Monday, March 22, 2010

Memory Monday: The Smoking Wars

I know that from time to time in our house there were wondrous smells – cakes and cookies baking, my mother ironing clothes from the freezer (where they had been stored after being sprinkled with water, rolled up, and placed in a plastic bag), newly cut sweet peas and carnations placed in vases, a freshly sawed piece of wood brought in by my father for additional finishing work, and many others.

Most often I remember these smells hitting me right after I had come into the house from outside. There was also an underlying smell that I didn’t really think about much when I was very little; it was just a fact of life and I never stopped to think about its source.

Then, when I was five years old, I started school. By first grade, I was spending a good part of my day at school. The difference between the smells at school and the smells at home started to become perceptible to me (not all to the school’s advantage, either) and it gradually started to dawn on me that I had a sensitive nose.

One sniff, and then: “Eww, ants.” “That lady wears Grandma’s perfume.” “I smell tulips.” (Mom: “Tulips don’t have a smell.” Me: “Yes, they do.”)

But the big thing I now noticed at home was the smell of smoke. Ever-present smoke. A bit in the background at times, and super-strong when both of my parents lit up after dinner. They both smoked cigarettes, although my father would often smoke cigars at work when he could afford them. I never had a problem coming up with cigar boxes for craft projects at school; one covered with macaroni shells sprayed in gold paint was my mother’s pride and joy, or so she said.

I don’t know how exactly I moved from being semi-indifferent to cigarette smoke to hating it. Part of it started when I began to notice that the farther away from smoke I sat while eating, the better my food tasted. As the slow eater in the family, I was often still eating when my parents reached the “coffee and cigarettes” part of the meal. There were various ways – subtle ways, I thought – to avoid the smoke: turning slightly away, putting my elbow on the table with my hand up to the side of my head or straight ahead on the table to screen my plate (that worked as long as the “Elbow Police” were not on the alert).

And the revulsion at smoke became stronger when I came down with any of the zillion bugs that afflict children in the early grades of school: regular colds, flu, and severe colds that turned into bronchitis.

Cigar smoke was worse than cigarette smoke, although because I so strongly associated the smell of cigars with my father’s presence, I always felt toward that smell what I think of as “fond irritation” or what I guess some people would call “love-hate. “ The ironic thing was that since almost any kind of smoke from pipe tobacco (except for the absolutely bottom-of-the-barrel brands) was so much more pleasant than either cigarettes or cigars that I have always liked that smell. Go figure.

Most of my repertoire of smoke avoidance in my early years consisted precisely of that: evasion maneuvers. At times, as I got older, I would do the wrinkled nose thing to express my disapproval. As a pre-teen I might say “P.U.!” and bat at the air. But there was very little open disapproval and certainly not scolding, especially not with my father.

The issue came to a head when my mother and I lived in Texas. I was not a rebellious teenager, but I did have a smart mouth. And I could do the prissy indignation thing very well . That happened when my mother would light up after dinner and I was still eating; I would pick up my dish and move away from the table. Mom would express her disappointment that I felt the need to make such a big deal. I had various disapproving and sarcastic replies to this.

And that was the great point of contention between my mother and me. I can only remember one or two arguments about any other subject. Was it just that mothers and teenage daughters have to argue, and smoking just happened to be the subject? When I think back on it now, I wonder – did my mother have her own “evasion maneuvers” to avoid facing my disapproval? I see “the line” outside workplaces: people taking their smoking breaks away from building entrances, even on cold, windy days, and although my mother never went outside to smoke, it makes me think of her. Did my mother enjoy her cigarettes more when I was away at school and she could smoke in peace?

In later years my main worry about Mom’s smoking was that she smoked in bed. There was no denying the evidence when I came to visit; her lovely blue bedspread had a row of little round holes across the top. She felt bad about it, but there was nothing to be done; she had to have a cigarette first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening.

Today when I pull out old photographs, recipes, and other mementos that I inherited from my mother, the smell of smoke is pretty strong from most of them. Some, like her recipe box, are covered with a thick layer of smoky grime. Even so, they must have lost a lot of their pungency after all these years. When a cousin sent me a closed plastic bag with a few items I had overlooked when cleaning out Mom’s house after she died, the smell that hit me from those items was even stronger. I was suddenly transported back to our apartment in Seymour. The odd thing was that I didn’t remember our apartment ever smelling this strong.

And I am a little less “holier-than-thou” now. It is humbling when you realize all the things you are addicted to. I am trying to cut a coffee habit down from 2-3 cups a day to just one cup in the morning (can’t live without that one!). That much coffee can’t be good for you. It stains your teeth, you know. Oh – you do know.

Mom's recipe box. I tried to scrub off the smoke film, but couldn't get all of it off.


  1. It is funny, I also find the smell of smoke repulsive...I also can smell the tulips.

    I can identify the spices in a dish just by smelling the aroma.

    There must be different levels of nasal sensitivity. I can smell things that others do not. Guess I should have been a perfume tester. There are a lot of perfumes that I also find repulsive too.

  2. I can identify with the smell of smoke now...although, back in the day, I was a smoker. I haven't touched one in 32 years and now it bothers me to smell the point of my eyes burning. AND, I DO remember the the ritual of sprinkling the clothes, rolling them and placing them in the fridge (not the freezer) before ironing them. I wonder what ever happened to those sprinkle

  3. I had a father that smoked like that and I got to where I could not stand the smell of smoke, however, he also broke me of ever wanting coffee, because I would have to make my parents' coffee first thing in the morning. I tried a sip and it was like lead in my stomach. Never wanted it again.
    Funny how a fragrance, bad or good can transport us to a memory.
    Good memory post.

  4. I have a sensitive sense of smell too. Most perfumes smell terrible to me and it always makes me wonder why people want to go around stinking like they do when they wear perfume! It feels like someone has taken an ice pick and is jamming it in my nose and eyes. The strong smell of smoke can throw me into a migraine that isn't any fun.

  5. Claudia and Alice - It's funny how some smells - even those that are supposed to be good ones - can turn some people off. Perfumes don't generally bother me, but there is one brand of hand lotion with a fragrance that gives me throat spasms.

    Linda - I wonder if they still have the sprinkling top that fits exactly into a Coke bottle - that's what I remember Mom using.

    hummer - I didn't care for coffee until I spent a few days in Germany as a college student - the coffee there was wonderful and made me an addict for life.

  6. Hello Greta:

    How are you today? Just to drop a note. My wife, Copper, her mother smoked. I used scrubbing bubbles to clean the ceiling and walls. What a difference. You might try this product in a non-noticible area. Or just an ever so tiny area. You do not want to ruin your mom's box.

    Take care,