My father had two brothers. One, Uncle Jack, was a very dapper fellow who smoked cigarettes with a holder. He looked so sophisticated in my eyes of a child. Sharply dressed, the famous cigarette just made him seem so cool. Little did he, or we, know then that those cigarettes were undoubtedly responsible for his early passing of a massive heart attack. Even with the distinguished holder, the cigarettes did him no good.
The other two, my father and his kid brother Benny, were confirmed cigar smokers. They were hardly ever without a cigar, seemingly glued to the right side of those Litwak mouths. Those cigars got wet and soggy and dripped their ashes over decades of clothing. Stains. Holes. New clothes never stayed new for long in the Litwak homes. Yet, both of those smokers lived to old age. My father was almost 98 when he left us and Uncle Benny was 92. I guess the cigars hurt their clothing but not their hearts.
Last night, we had a girls (if at 78, 75 and 65 we’re still girls) night out. My sister and I reminisced about our father, Sam, and Jody, our much younger cousin remembered her father, Benny. Cigars stories galore!
Jody remembered a Shabbat when her father had the usual cigar in his mouth, spewing ashes and their powerful smell, when Benny saw Zayda, his father. Zayda was a pragmatic man who knew very well that none of his six children shared his religiosity. But, the myth was perpetuated and none of his children willingly broke the Shabbat laws in his presence. Until that moment. Benny was caught. Or almost caught. In an act both quick witted and somewhat panicked, Benny dodged the glare of Zayda in the only way possible. He stuck the lit cigar into his pants pockets. Zayda, seeing the smoke coming out of his youngest son’s pants, in an act of complete and total restraint, said absolutely nothing. He did, however, immediately leave the room, conjuring up images of his son catching fire. Thus Benny was free to remove the cigar and even salvage the pants. He continued to smoke but was never again caught by Zayda on Shabbat.
My father and mother had a very agreeable marriage but she was not a fan of his cigars. His clothes carried their odor and the cigar shed its ashes throughout the house. She being an immaculate housekeeper longed for the day her husband would finally yield to her and give up his precious cigars.
That day seemed to come when he was already approaching 70. He caught a nasty flu and was bedridden for days with a cough and fever. Smoking was truly impossible. My mother reasoned with him. Since so many cigar-free days had gone by, surely he could give up smoking permanently. In his misery, he agreed.
As he was of very strong physical power, he recovered nicely and returned to his typical vitality. At this time he had almost another three decades of healthy life awaiting him. He agreed that he would never smoke cigars again.
But, ah, the flesh is weak as the story will reveal!
My mother would call me every morning and share the wonderful report that he was not smoking. It appears that this was an act of total delusion but she attributed the smell to residuals and new holes to tears.
I actually believed her and was very proud of him. With four young children I was happy to teach my kids and cite my father’s example as strength of character.
Until the day! I was driving down their street when I viewed a man from the back. He really resembled my father. Walk. Clothing. Everything. But it couldn’t be. This man had huge puffs of smoke floating serenely above his head. As I got closer, all doubts evaporated. The man not only looked like my father. The man actually was my father. And the cigar was planted firmly in his mouth, spewing its ashes as it always did.
I jammed on the brakes. You must have heard me scream at him…..as I had never done before! “What are you doing?”
He whimpered back, as he had never done before. “Oooh. Oooh. Don’t tell your mother.”
Well, I did. And the upshot. The cigar returned to their house, where it lived happily until finally, at about age 90, he had had enough I think, as an old man, worried about his finances, he concluded this luxury was costing him too much money. And so he stopped smoking. Finally.
Nowadays it is exceedingly rare to see a cigar smoker. Maybe in this one small way the world is a better place!