Today, we are proud to present Betty Jo Buro’s essay “A Pack a Day.” In this piece, Buro looks at smoking through many different lenses: from growing up in a household of smokers in the sixties, to becoming a mother herself, to watching the toll that a lifetime of smoking has on her parents. This essay is honest, vivid, and moving. Please join us in welcoming it to our New Voices library.
“One night, while my parents sit at either end of the dining room table, drinking their after-dinner coffee and smoking their after-dinner cigarettes, my sister Nancy reproduces an experiment suggested by her third-grade teacher. She has my father exhale his cigarette through a clean white tissue, and when he does, it leaves behind a brown smudge. She holds the Kleenex up by its corners for all to see.”
When I tell my sisters I want to write about smoking, their memories arrive clothed in nostalgia, as if our childhood spent breathing secondhand smoke in a stuffy station wagon was somehow enchanted. Patty fondly recalls her own first cigarette, an illicit Viceroy she puffed while crouched behind a sand dune at Good Harbor Beach with her best friend Allison. Susie reminds us how much fun smoking was, and suggests we all take up the habit again. Nancy remembers the brands my grandparents smoked—soft packs of Salems and Kents—and I am drawn in, transported to my grandparents’ Ohio living room. My grandfather’s silver lighter lies flat in the palm of my hand, cool and heavy. I run my fingertips over the names of his eleven grandchildren, engraved in small cursive script on its face. How many times had I watched him tilt his wrist to flip open the top? And then, with an expert flick of his thumb, produce the heady scent of lighter fluid, and as if by magic, a tall yellow flame.
All of my first impressions appear in soft focus; our home a foggy haze, the faces of my parents separated from me by a veil of exhaled smoke. The scent of it permeates the wallpaper, the nubby plaid upholstery of the family room couch, the window curtains, my hair, and all of my little-girl clothes. But if you ask me what my childhood smelled like, I will tell you it smelled of percolated Maxwell House, my mother’s Jean Nate After Bath Splash, the rubbery scent of Barbie doll skin, of Breck shampoo and Ivory soap. The smoke was background, constant. I grew up on it, just like I grew up on Cheerios and Gilligan’s Island reruns, concentrated orange juice and am radio stations. I knew no different. Every place I went, I was cloaked in the invisible evidence of my parents’ vice, and all the while, I had no idea.