Born in nineteen-sixty-two, I am shocked to think I survived society’s tobacco ambivalence. At one point not only did both my parents smoke, but so did all of my five older siblings. It wasn’t just at home. At twelve I remember going to open my first bank account. As now, the teller line was marked out with red cordons, but at the top of each pole were overflowing ashtrays. And the tellers worked in their own blue haze, taking drags and resting an Export Plain on their personal, black, melamine ashtrays. And shuffling paperwork with nicotine stained digits. It’s amazing anyone survived.
I had my first cigarette when I was eight. One Sunday afternoon one of my older brothers brought me to a lumber yard where he broke out a pack and proceeded to light up one after another. I joined him and sucked back more than half a dozen fags – that’s what we called them then. On the way home I barfed on the train tracks.
The moment Mum saw me, she flipped out . “Uhk! Look at you! Gord, Luck, Brian!” I knew she was mad by the way she rifled through the names of her sons searching for the culprit for my condition. “Vat haff you been doing vis your younger broder? He looks like dess varmed over!”
Brian got a kopff upside the head and I was sent to bed without dinner.
The next Sunday I was sucking back more tar and nicotine. This time in our basement with Brian and Lucky. I stopped at a few drags. But by the time I was twelve I was buying my own Export A’s and smoking with other smoking siblings and friends.
One day, one of my sisters took me to a local swimming hole to splash about and lay in the scorching sun. Tanning was different in those days too – ozone holes were in their infancy. We would slather on a concoction made of baby oil and iodine and bake for hours. And we would smoke. When we got home my sly sis threw the door wide open on my closeted smoking habit. In front of Mum she said “Your cigarettes are in my purse Kevin”.
“You smoke as vell? Nah! I guess dere is nussing I can say, hey”.
So at twelve, I was permitted to smoke in the house.
There were strict rules that came with this ‘privilege’. Smoking was only to be done on home turf. Mum was never to hear from a neighbour that I was in some alley smoking. Smoking in my bedroom was allowed, but never while lying down.
Things were different in the seventies. Even more so in the fifties when Mum was nineteen, a doctor she had worked for recommended that she smoke. He said it would calm her nerves.
Shortly, I was consuming close to a pack a day. Never outside the house, as per Mum’s orders. I would sit in front of our black and white television for hours watching back-to-back I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched and Brady Bunchepisodes, and launching smoke rings through the rays of sun that poured through the picture window in our living room.
When I was thirteen, rumblings began about the ‘possible’ ill effects of smoking and a theoretical link to cancer and heart disease. But it wasn’t until a year later when Mum was diagnosed with cancer, that both she and I quit.
Less than a year after that, at the wake preceding Mum’s funeral, I started again.
I have started and stopped many times. I’ve been smoke-free for as long as ten years. To this day tobacco remains an ugly monkey on my back, screaming in my ear at parties and in moments of stress and life transition. Today tobacco packaging has photographs of tar-stained, crooked teeth and warnings to pregnant women and of second-hand smoke.
The photo on my cigarette pack is of a fourteen year old boy in tears, beside the casket of his mother as it is being lowered into the ground, and his childhood home is sold from under him.