high and I felt good. My hair, my clothes reeked of ashtray but I fit in with the actors.

In the morning as we sat on the wooden floor in a circle wearing tights, leg warmers and sweat pants, stretching and vocalizing my chest ached deep inside. I felt black in my lungs. My breath was shallow. I was sad. That was my last cigarette.

Jump ahead three years later. I was a senior. I had a job at the Fifth Season – a nightclub at the Greensboro Four Seasons Hotel. I called myself a bouncer. My actual title was hostess. Basically I checked id’s of the people going in to make sure they were at least twenty-one and that they adhered to the dress code – no sneakers, no shabby clothes. This was North Carolina in the 80’s.  There was a mix of disco, pop, country and lots of cigarettes!

I worked there three nights a week. I never went into the club but as Mama said: “Smoke follows beauty.” I developed a cough that year. I worked at the Fifth Season for nine months. I moved to New York a couple of weeks after graduating.

My cough lasted another two years and I never lived with or worked with smoke.

If I went out dancing in a club I coughed for two days after. I cannot tolerate smoke.

Mama had a love/hate relationship with those Winston’s.

Daddy used a hypnotist to quit – it took two sessions but he is still smoke-free!

Daddy used to yell at me because he said my friends were smoking in Mama’s car. They always denied it. Turns out it was Mama! Those cigarettes had a hold on her.

She would stop and start and stop and start. She loved the taste and she loved the way they made her feel.

Then she got lung cancer.

Was it the Winston’s?

There is a tea I like to sip – no coffee for me. It is vanilla rooibos. It is an herbal tea with a full body.

Before I brew it I love to smell it. It smells like tobacco – before it is rolled and smoked.

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