Cigarettes were everywhere, when I was growing up. Mom and Dad both smoked, and so did our relatives. Ashtrays and lighters abounded. We kept stick matches for when Grandpa came to visit, the better to light his pipe with.
I must have reeked of smoke when I went to school or church. Then again, the other kids probably carried the same odor, so it’s not like my sister and I were treated like pariahs. Our teachers – the minister, too – no doubt smoked as well.
Every so often, I find myself regaling a youngster with tales of The Years of Smoke, when you could smoke in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room, in movie theaters, on airplanes, and in every restaurant in town. Going out to eat, you might be offered a “non-smoking” section, but we all knew how well that worked in places like the Village Inn or Timmerman’s. A friend of mine used to answer that question with, “Extra smoke!” It was unavoidable.
Even with all those cigarettes lying around, I never tried one as a kid. Instead, after parties when even my perfectionist mom left the cleanup for tomorrow, I would pick up a cooled-off match and put the business end in my mouth. “Yum,” I’d think, savoring the salty, gritty taste of burned phosphorus and potassium chlorate. Then I might wash it down with the dregs of somebody’s warm, flat beer. You can’t say I didn’t know how to party when I was five.
It was the environment in which I grew up, so it didn’t seem bad, or strange. When company came, Mom would serve dessert on those delightful ribbed-glass plates divided in three – a big part for the cake or pie, a smaller section for the matching coffee cup, and the remaining square, with a rounded indentation for resting a cigarette, just the right size to hold a dessert’s worth of ashes.
Thanksgiving dinner would not have been the same if it didn’t end with Uncle Albie puffing on his cigar. We might playfully complain, but it was part of the tradition, and we loved him. The only thing that struck me as noteworthy was the fact that my grandfather used the same things to ream out his pipe that I bent into animal shapes and doll toys. Who knew pipe cleaners were actually used to clean pipes?
By the time I was 16, Mom made herself quit smoking. She’d had a long bout of bronchitis, and cigarettes no longer tasted good. When she recovered, she declared, “I was going to go back to smoking, but for heaven’s sake, I might as well stay quit.” It wasn’t long before she was cajoling Dad to stop, too. Back then, I took her grocery shopping, since she never learned to drive and I craved any trip behind the wheel. Walking past the cartons of cigarettes, she would laugh and say, “Oh, dear. I’m afraid I’m going to forget to buy your dad his smokes again.”
He got the hint, and he, too, quit. But my life with smokers was hardly over. Away at college, I managed to fall for a guy from New York who smoked so much, we had to regularly wipe the yellow film off the inside of his car windows. When I would go for a visit to my now smoke-free home, I would notice the way my clothes smelled, and wash them all soon after my arrival.
When I married for the first time, my husband, whom I’d first dated in high school, assured me he was just ending his habit. Unlike the teenage boy I’d loved, he no longer smelled like bubble gum. Now it was cigarettes and beer. By the time I left him, he was smoking two packs a day, and I’d learned to stash an extra pack in case he ran out and started raising holy hell.
Years later, I had a gorgeous boyfriend with no discernable vices. When he confessed to smoking three cigars a day, I was shocked, protesting it couldn’t be – I’ve got the world’s most sensitive nose, and I’d detected nothing. He told me his secret: brushing his teeth for 15 minutes after every stogie. Of course, that did nothing to undo the damage to his mouth, throat, and lungs.
After him, there was one other guy. I never met him, but a friend kept telling me he would be perfect for me. We shared so many interests, she told me, and he was kind and funny. But he smoked. And by then, I just didn’t want that in my life.
If you’re a smoker, and you’ve read this far – I figure you turned the page after my opening salvo – I want to say that I understand. Certain people very close to me have struggled with nicotine’s evil hold for years. One of them recently quit for good, and I was filled to bursting with joy and relief. “Good for you!” I cried, going in for a hug. Good. For. You.
All you have to do is Google “old cigarette ads” to see how harmless – even healthy! – cigarettes were back in the day, at least according to Philip Morris and the rest of smoking’s profiteers. Everyone recommended smoking – doctors, dentists, the dashing Marlboro Man. I must confess, as a first-year college student, I tried. When a (smoking) friend walked by my dorm room and saw me comically struggling to light up, his laughter killed the deal. All these decades later, I’d write him a thank-you note, if I knew his address. Thank you for shaming into not smoking, Robin. I hope you’ve done the same.