Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Second-Hand Smoke

          Lying in bed barely awake,  I became aware of cigarette smoke.  Daddy' s home!  I thought, and bounded from my bed and down the stairs.  I could not have been more than four years old, and already the smell of cigarettes and the joy of being with my father were intrinsically entwined.

          I could hear my parents talking and laughing together in the kitchen.  He was home from the night shift, and although I dreaded when he was on night turn, its saving grace was that I got to see him first thing upon awakening.  I remember the excitement bubbling in me as I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen.

          "Daddy, Daddy!"  I said.

          I climbed up onto my father's lap and, watching the white smoke curl from the cigarette in his hand, sighed and was happy.  Security and contentment were bound together in a lovely smoke ring with my father's name on it.

          My mother set eggs in front of him and poured steaming coffee into his cup.  My father took one last puff from his cigarette before crushing it in the ashtray.  I watched a 

wisp of smoke rise and then die away.

          "Now, honey,"  my mother said, "get down and let Daddy eat his breakfast in peace.  He's tired and hungry.  He's been working all night."

          "I don't really want to eat it in pieces," he said, and I giggled.  

          Sometimes his jokes were corny even to my young ears, but I always laughed.  I wanted him to know how much fun he was.  Even in later years, I laughed indiscriminately at his humor, and he knew and I knew that it was because we shared, he and I, a mutual admiration society.   

          My father gently slid me off his  knee, and I stood and made a pronouncement.  "When I grow up I'm going to smoke cigarettes, too."

          "No, you're not!" my mother said.  "Ladies don't smoke."

I couldn't believe the unfairness of that.  Why was it okay for gentlemen to smoke, but not ladies?  Although I didn't even have an inkling of what the word meant, what I was feeling was the first stirrings of feminism.  Yet, true to the dictates of the time, I gave no voice to my resentment. 

Actually, what my mother meant was that proper ladies didn't smoke, and indeed, in the Thirties, they did not, at least not in public view.  By the time I was twenty-one, though, not only improper ladies smoked, but perfectly proper ones too, as well as rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves, doctors, lawyers -- and Indian chiefs.  I did, too, and enjoyed it for thirty years.  Long after my father's death, with grandmotherhood approaching for my first time, and finally educated to the danger of second-hand smoke, I gave up cigarettes forever.  It was one of the most difficult things I ever did.  

          The worst of it was that in giving up cigarettes, hard as that was, I also gave up thirty-some chances per day to recapture a whiff of childhood happiness with my father, and even now, when a stray curl of cigarette smoke wafts my way, for a brief moment I am filled with nostalgia and long for my dad.