Growing up I was surrounded by secondhand smoke – my mom and dad both smoked, their friends smoked. Everything in the house reeked of smoke, including me. It was like walking into a smoky bar, the yellow haze hanging near the ceiling. When people would visit, the extra ashtrays came out.
I remember Mom lighting up before she started cleaning, then coming back for a quick puff before heading off to tackle the house once again. I wanted to be just like her as I helped her clean, the only difference was I was five and wasn’t allowed to smoke. One day when she was cleaning I took her ashtray with a cigarette, which had just been stubbed out after one puff, and hid it under my bed. I watched myself in the mirror as I put the unlit cigarette to my lips and pretended to blow out the smoke. I wanted to copy her perfectly. I was caught when she discovered her cigarette missing and was scolded. I was probably told it would make me sick, I don’t remember.
I do remember being sick all the time, especially during the winter months when I would have to play inside and the smoke haze was throughout the house. I remember missing a lot of school due to colds and bronchitis. I remember coughing just like she did, deep, hacking chest coughs that would bring up phlegm. I remember all the painful earaches. Once I grew up and was outside more during the colder weather, the illnesses eased, but I still smelled like smoke.
I noticed from an early age that other kids didn’t smell like smoke. Their faces were bright and healthy looking, not like mine, that shallow look cigarette smokers get, except my look was from all the smoke I was breathing in. You could always tell the girls who smoked a lot in high school because their hair looked like straw and they reeked of smoke. I always hoped other kids wouldn’t think I was one of the girls who smoked in the bathroom between classes.
I remember sitting with Dad months after Mom died of lung cancer and noticing for the first time he wasn’t smoking. When I asked him why he quit he said, “when you put the cigarette in your mouth first thing in the morning and start hacking before you even light it up, it’s time to quit.” He threw the pack away and never wanted another cigarette. When we washed the walls in the house, the tar was so thick, it took forever to get them clean, but it smelled great afterward.
I still have one of my parent’s favorite ashtrays packed away in a box. It is a sad reminder that my memory of my parents is defined by an ashtray. On this World No Smoking Day take a moment to think about your addiction to tobacco and the harm it is doing to you and others around you. You are paying big tobacco to compromise your health and the health of your children. You are their best role model.
P.S. I don’t smoke.