There are dozens of things that come to mind when someone asks me about my childhood: Saturday morning cartoons, having to be home before the streetlights come on, the excitement of a second cup of Kool-Aid, Chaucer, the Boxer puppy, and enjoying Miss Mitchell’s fourth grade class. What surprises me is how much and how well I remember my mother’s smoking habits. Later, I found out that she’s sensitive about the topic of her smoking - something that I found strange, but I absorbed it nonetheless. I vividly remember my mother smoking in the car: the sandy snap of the lighter flame, seeing her lips purse around the filter, and the way that she angled the burning end of the cigarette out of the open slit of the driver’s side window.
I don’t remember adjusting to the smell of cigarette smoke. My mother smoked, and so did one of her two sisters. She was close to both of them, despite the fact that they lived in the Houston area, while my sister and I were raised by her and my father in Nashville. When her sisters did come to visit, or when we met them at my grandmother’s home in Benton, Arkansas, I often felt that I was moving with an ever-growing cloud of smells - burning rubber, mid-range perfume, and cigarette smoke.
At some point in elementary school, another child told me that their parents don’t smoke. I remember being taken aback - even though I’d known that my own father didn’t smoke, it was strange to me to hear that their mother didn’t smoke. It was so normal to me, I literally couldn’t imagine a mom without a cigarette. As I continued through elementary school, I was in and out of friends’ homes with parents who did and didn’t smoke. Sometimes the homes smelled of cigarette smoke, which turns out is fairly commonplace. Our home didn’t. It was rare that I saw other parents smoking in their home, but my mother way particularly careful about the way the house in which I was raised smelled. Her smoke spot was the garage. In cooler months, she’d choose a warm coat, and store it in the garage to keep the smell out of the house.
Cigarettes weren’t, by any measure, the center of my mom’s life from my perspective, but I clearly remember that she couldn’t make it through a movie without a smoke break. I remember that she always told me not to do it, but she would do it, leaving me quite confused. I didn’t understand the purpose of cigarettes any more than I understood my dad’s liking his occasional beer - it’s just something that wasn’t for children.
I don’t remember exactly when, but I do vaguely remember telling my mother about the dangers of smoking. A combination of police officers, motivational speakers, and teachers passed out flyers, coloring packets, and fun activities that revolved around the prevention of smoking in adolescents, and the teaching started when I was in elementary school. I remember anti-drug programs, and plenty of encouragement away from smoking cigarettes, and something called marijuana.
Years of hearing about the bad things about smoking played into my growth into adolescence. I was torn, in a sense: I didn’t want my mother to pass away from cancer, but I also didn’t want her to be miserable without cigarettes, which seemed to be the only other option. I would see the nicotine gum in her pier cabinet off and on throughout my childhood. I don’t recall seeing it in my teen years, but my mother mentioned to me that it was very difficult to quit smoking. I had no frame of reference for addiction, and my mother didn’t think, at the time, to equate it with another inalienable habit, so I didn’t understand how difficult it was to quit smoking until I was much, much older.
I’m sure that, the first time that I had a cigarette, I’d been offered one by a friend. There was no pressure (as was the case with most every scenario where I try something new), but I was curious. My mother’d made it look like it was something essential. I may have finished it, but I don’t remember. I do remember wondering where the hype was based: I concur that there was something foreign and sexy about smoking, but the feel of it? Not terrible. And nothing more.
Spending long nights out with my best friend made me a short-term smoker. The summer before my junior year of college was wild one. I attended summer school to make up for a course that I failed at Occidental, and after I got home, my best friend would come over, and we would hang out, eat, and go out to a club when the day was gone. Cigarettes made their way into our evenings when my friend and I stopped before the club for Gatorade - we were going to drink, and we would be thirsty.
We smoked in the club all summer, but stopped at the end of summer: the club stopped allowing cigarette smoking inside, and we were bummed. The roof, though, was another story, and we always spent part of the evening sharing a stick, enjoying the view of downtown Nashville, and talking about how our families were so strange. It was a great moment in my young womanhood, and though I knew better, cigarettes were part of it.
I gave up smoking cigarettes after smoking on and off for about a year. The reason? I didn’t love them, and I got tired of the hassle of buying them. At some point, my mother found out about my activities, and was disappointed to hear about my smoking. She surprised me, though: instead of flaming with fury, she paused, and said aloud that kids are more likely to smoke if their parents smoke. She didn’t say anything to me about smoking after that afternoon, but our relationship didn’t change as a result.
I still don’t personally understand the appeal of cigarettes, but I do understand that, today, many smokers feel marginalized by the new social norm of banning cigarette smoke in public places and most private establishments. My own mother has muttered here and there that she finds it annoying, but she, like most smokers, has adapted. Over the years, I’ve watched with fascination as different advertising campaigns have made the incredibly compelling case for shutting down the entire tobacco industry. As an adult in her 30s, I am concerned for tobacco growers and those who work on the farms if such a thing were to happen, but I also understand that my mother’s frequent and painful coughing didn’t come from nowhere.