Shared Stories: A family of smokers

Sharon Benson Smith shares some funny anecdotes about a substance that many of us have experimented with – tobacco.  But the substance also brought loss and grief to her family. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Sharon Benson Smith

Mom and Dad smoked. He smoked his Camels, and she smoked her Kools or Salems. Of course, that was a definite taboo for the six of us kids, but we all started smoking quite early in our teens anyway. I recall that Mom would light a cigarette, leave it in the ash tray on the kitchen counter, then go off to another part of the house to take care of whatever needed her attention. 

I would take a big puff of the cigarette, hold my breath, then run down the hall to my bedroom to blow it out the window. As crazy as it sounds, I enjoyed smoking from the very first puff (evidently, so did my siblings).

In junior high school, during recess or going between classes, we girls would light a cigarette in the restroom, take a few quick puffs, and pass it around. A teacher must have gotten wind of what was going on, and she came into the restroom one day, caught us red handed, and ushered us to the office of the girls’ vice principal. I was so embarrassed and ashamed, but more than anything, I feared my dad learning of it.

Naturally, my parents were contacted. They questioned me that night at home, and I lied by telling them I had no part in the incident; I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then we were told that a parent had to go to school with each daughter to meet with the principal.   

Mom told Dad she thought he should handle this situation. So, Dad met with the principal and sternly told her that, “If my daughter told me she was not involved in the incident, that’s good enough for me -- she was not involved.” He then left for home, and I stayed in school. Whew! I didn’t have to suffer Dad’s wrath!

As it turned out, I had to suffer my own personal demons. I had such a guilty conscience about lying to Dad, having him be so supportive of me in the situation, and putting him through such an ordeal, that after a few days I could no longer continue with the ruse.

I cried while confessing that I had lied and apologized for it. I expected, at the very least, some verbal backlash. He didn’t say a word; he merely shook his head in disbelief and utter disappointment. That very look and his disappointment hurt much worse than the unspoken words. As I’m writing this paragraph, I have looked “upward” and said once again, “Sorry, Dad.”

Our mom died of lung cancer in 1977, and we were told that her cancer was definitely cigarette smoking related, with the menthols in particular. As a tribute to her, I quit smoking shortly after her death. We lost our lovely baby sister, Donna, in 1990 to lung cancer and my equally lovely sister, Phyllis, in 2009 to lung cancer.

Dad quit smoking early on. I’m not sure if it was of his own accord or the doctor’s orders, but he always had such an iron-clad will that I tend to believe it was his personal choice. He outlived Mom by about 15 years. As a matter of fact, he remarried and lost his second wife to lung cancer. 

The oldest, brother George, quit smoking for several years, started up again, then ultimately quit a few years later before he had to have an aortic valve replacement and quadruple bypass surgery. He lived many years after that but succumbed to kidney failure in 2012.

Brother Cal has had an aortic valve replacement plus vocal cord cancer which was cured after 35 radiation treatments. He lost the sound quality of his voice for a while. He has regained most of it, BUT HE CONTINUES TO SMOKE! I bug him about it each time we meet. I’m hoping and praying that maybe after reading this, the impact of seeing it in print will finally hit home!

The youngest sibling, Bob, (our Dink who fell in love with “Lady” of “Lady and the Tramp” movie fame and said, “Gee Mom, I wish I were a dog”), also quit smoking several years ago, and enjoys his smokeless days with the dogs he loves.

I continue to thank God and give him all the glory for delivering me from the desire, and giving me the courage, to quit smoking after more than 20 years. It was definitely His direct answer to my prayers each time I was tempted to light up and asked Him to take away the urge. That was 37 years and 50 pounds ago! I’m still waiting for His direct answer to my prayers about my eating and the 50-pound weight gain!

All kidding aside, I believe it is absolutely wonderful that the medical community has been so successful in aiding the drastic decline in smoking. It all came about through their cancer research and getting the word out to the public. It used to be that you couldn’t see a movie that didn’t glamorize smoking. You couldn’t drive too far without seeing billboards that advertised Camels, Lucky Strikes or the Marlboro Man, nor could you thumb through a magazine without seeing a myriad of advertisements suggesting this or that brand. The message seems to have greatly resonated with the “now generation” as cigarette smoking is definitely on the downturn.

I think it’s fitting to end this writing by quoting the Virginia Slims Cigarette’s advertising slogan, “We’ve come a long way, Baby.”