Warning: the content of this post might trigger urges to return to old habits or make you attempt to indulge for the first time.
After scanning my parent’s photographs, I have been reviewing them regularly to evoke another memory and another story. On one of those time travels I could not help but notice the number of pictures showing Mom and Dad with a cigarette in their hand. The frequency prompted me to think about my experience with smoking growing up. Forty years ago this observation would have been met with perplexed looks; whereas today, knowing people who do smoke is rare in my world.
Smoking was ubiquitous. It appeared as if everyone indulged. Growing up, I did not think twice when someone and everyone lit up, inside. Rooms would be full of smoke yet no one appeared bothered; talking, laughing, eating within a perpetual cloud engulfing those gathered. Decorative ash trays were sold as furniture, needing to meld with the look of the room. Lighters were stylish accoutrements to a formal wardrobe. Gentlemen were measured in part by their timeliness and ease in offering a light for a lady’s cigarette. Movie audiences understood the unseen bedroom encounter when someone fired up a post-coital cigarette.
My parents grew up with smoking, be it cigarettes, cigars or pipes. Scenes of them with a cigarette in hand abound.
One of Dad’s stories described how his father, my Opa, would roll a fresh cigarette and place it on the table at his bedside, along with a packet of matches, before he went to sleep so he could wake up and immediately light it up. And almost everyone in their families smoked. I don’t recall my Aunt Ann on Dad’s side or Tante Lina from Mom’s family participating; otherwise, all of them enjoyed a pipe or a cigar or a cigarette or all three. Uncle Herman seemed to be perpetually puffing on a stogie, famous for his chortle, upper body bouncing up and down with a cigar in his mouth joining the ride.
Uncle Kees also enjoyed cigars and there are pictures of him with cigarettes. Other photographs of his time in Uganda show numerous people indulging. Smokers were so nonchalant about the practice no one attempted to hide the appendage when the camera was present.
When Uncle Kees passed away, the Mill Hill Mission had failed to transport some of his personal belongings. The family pursued the Order asking for his glasses and his pipe, items which formed a part of his identity. Dad passed the pipe onto me and it sits upon my book shelves along with his daily prayer bible as a fond reminder of his memory.
People were identified as well by the brand they smoked. Mom was a Rothman’s person, filtered cigarettes which she inhaled to the bitter end ensuring nothing was wasted. Dad preferred filter-less Pall Mall. He started with roll your own which I vaguely remember. Gary, my older brother, on the other hand recalls learning to select the right amount of tobacco, rolling the paper then licking the length to hold everything in place before passing it over to Dad. The boys would accompany Mom on her weekly grocery run which included the purchase of cigarette cartons to replenish the depleted supply. I have strong memories of dismantling the carton and stacking the individual packets inside the narrow end of the all closet; one side for Pall Mall, the other for the Rothmans.
The number of pictures with someone smoking diminished over the years in part because an increasing number of people quit; as well, the posing for pictures meant you discarded the “cancer stick” to avoid recrimination. Increasingly, Mom became isolated as one by one, relatives and friends abandoned their packs. Places to smoke were being quickly eliminated to the point where those who continued were viewed as pariah. While writing this post, I read this passage which captures the changed perspective:
“Across the street, on a parallel balcony, is a man bundled in a coat and hat, also dragging on a cancer stick. Visible beneath his coat are pyjama bottoms and slippers. Visible on his face is the usual dumb defiance and creeping humiliation. It is four in the morning and, according to midnight news, minus twenty-five out. Nevertheless, there he stands, hunched over like a soldier too exhausted to properly duck enemy fire.” Charles Foran, butterfly lovers, page 43.
I remember when Dad decided to quit. The washing machine had broken down for the umpteenth time and he could no longer repair it into further use. The time had come to purchase a new one even though they had not yet accumulated the savings. Giving up smoking would help to find the money, so Dad quit, cold turkey. He did struggle but because smoking was not permitted inside the 3M factory, the transition was easier. Mom, on the other hand, failed in recurring attempts to break the habit. She was a stay-at-home parent, typically on her own with no one around to remind or to support her efforts. Eventually, she stopped smoking in the house, forbidding others as well, and slowly reduced the number of cigarettes consumed; however, Mom continued puffing until the end no doubt contributing, if not causing, the stroke that abruptly shortened her life.
Europe lagged behind Canada in regulation and social acceptance. In a 1992 visit to the Netherlands as part of a recruiting fair, I extended my stay with an extra week of vacation residing with a cousin, Riet and her husband Dolf, and visiting relatives in and around Tilburg. They hosted me at a local restaurant where Dolf and I indulged in some cigars, a favourite hobby of his, at our table, after the meal. I kept looking over my shoulder wondering if we were going to get busted. Later that week, I visited Tante Toos at her apartment where numerous cousins had also gathered. At least half the people were smoking as a cloud grew and hovered inside for the duration. Concerns with second hand smoke had not seemed to have crossed the Atlantic.
That neither of my brothers or I succumbed to the mindless routine is a small miracle by itself. My parents forbade their children from smoking, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to this aspect of our upbringing. Fear kept me in line. Not to say the four of us did not light up on occasion, but none adopted the cigarette habit. I would borrow a few from drinking buddies in the bar, but god forbid I would ever purchase a pack for myself. Ironically, I experimented with cigars after Dad quit smoking. Uncle Gert and family visited Canada for the first time in 1980 and brought a box of cigars as a gift. Of course, Dad appreciated the thought but politely passed on the gesture. I accepted the box and thus began an on again, off again relationship with cigars.
My cigar smoking days have greatly diminished, typically resigned to a round of golf or the occasional outdoor lounging with a dram of scotch with close friends. I consider the indulgence relaxing and a measure of my good fortune. I still appreciate a cigar as a gift understanding it’s unstated message and significance.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em.