Warning: Cigarettes cause cancer … and clog toilets

Hey, kids, if you want to make your mom really happy this Mother’s Day, flush a carton of her cigarettes down the toilet.
Actually, don’t. I once did and I lived to regret it.
Instead, flush the cigarettes down one at a time. But whatever you do, don’t put an entire carton of them in the bowl together and then flush. And certainly don’t try this trick at home in the hours immediately before your parents are about to have a dinner party. That is precisely what I did one Saturday during Mother’s Day weekend when I was a boy. I did it because I loved my mother very much, and nothing says love like human excrement on the kitchen floor while elegantly dressed party guests are arriving at your house.
I wish I could say I was making this up. But I can’t.
I was 7 years old, and I wanted my mother to quit smoking. I did not convince her to give up that nasty, killing habit that Mother’s Day weekend. But I did manage to clog the pipes so effectively that when the first guest went to use the bathroom that Saturday night, everything came back.
And I mean everything. I had chosen to flush the cigarettes down the toilet in what we referred to with uncharacteristic decorum as the “powder room,” and this bathroom was right off the kitchen on the first floor of the house. I don’t know precisely how this guest did it, but it was if he had vacuumed the entire contents of the septic tank up through the pipes and onto the kitchen floor and the house’s front hallway.
My mom actually may have smoked more that night.
Now, turning the first floor corridors of our development replica of a colonial home into a river of raw sewage was not my intention.
I think I expected that my mother would discover at the party that she was all out of cigarettes and realize that she didn’t need them. The fact that virtually every single other person at the soiree still smoked like a steel mill in Pittsburgh and she could have bummed a cigarette from, well, anybody was apparently lost on me.
But my mother handled the disaster with her typical grace. Aware that a part of our house was now a Super Fund cleanup site, she herded everyone onto the back porch and served dinner there. The dinner party simply became yet another line item on the endless litany of eccentric events that seemed to occur at the small bashes my mother would host. There was time she celebrated her Swedish heritage with a Santa Lucia party and wore a crown of lit candles: Her hair started to smolder and so in her chic white gown she dove into the swimming pool. Another time she simply forgot to serve dinner until, as midnight neared, her guests started expressing their hunger. And there were the parties with the flamenco themes and the harem themes (yes, harem) and one party in which a group of guests was instructed to bring goats. (They obliged.)
Meanwhile, at that Mother’s Day weekend party where the downstairs was starting to smell like the Love Canal, I remained upstairs, mortified. I was sound asleep by the time the party ended and my parents went to bed. The next morning, Mother’s Day, my brother and I brought our mom the requisite breakfast in bed, (which, inevitably, included an ashtray and a couple of Virginia Slims).
Years later my mother would die of lung cancer. But she was in remission her last Mother’s Day on this earth, and by then she had stopped smoking. Lung cancer will do that. We talked that last Mother’s Day of many things, including the time I tried to convince her to quit by flushing her cigarettes down the toilet.
Her recollection of the evening? “Was that a great party or what?”
Happy Mother’s Day.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 14, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.