When we look back upon our lives as youths, it is much like looking through the reverse end of a telescope. Not only was life obviously different because there was no television, VCRs, computers, or air conditioning, there was also a different code of behavior. Viewed through the prism of time, we are, in some ways, as citizens of the 90s, as different from our parents as aliens from another planet.
Men were free to smoke and most did. Women had begun smoking in significant numbers during the war years, but the older generation had never found smoking among females acceptable social behavior. Women had not yet come a very long way, baby. This unwritten code led to a benign deception in our family. My mom and all of her sisters smoked, but not around my grandfather. In fact, even his daughter-in-law did not smoke around him. They didn’t acknowledge in his presence that tobacco ever touched their lips.
My grandfather was a wonderful patriarch. He was widowed early in his marriage when my mother was only 7. His passions were his family, his garden in the back of his South Philadelphia row home where he grew corn and tended his fig tree, wrestling and baseball, in that order. He mixed his wine with Frank’s Cream Soda, which means that he was making spritzers years before they were invented. In short, Grandpop was a forward thinking man, except on the issue of women smoking, especially his own daughters. The fact Grandpop himself liked to puff on a cigar or that both of his sons openly smoked, didn’t seem at all to him at odds with his belief that women should be nicotine-free.
He had four daughters — really five — because his daughter-in-law was also a daughter to him. Tobacco, being the addiction that it is, did not respect family tradition. The urge to smoke overcame the noblest of intentions. The craving would not wait until Grandpop was not around. Our houses were small, privacy not being one of the uppermost considerations when they were constructed. There were no secret passageways, as in the old mystery movies of the era, where one could hide while smoking. The only citadel of privacy was the bathroom.
You can question the logic of his daughters who believed that they could smoke in the bathroom and yet not have their cigarette smoke betray their secret to Grandpop. I have questioned their logic myself as I have sorted through these memories over the years. One comes to the inevitable conclusion that they had no choice. That was why, during a typical family gathering, along about the middle of the evening, his daughters would disappear one at a time, and head for the bathroom. Each would reappear with their guilt clearly visible on their faces.
In the meantime, grandpop would wait until all five women had paid homage to the tobacco leaf, and then head upstairs for the bathroom. His daughters would react with shocked expressions, as if this bit of Kabuki theater had never played out before. The tiny bathroom, by now, was filled with clouds of fresh cigarette smoke. By comparison, a pool hall would have been considered environmentally pristine. Grandpop would have to be lucky not to trip over the bathtub in the dense haze.
The minutes dragged by interminably. These poor women tortured themselves worrying that Grandpop had discovered their secret. Finally, he would return to his easy chair. He never said a word about the smoke in the bathroom. In his own way, Grandpop was part of this bit of theater. The scene was repeated all through their lives with his daughters sneaking away to smoke in the bathroom, while he pretended not to notice.
There were several close calls that almost ended this quaint charade. His son and daughter-in-law lived next door. One night, when the gang was gathered in their home, Grandpop unexpectedly entered through the kitchen door in the rear of the house. Aunt Mary, who for some reason always seemed to be the one most vulnerable to being caught, was puffing away contentedly as Grandpop came through the door. For one dreaded moment, they were face to face.
Family respect hung perilously in the balance. Aunt Mary quickly flicked her cigarette into the kitchen sink, almost hitting Grandpop in the nose. He turned away as if it never happened.
There was even a closer call, and again it involved poor Aunt Mary. She was immersed in a conversation on the second floor of my Aunt Ange’s home on Mildred Street, again enjoying a cigarette. There is no explanation for why she reacted to the ringing of the doorbell by throwing her lit cigarette out of the second floor window. Grandpop was standing with his finger on the bell when the tiny tobacco missile came hurtling out of the window above him, carrying the tell-tale trace of blood red lipstick. The cigarette hit with the deadly accuracy of Jimmy Doolittle dropping bombs over Tokyo in World War II. And for a moment, our world stopped. Surely now, Grandpop would confront his harried daughter. But he entered the house quietly and never uttered a word about it.
As a young boy, I learned a valuable lesson that night, the value of which would not become fully apparent until I was much older. There I sat with my mother and my aunts, none of whom would ever disrespect their father by smoking in front of him. And there he sat, in all his silver haired nobility, knowing that this kind of respect was more important than whether they smoked or not.
I live my life hoping that I too can someday earn that measure of respect from my kids.
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