My father quit smoking cold turkey one day in late December, 1993, after being hospitalized in Las Vegas for severe chest pains which turned out to be “only” angina, on the same day when my first child was born in New Jersey. I’m told the angina incident scared him (he detested hospitals, probably because he had spent so much time in them many years earlier for gastro-intestinal ailments) enough to stop what by then had been, for a few decades already, a three-to-four pack a day habit. I like to think that my son’s birth had something to do with it as well, something along the lines of his wanting to stick around to see the boy grow up. But by then my father already had four other grandchildren, so I may be kidding myself.
In the late 1960s, when I was a child of about eight or nine, I frequently hid my father’s packs of Parliament cigarettes in the tiny kitty-corner shelf tucked under the belly of the white baby grand piano in our living room. I was afraid he would get lung cancer, of course, afraid he’d die and leave me and my mother alone, afraid his lung would be as black as those we’d seen in a scary film at school. I didn’t know then all the other ways smoking so heavily would deteriorate his health, but my best friend had already pestered both of her parents into quitting, and now it was my turn. Looking back, I have to question my resolve, or at least my level of commitment: I hid the cigarettes in the same place each time.
I did want him to quit, but at the same time, the crush I had on my father – a crush I think almost all little girls develop – was somehow connected to how he dressed, how he looked when he was going out on a Saturday night with my mother, and how dashing he looked with a cigarette in his hand. He knew how to wear a suit, my father, when suit-wearing was both required and often done poorly. A pocket square always in place, tie smartly knotted, shirts with French cuffs, polished shoes. The photos from that period bear me out. He was a swell. In every picture, inhaling and exhaling, his cigarette poised between his long fingers and buffed nails. He looked like a movie star. Movie stars back then were smokers.
Sometimes he’d ruffle my hair and teasingly ask for the hidden packs back, and other times he’d demand, curtly, that I return them—depending, I guess, on whether or not he had another pack in his car, or in a drawer somewhere I didn’t know about, or maybe on how many unsmoked cigarettes remained in the pack always in his shirt pocket. Funny that I can’t recall him ever folding his long, strong legs and tucking his handsome head under the piano and snatching the packs back himself. I don’t even recall that he ever pointed to the piano or in any other way indicated that he knew where I stashed the boxes. But I did not make any show of waiting until he was out of sight to retrieve them, always from the same spot. I wonder, today, what game we were playing with one another back then, with ourselves.
Mildly, he’d say to me, “Okay, very funny, young lady. Now give them back.” Or, less mildly, to my mother, “Why do you let her keep doing that?” Sometimes to me, “Get them. Right now. And don’t do that again.”
Then I crawled along the green shag carpet, scraped the packs from the shelf, and went to find him, sometimes already out on the patio smoking and reading the Wall Street Journal. I might sheepishly hand them over, or slap them down on a table, depending on my mood. If one of the pilfered packs was already opened, I sometimes pulled out several cigarettes before returning the pack. These I sometimes crushed then tossed into the kitchen garbage can, edging them underneath that morning’s coffee grinds. Other times, I secreted them away in the back of a drawer, behind my green school uniform knee socks, or zipped them into a compartment of a fake leather purse. I don’t think I wanted to smoke them, but I wanted to have them.
There they would sit for a day or two until I grew panicky my mother might find them, and then I threw these away too, buried deeper in the kitchen trash, wrapped inside a wadded tissue. Once, I buried them in the backyard while digging up dandelions, wondering idly if a tobacco plant would rise up the next spring. I dropped them in the toilet, and then was a little anxious they might not flush down, but they did, after first spreading their insides across the bowl, the paper tubing softening and disappearing. I peed on top of them first.
My father smoked three, four, or sometimes more packs a day by the time I was old enough to understand the differences between addiction and social posturing. He once told me he had his first cigarette at 8 or 10, and was smoking regularly, openly, at age 12. A boy smoking at 12 in 1938, in the Italian immigrant neighborhood where he’d grown up, was nothing shocking, not unexpected. Boys were regarded as young men by that age, already able – expected – to help their fathers with matters of earning money, doing heavy work, using their bodies as a wedge against poverty, homelessness, hunger. Already, at 12, he was working alongside his father after school and on weekends. His father was a junk man, hauling broken down furnaces and other metals from residential basements or old factories, heaving them onto a wagon pulled by a horse.
When my father told me these stories, I tried to picture my elegant father, who liked to neatly turn up the bottoms of the sleeves of short sleeved shirts into a neat, crisp cuff, as a gangly adolescent in torn, dirty pants and too tight shoes and soiled, sweaty shirts, tried to picture the wagon, the horse (old and often lame, he said), the streets, the occasional motor car, housewives holding open their doors for the boy and his panting father, as they maneuvered out hulking, broken down and rusted radiators, boilers, utility sinks, pipes, the housewife pulling from her apron pocket a few pennies or a nickel for a tip, the boy taking puffs between stops.
