Although he had quit smoking twenty-five years before his lung cancer diagnosis, it is fair to say that cigarettes played a significant role in my father’s death at age 68. As a kid growing up, I always knew him to be a smoker: True Greens to be more specific. He carried them in his briefcase (alongside the six rolls of Cryst-O-Mint Lifesavers) and, on the weekends, in the pocket of his shirt. They would live on his bureau in the evening, ripe for pilfering by his teenage children. (Not that I ever did that…) It was so much a part of our lives that I thought it was perfectly normal to run into the neighborhood White Hen Pantry (as a ten-year old) to buy them for him while he waited in the car. Oh, sure, he kept threatening to quit (in response to our pleading him to do so), but it took a while. He finally did in 1981. It was not until 2003 that it caught up with him.
Growing up, at the end of dinner every night, he would push his chair from the table, lean back, re-cross his legs from whichever direction they were in and enjoy a cigarette, sometimes two, right there at the table. It was a ritual at the same family meal during which we had the following non-negotiable rules: no one could start to eat until my mother was seated, there would be no answering the phone* and, finally, no one left the table until everyone was done eating. Family time was extremely important to my father…ironic that he spent part of it slowly killing himself.
Strange, though; while it is seldom that I am in the company of a smoker, when I am, I find myself taken back to my childhood and, oddly enough, loving the smell of the nicotine or tar or whatever it is that makes the smoke smell the way that it does. It brings me instantly back to my father, our family dinners and outings and, sadly enough, the horrible habit which ultimately killed him. It strikes me, each and every time, that my reaction is one of happiness, pleasure and nostalgia not one of anger or disgust. One would think I would find it repellent, disgusting and infuriating, but, alas, I do not. In fact, I have found myself slowing down while passing a smoker on the street, just to grab a quick whiff of the familiar scent.
True, too, for strong mints. The Cryst-O-Mints which he sucked on feverishly were an effort to keep his breath pleasant. (Said breath challenge was a direct result of smoking habit. Duh.) They were particularly pungent and I recall, as a kid, trying like hell to get through a whole one, but not being able to get past just how strong they were. Now, when I catch wind of a strong peppermint smell, I get the same feeling as I do with the cigarette smoke. Brings me back.
This all makes me think about my own kids and to wonder what childhood smells, when they are adults, will bring them back to being a kid. What negative will wind up a positive? What is staying with them in ways that I cannot possibly begin to imagine?