Our parents smoked until their sixties. All our friends’ parents smoked. Everyone smoked everywhere: offices, restaurants, airplanes, movie theaters, and hotel rooms. No one complained or questioned it. After the war, only the tobacco companies suspected smoking damaged the lungs. They concealed their findings. Leslie and I didn’t like our parents’ smoking. Not because either of us had asthma or breathing problems. We hated the smell and the smoke.
They each smoked more than a pack a day. Sometimes when Mom ran out of cigarettes, she asked me to walk down Park Ave and buy a package at the drugstore on Mass Ave. Since I was only ten years old, Mom wrote a note to the druggist stating that I had her permission to purchase it. Leslie and I didn’t like this errand—the store owner always quizzed me—so I encouraged one or two friends to go with us for moral support. On the way we stopped at the Ben Franklin and looked through the postage stamps displayed in transparent envelopes to find any we needed for our stamp collections. We hemmed and hawed at the candy counter deciding what to buy. My favorites were fireballs and cough lozenges. Finally, we looked at the revolving magazine rack to see if the store had any new Illustrated Classics. We owned dozens, swapping the comics among friends. The pictures were the main attraction. There was nothing like these exciting stories on TV.
Eventually I couldn’t put off going to the drug store. At the register, I mumbled, holding up the note. Usually the druggist grumbled but sold me the cigarettes. Sometimes, he refused, and we’d have to troop down a block to another store. Once Mom gave me enough money to buy a carton of Camels. Leaving our friends outside, Leslie and I entered the store. The druggist read the note and shook his head. “That’s too many. I can’t sell a carton to you.”
“But I have a note.”
“How do I know your mother wrote it?” He saw our friends pressing their faces against the front window. “One of your friends could have written this.”
Leslie spoke up, “She did so write it.” Leslie was shorter and two years younger.
I was angry with Mom for putting me in this embarrassing position. An impatient customer waited behind us.
The druggist leaned over the counter. “Tell your mother to buy her own cigarettes.”
Leslie burst into tears as if he’d accused Mom of a crime. I took Leslie’s arm and left. The woman behind us spoke loud enough for us to hear, “Imagine a mother sending her children to buy her cigarettes.”
Too upset to try another store we returned home empty-handed. Mom was irritated with the druggist, but after I told her what the woman had said, she never asked us to buy cigarettes again.
When Leslie and I began stealing our parents’ cigarettes, we took one or two from a pack and hid them in a shoebox tucked at the back of Leslie’s closet. We waited until Mom was upstairs before searching through her pocketbook. Sometimes we found an open roll of Life Savers, but we left them alone. Mom might remember what color was next. Our task was easier when she left a pack on a table or the kitchen counter. We always returned the pack in the same position.
One morning Leslie and I were stealing from a pack in the dining room, when Mom entered the kitchen unexpectedly through the back door. I panicked and ran into the living room, still holding the package. Trying to pry out a cigarette, my hands shook, and I dropped the pack on an end table. Mom entered the living room and saw me. “Have you seen my cigarettes? I thought I left them on the dining room table.”
I shook my head, frightened at almost getting caught.
“Look, Mom, over here.” Leslie pointed to the package on the table. “That’s where Mark put them!” I glared at Leslie who, realizing her mistake, covered her mouth.
Mom looked where Leslie pointed. “What were you doing with them, Mark?”
Even at that early age, my ability to lie on the spot was well-developed. “I found them on the floor in the dining room and brought them in here.”
Mom had tapped out a cigarette and stuck it in the corner of her mouth. “Thank you. Mark,” she mumbled, the cigarette bobbing between her lips. She struck a match. “That was thoughtful.” She took a drag on the cigarette, shook out the match, and blew the smoke out her nose.
Several weeks later, Mom was vacuuming Leslie’s room. She turned the vacuum off. “For heaven’s sake.” She came to the head of the stairs. “Leslie? Mark? Come upstairs, please?”
“In here.” she said from Leslie’s room. She stood beside the closet with the open shoebox. “I couldn’t imagine where all my cigarettes had gone. I told Dad I must be smoking more than I thought,” She placed the box on the bed, and knelt to hug us. “What a nice surprise.”
She wasn’t angry but relieved that she hadn’t increased her daily consumption. She told this story many times to friends and relatives. “... and what do you think I found? A shoebox filled with my cigarettes. Isn’t that cute? They don’t want me to smoke. Oh, I know I should quit but...”
Our parents quit smoking in their late sixties when Dad needed an inhaler to alleviate his breathing problems. When the summer air-quality was considered dangerous, he remained indoors with the air conditioning on. To my amazement, neither of them had lung cancer.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish