Rosanne Skopp
Rosanne Skopp

Smoke Signals

Which fourteen year old girl doesn’t want to look more sophisticated? Certainly not me! As a serious movie-goer I longed for that look, cool, wise, beautiful, witty, and always with a cigarette held aloft. I thought those who kept their cigarettes between tightly clenched lips looked crude and crass. But, those who took occasional drags, holding the cigarette in just the most elegant way, we were the cognoscenti. Think Ingrid Bergman or Elizabeth Taylor. Classy and collected, and never wondering what to do with our hands! Their purpose was to flaunt our maturity, not to be immersed in our mouths biting our fingernails. Who knew then that sucking a thumb or biting nails would, in the end, be the healthier choice?

Anyway, it wasn’t a matter of health. Young teenagers are normally lucky enough to know they will live forever. Thus, when my parents chastised me for what my mother called a “filthy habit,” I assumed she didn’t know what she was talking about. Even had she called it a “deadly habit,” I would have similarly ignored her. She was a smart woman but clearly she didn’t know the first thing about how to look, bored and all-knowing; that was me! That was me?

And so, after working through the bouts of acute dizziness, I learned to smoke, and smoking loved me. I was good for the economy and by the time I started to believe the health warnings, it was too late. I was already addicted. No meal was ever complete without a cigarette chaser. And every time I made a commitment to quit, I showed my true mettle. I continued to smoke.

I knew that in my heavy smoking family (specifically excluding my mother, and my father who smoked cigars), death came easy and early to most of my aunts and uncles who smoked, virtually all of them. Heart attacks in their fifties or sixties was the usual route and knowing the pattern didn’t stop the craves. It is to my daughter Amy that I owe the final lasting stop-smoking promise. She didn’t nag me. She merely, at age 12, said that she was going to follow in my smoky path and become a smoker herself unless I quit.

And so I did.

One thing remained between me and the puffery. Matches!

I have a vast collection of matches, a formerly traditional free-be in most restaurants. Any smoker needs matches and I was no exception. Hence I collected matches like you might collect art or stamps. I could even rate them. Some didn’t ignite easily. Some were downright dangerous. Some required practice to get them going. And some could readily burn your fingertips. Nonetheless I have my collection and I certainly have no expectations that, like art or stamps, my matches will one day be valuable, but they are a record of the places I went.

Have you noticed that restaurants no longer gift matches? They don’t even provide ashtrays. And our homes clearly are now ashtray free. Years ago it would have been unheard of not to have ashtrays distributed on coffee tables. Today my house is smoke-free. Probably this is true for you as well. No one is more high and mighty than the former smoker. Smoking is a filthy habit!

So, now, nostalgia leads the way and I see where I’ve been, via my hundreds of books of matches. I finally know why they’re called books, as I read them cover to cover. And I remember, sitting at smoky tables, in rooms drowning in cigarette exhaust, the places throughout the world where I’ve been, the places throughout the world where I’ve smoked.

One of my favorite smoking haunts was the back of airplanes. As a mother of four kids, there was barely a time when I could just sit and smoke with no responsibilities that needed to be taken care of. Except on the plane. Nothing to do but relax and smoke! No flight was complete without a full pack. Ah, the simple pleasures of life.

My family history was cluttered with the aunts and uncles who died too young, all of them smokers. I was bereft when Aunt Edna, as close to a second mother as I ever had, died abruptly at age 57. Aunt Edna, my father’s slightly older sister, was a thin, wiry, woman who had a rare energy. It was she who I chose to accompany me, three times, to take my road-test for my hard to obtain driver’s license. If I hadn’t passed the third time around I guess I would have never become a driver, but Edna supported my efforts, knowing full well what life without a driver’s license forced one to do. Public transportation all the way! She knew how important passing that test was. She had done it herself at age 40 and only ever used the license to accompany me to the road-test. How she ever passed her own test remains a mystery.

My uncle Charlie, died at 63. He was the fulfillment of my grandparent’s dream, a dentist. To me, at the time, 63 did seem pretty old, especially since Charlie looked old, bent over from the many years of leaning over his patients to peer, poke and pillage their mouths. However, he was not old, in fact, at all. He and my father were the same age and when Charlie died, my father, Sam, had exactly 38 years of high quality life awaiting him. The cigars my father smoked didn’t seem to have had much impact on his lifespan but Charlie’s cigarettes clearly caused his abbreviated time on Earth.

Charlie’s brother, the beloved Uncle Dave, died suddenly even younger. He was a mere 57 and never without a cigarette.

Uncle Jack, my father’s elder brother, always debonair, smoked incessantly, his high-class cigarette holder always in his mouth which closed forever when he was 63.

And so it went, with relatives on both sides of the family slipping into oblivion with packages of cigarettes in their pockets or purses.

I, meanwhile, grew up oblivious to the fact that I might become middle-aged and fall like the other flies I shared genes with. No. I was forever young. Most young people cannot ever imagine that they will, one day, cease to be kids. It is hard to imagine!

Thus, I accumulated matches and enjoyed periodically reviewing the places I’d been. Until Amy threatened me! And I believed her!

I stopped smoking forever. And even now, at least 40 years later, I still crave an after dinner cigarette. That is the power of an addiction.

Thanks Amy!

About the Author
Rosanne Skopp is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of fourteen, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and travels back and forth between homes in New Jersey and Israel. She is currently writing a family history.
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