Old pictures have a way of stoking smoldering embers into flares of memory. I was rummaging through a shoebox filled with old pictures. The pictures weren’t the yellowed-edged, faded color of my childhood; they were the modish black and white of a ring-a-ding-ding couple before they were my parents.
Two pictures stood out for me: one of my father kneeling in a snow bank with a dog I’d never met, the other of my mother looking like a young Lauren Bacall, lips pursed around a slim cigarette while ribbons of smoke wreathe her head – the laurels of prowess and independence.
Looking at that image of my mother made me wonder about old movies and if actors, actresses and the movie industry could be held as accountable for smoking related illnesses as the tobacco companies have been because of images they create. Images are powerful and ambiguous and pliable, bending so that they often validate our decisions.
Every night after dinner when I couldn’t have been more than six or seven, my mother and father would lounge on the couch and match a cigarette. I remember watching them and feeling a little envious. It was like they were having another desert. They seemed to enjoy it so thoroughly that with every exhale came the stresses of their day.
They looked so good doing it, too. They are young in this image, their hair still dark, their faces still smooth, their bodies slender and strong. They looked like the commercials I longed to be in. I remember sitting on the floor, just watching them, anxious for the day when I would be allowed to smoke.
When no one was looking, I once took two cigarettes from my dad’s pack. My best friend Chuck and I ran down into the woods and lit up. The menthol taste was so offensive to us that we could not get beyond a few puffs. “Let’s try my dad’s,” Chuck suggested, and he pulled out two regular cigarettes. “Mmmmm. Now that’s a cigarette,” I said like a seasoned connoisseur.
Chuck and I continued sneaking cigarettes from his dad as often as possible. We even, upon occasion, bought our own packs. Since both our fathers used to send us to the store to pick up a pack of cigarettes for them like our moms would send us for a loaf of bread, it was easy and there were no questions asked.
When I was in sixth grade, my mother stopped smoking. She told my brothers and me that it was bad for you. “But Dad smokes,” we said. It’s bad for him too, she said. I never remember seeing my mother with a cigarette in her hand again.
My father continued smoking – one to two packs a day. Chuck and I continued our smoking as well. It had such delicious adult flavor and smooth social significance in the world of bubblegum and skinned knee, it would have been senseless to stop. I continued smoking off and on from about the fifth grade through college.
When my father died of bladder cancer at 56, it was clear that his smoking was a direct cause of his early demise. The nicotine concentrates in the bladder, the doctors explained, bathing it with the richness of cool carcinogens.