I want to be mad at my grandparents for letting him smoke, and must remember, of course, that little was known then about smoking and cancer, heart disease, emphysema, brain cells, so much else. Anyway, I have a hard time picturing my father’s younger life, though now that he has died, it is easier for me to imagine the young man, younger than my own teenage son. Idly, I wonder if my son’s future child will one day want to know what my husband and I could have been thinking, allowing our son to do something that in 25 years may become the smoking of its day — using a cell phone at age 12, or keeping a flash drive in his pocket, or drinking milk from antibiotic-medicated cows.
Anyway, I can see my father now, puffing from a cigarette dangling inelegantly from his lips, a young man against a tableau of cropped low houses, noisy streets, stick ball games, laundry hanging in dirt backyards. He is the smart, polite boy who everyone thinks can go far, but when the family needs money, he goes only to work, at 13, setting bowling pins (where he is allowed to smoke while working), and, at 14, in the biscuit factory (where he isn’t). This handsome boy, who wants to be a doctor, smoking cigarettes and thinking about Walt Whitman poems, is the same crush of my childhood, inhaling deeply and blowing smoke rings on the patio behind our suburban split-level, the day’s problems at the polyester factory he owns by then behind him, the newspaper in his lap.
My father smoked, and it was definitely part of what made him irresistible, and it was also a dirty habit that made his teeth yellow and my mother’s custom living room draperies smell. I hated it, but I couldn’t picture him without a cigarette, and my half-hearted attempts to get him to quit when I was a child did nothing. When I was older I simply forbade him smoking in my bedroom, in my car, and later, when I had my own home, I banned smoking everywhere inside, and when he visited he sat in a lawn chair smoking on my patio, in the heat, in the chill. And even though he quit some 13 years before he died, when I encountered him as an unearthly visitor in the months and years after the funeral, it was often in that same patio chair, and always smoking.
Improbably, I smoked, too, for a while, on and mostly off for about two years. It was just after college, while I was traveling with two ridiculously over-priced Thoroughbreds on the horse show circuit, supported by my father’s polyester manufacturing money and easy-going nature. I hated the way cigarettes tasted, and how they made my clothes smell, and how I looked with a cigarette in my hand, and how they felt in my mouth. But I started in order to stave off the nearly paralyzing anxiety I had in social situations with fellow horse show competitors whose fathers made fortunes behind desks in elegant suits at major corporations, not scrappy dusty textile mills. I quit when I realized that even when I felt relaxed, I still had nothing in common with them, except an ability to buy pretty horses and swipe credit cards with our father’s names on them. Not once did I ever let my father see me smoke.
When my first son is born, the rest of the family agrees not to tell me about my father’s angina scare. I don’t learn about it for three weeks, when my mother arrives in New Jersey to help her daughter who is by then already teetering on the edges of an abyss we’d learn later to call postpartum depression. My reaction to the news of his angina is a mix of resigned acceptance, fear, and I-told-you-so, and also admiration and respect, picturing him tossing out his cigarette pack right there in the emergency room and then not taking another. But I don’t share any of these emotions. Not joy or relief or gratitude. All those years, I had raged, and he always said he couldn’t quit, that the addiction was too powerful, the chemicals too strong, the need too great. All those years I’d pleaded, “But can’t you do it for us? For me?” and he said he couldn’t, and now he could? For what? For whom? For himself only, was all I could conclude. For fear of dying, of no more afternoons with the newspaper. It should have been enough. I should have been happy, grateful. I know that the next 13 years of mostly good days, when he got to play with both of my sons, were possible only because he did that, he quit. Selfish, maybe, but that was good for all of us, too.
But at the time I felt something else. I felt like a child hiding cigarette packs and only half-grudgingly handing them back, scared but also infatuated by an image, when the real culprit was not the cigarettes I once watched floating in the toilet, but something else, a boy who at age 13 already knew all that was out of his control.
Lisa Romeo lives in northern New Jersey, and works as a writing teacher, freelance journalist, manuscript editor, ghostwriter, and book reviewer. “Smoking Guns” is an excerpt from her memoir manuscript, Father Figure: Finding My Absent Father, and Myself, which was a finalist in a recent Seal Press contest. Her nonfiction has appeared in mainstream media, including the New York Times; in journals such as Sweet, Barnstorm, Lunch Ticket, and forthcoming in Under the Sun; and in anthologies. Lisa holds an MFA from Stonecoast, and is the nonfiction editor of Compose Journal. She dabbles in poetry, studies (but promises not to write) song lyrics, and is experienced at yo-yo dieting.