We were a conservative little town where women officially didn’t smoke, but it was an open secret that if anyone needed a menthol cigarette to unclog a stuffy nose, all they had to do was go to any of the neighbors and ask for one. There a pack of Kools would be withdrawn from its hiding place in a dresser drawer under a fluffy pile of lingerie.
My father had tried smoking corn tassels as a little boy. He described climbing a tree with his cousin, rolling the tassels in a husk, and setting fire to this makeshift mess. He got so sick he never touched a real cigarette, and even the sight of a corn husk made him turn green. But he wasn’t the only one in the family who ran afoul of tobacco.
My grandmother was a fan of sophisticated movie stars, and one day decided that she should learn to smoke. And she never did anything halfway. With a determined look on her face, she planted herself in the rocking chair in the middle of her bedroom and applied herself single-mindedly to becoming the world’s greatest smoker. She got out the big kitchen matches and settled in for a long learning session. After several false starts, she managed to get one going and keep it going. Acrid smoke spiraled upward. She gave a gentle cough. Then she inhaled. Her eyes turned red and tears began to form.
“Are you sure you want to learn to smoke?” my mother asked, expressing the doubts of the small crowd of family who had gathered around to watch The Great Experiment.
My grandmother gave a delicate hack, nodded her head, and took another puff.
“Maybe we’d better open the windows.” This suggestion of my mother’s was instantly put into effect.
Soon our eyes stung, too. One after the other, my grandmother puffed her way nonstop through an entire pack of cigarettes. Soon her gentle cough became a hack, then a honk, then a full-throated sound resembling a dying moose. We no longer depended on the raised windows: out came the fans to blow the acrid smell out the windows. My grandfather was getting that I’ve-got-to-stop-this look in his eye. We worried; that look was rarely seen.
At last my grandmother finished the pack. We didn’t know what to say. Apparently, neither did she. But admitting defeat wasn’t necessary. She calmly coughed her way down the hall and deposited the empty pack of cigarettes in the garbage can and then set the whole thing outside the back door.
“Jill” – little cough – “help your mother” – hack – “take down the” – honk – “curtains,” she ordered. We obeyed as quickly as possible. She gave up trying to talk and used hand signals to let us know to take them outside to the wringer washer in the garage. (Back then we kept the washer outside with the dirty clothes – who wanted dirty laundry in the house?)
We washed curtains, aired rugs; and when my father got home from work, he helped my grandfather drag the heavier pieces outside. My mother got out the eggbeater and some mild soap and beat up a froth of homemade upholstery shampoo. With slow, gentle strokes she went over everything.
By the time we had this done, everyone was ready to drop. But we couldn’t sleep with that still in our hair and our clothes, so there was a long line at the kitchen sink for hair washing.
In the middle of the night we heard, “I just can’t take it any longer!” as my grandfather threw his reeking pillow out the window. My father suggested we all sleep outside. But in a place where mosquitoes are referred to as “the state bird”, that wasn’t really practical unless you wanted to smell like Citronella all night. And we had enough trouble with odors.
We mopped up after The Great Smoking Experiment for what seemed like weeks. My grandmother said she felt strange for a month. That was the end of her flirtation with the Hollywood sophistication she was trying so hard to imitate. We never mentioned it again.
Years later, the three of us women were together again, watching an old movie with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. The last scene faded out on two cigarettes burning in the same ashtray. Knowing Bogie’s sad end, we all sighed. We exchanged glances, but no one said a word. I think we were all thinking the same thing: It was too bad his first experience with tobacco hadn’t ended like my grandmother’s.
Don’t run with
Them who do.
– Old cautionary poem Southern children once memorized
Text ©2015 Jill Teresa Farmer