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Grammy Is Still Smoking photo

Twelve years ago, when my daughter in law announced she was pregnant with my first grandchild, she and my son leveled an ultimatum on my smoking. Like most new parents, they were fierce about protecting their first child from all harm. I, and my vile habit represented a toxic threat both materially and existentially. It wasn’t only the danger of secondhand smoke, but the mere existence of smoking that they wished to shield from their cherub. I had just moved across the country to be closer to them and become the ultimate grandmother, having waited 10 years for them to procreate, and now I was being asked- nay, forced – to choose between my first love and my first grandchild.

I love smoking. From the first drag of my mother’s Salem 52 years ago, I was in a committed relationship. I grew up in a menthol cigarette house in a smoking world. Mom and I fought with and seethed at each other about absolutely everything, but she shared her smokes with me in the 1976 Chrysler Cordoba when we drove to the grocery store and that felt like everything. During the weekend neighborhood card parties / screwdriver shindigs, she’d loosen up enough to let me smoke in the fetid basement, behind the finished bar, between mixing drinks for the Davis’s and the Gallaghers. Even after she discovered I was sneaking them from the cartons she tucked away in the dining room cupboard and, she never punished me for it. It was our only collaboration.

Everyone smoked in the 1960’s and 70’s. At Notre Dame High, a traditional Catholic school where nuns in habits terrorized pubertal boys and girls, there was a smoking circle in the schoolyard. At lunch, we rushed through our chicken parmesan sandwiches and sprinted outside to suck down as many cigarettes as possible, a silly group of self-conscious girls in pastel cotton uniforms playing at sophistication. Even then, I knew my friends were pretenders and that this midday smoke was a performance for them. I, however, had already smoked several times before school and would fire up at least another 4 or 5 before days end. Their temperance infuriated me. How could they ever have enough of such a blissful experience?

From the beginning, smoking affected me in ways that I knew were different from others in my cohort. I would never think to put out a half-smoked cigarette. I inhaled deeply, and soulfully, like an opera singer before a crescendo. I held them properly, like Bette Davis, index and middle finger gracefully aloft in midair. Menthol took my virginity, and I would not stray, even when they were hard to find. Marlboro and Camel had street cred, especially among the boys, but I didn’t care. I liked the taste, the smell, and the way the minty freshness mixed with ash filled up my mouth and lungs. I felt layers of primal needs being met with each inhalation.

By 16, I had my first job and was earning enough to buy my own smokes. Newport, most popular among the girls, was 55 cents a pack. I became a sought-after cigarette dispensary at Notre Dame and, as a perk, became more popular than I had been. I achieved a level of cool that previously eluded me. Shadowed by an almost constant shroud of smoke that felt more like a shield, I was emboldened to take risks that were agonizing for an introvert. 

My parents’ tacit approval, or lack of disapproval, did not mean I could smoke in front of them. I still had to carve out creatively timed escapes that took the form of “long walks” to the park, and were coordinated with my nicotine “fits”, as we called them. My older sister, fearless when it came to mom’s ire and rage, would often crack open the bedroom window, and hold her cigarette over the giant purple Rhododendron, while I begged her to stop, knowing the inevitable fight that would ensue once she was caught. Although the common areas of the house smelled of cigarettes, the bedrooms did not, and my sister’s transgression would usually draw the attention of one of our parents. I didn’t have the moxie to attempt this same level of defiance until long after my sister left home, and after I stopped giving a shit about fights.

At the Colonial Diner, where I worked as a waitress on the bar crowd shift, we smoked in the kitchen, on the cook line, and in the booth where we took our breaks. I developed a habit of extinguishing a partially smoked cigarette in the ashtray when an order would come up, and relighting that nasty 2 inch, exponentially more toxic butt once the customer was served. It was partly an economical choice; cigarettes had gone up to 75 cents a pack and I was saving for a car. But it was also an ethical issue. I couldn’t waste a smoke like that. It seemed wrong.

I was pregnant in 1979. By then we knew that cigarettes had a deleterious effect on a fetus. It wasn’t hard to quit, and I attributed the ease with which I severed this old relationship to the love I felt for the new relationship growing in my body. And the heartburn, which was relentless. I stayed smoke-free until I failed at breastfeeding, when my son was six months old and enthusiastically shredding my nipples. The pain and the self-recrimination at my lactation failure seemed as good a reason as any to seek the sweet relief of a hard pack of twenty mood stabilizers.

The culture around smoking had changed, seemingly overnight. I was uncomfortably self-conscious about smoking in my son’s presence. Overt public scorn seemed perfectly acceptable, with frequent side-eyes and tsk-tsk’s a not uncommon reaction to a woman pushing a stroller with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. Smoking sections in restaurants were phased out and laws encroaching on the great outdoors as a known permissible giant ashtray started to fray my nerves. I could still remember flying to Florida not that long ago on a Pan-Am jet with my parents when the whole cabin was smoking. When did the sensual image of a smoking Greta Garbo transform into a monstrous stereotype of a yellow-toothed high school dropout who works at an auto parts store and whose fingers always smell like the bottom of the compost bin? I dug in my heels. I would never quit under these fascistic conditions.

Over the years, I gave quitting a few tepid attempts. Now with two grandkids, I imagine they might like me to attend their graduation ceremonies and possibly their weddings. I tried the patches, joined the “freedom from smoking” support group, took their banal suggestions to walk and drink lots of water.  A messaged me about nicotine free fake cigarettes, which I promptly ordered from Amazon. At first, it was the perfect remedy for my cravings, providing all the ritual of in and exhalation, with vapor smoke included. But it proved to be a gateway drug back to the real thing. After all, I knew what was in a cigarette. Fake cigarettes could be dangerous.

I think about smoking more than any other single thing. It’s a reward for every task I complete, no matter how insignificant or grand. It is food when I’m hungry but don’t want to eat and a mood elevator that jump starts monotony or inertia. Exhausted after a sleepless night, that first cigarette of the morning ameliorates lethargy, forcing blood through my body like a lava spill. With my fingers wrapped around crackling tobacco, drawing the billowy menthol smoke deep into my lungs feels like meditation, an act of solitary sensuality. I can’t prove it’s true, but I believe every great idea I’ve ever had happened while smoking. I will always love smoking, and I am convinced that I was born a smoker.

I had a lung scan a few months ago. I’ve been having them for well over a decade, in preparation for what I assume will be a grim consequence of my virtually uninterrupted half-century love affair with smoking. “Ground glass” is a description of a thing my doctor said was an unwelcome result on a lung scan. I can so easily visualize the tiny shards, and in my mind they shimmer. I have an inhaler now, which seems like an exaggerated response since I have no lung distress. In a month, there is a follow-up scan to see if the shards have scattered further. I haven’t quit smoking but, in all likelihood, if the results are poor, I will. I’ve lost a few loved ones to COPD and it’s not a romantic death, what with all the gasping for air. But I feel sure that I will mourn the loss of the one thing that brought me such pleasure and comfort for most of my life, even while it was stealing years of that life away.