I could fill a book with stories of how my Nana and Papa made my childhood a magical one, up until the age of 15 when they were both gone at way too early an age. My Nana died the Summer after my freshman year in high school. She and Papa were my two favorite people on earth. Time with them was never enough, and I was so thankful they lived only two miles away.
Every time we spent the night, they had our favorites stocked in the fridge: jello pudding was mine. When I was really young, my Papa worked the night shift and always left a little surcee on the chair for me to find when I woke up. They recorded our favorite TV shows and we were allowed to watch them nonstop. My Nana taught me to cross-stitch and alway had an unending supply of ceramics for me to paint. They had a ColecoVision just for my sisters and me. I loved playing “The Smurfs”!
Nana had died in the Summer of 1990, and Papa was increasingly lonely over the next year and a half. After she died, it was hard for me to go to their house. However, I knew he needed some company. I went over to hang out one day after cheerleading practice early in my sophomore year. Papa suggested we go for a drive. With me driving. At 14. With no license. Yay for me! He was a little irritated I kept taking forever to turn left as I was gun shy. I chalked it up to he needed to get out of the house more, and just kept smiling. We hit a country highway and drove to a town about 20 miles away and back. In rush hour traffic. No reason, just to get out of the house and drive.
Looking back, I think my love for just going on a drive stems from him. Sometimes you just need to get away. And feel a little rebellious when doing so at the same time making a fun memory with a loved one.
He had a round light blue keychain, and in bold blue it said “I’m a smoke-free Papa” with a bear beside the words. I can picture it now dangling from his cream Oldsmobile, the car my little sister later drove and named ‘Ole Bessie. He was diagnosed with emphysema when I was young and was told he could continue smoking and die, or quit and live. He chose to live. He carried an oxygen tank daily and I can still hear the sounds of it pumping life into him.
That particular day he looked at me and said “Promise me one thing Mindy, promise me you’ll never touch a cigarette.” “I promise, Papa.” He died the next year, and soon after so did my promise to him.
The tobacco industry is heavy in the South. When you’re driving across the state of South Carolina through back country roads on the way to the beach, the tobacco and cotton fields truly are some of the most gorgeous scenery you’ll witness as you edge towards the lower part of the state.
We were just being ushered out of the era where high schools had designated smoking areas, so it’s not like it didn’t go on. Just not me. At 13 entering high school, I remember there were three very hard and fast rules I made for myself: no smoking being one of them.
Until…I was a senior, and kids just tried things. Lots of my friends did and it really wasn’t that uncommon. So, I felt like trying it too. It was something I felt like I was getting away with, knowing it was something I shouldn’t be doing.
That spring, I got caught. The moment was life affecting.
Fast forward a few months when I’m a college freshman.
Inhale. Puff. Exhale. Every time, for a few years, every time felt like a rebellious “I’ll show you. You’re not going to tell me what to do.” I was trying to hurt someone else in my mind because they had hurt me.
Lots of kids were socially smoking cigarettes, the first time we’re all “on our own”. Except for me. I became addicted. I couldn’t quit.
My girlfriends and I would go exercise then come back on the apartment back porch. We’d each drink a huge glass of ice water because the guy at the local Y told me that burns an extra 100 calories after working out, and most would have a smoke as we cooled down and chatted. Those were fun times and some of our best conversations.
For me, instead of a social smoke, I became an everyday one. I learned to put dryer sheets underneath your car seats to get the smell out. Before going out at night, sprinkle baby powder in your hair to absorb the odor. Let’s say Downy and Shower to Shower were grocery staples for me for those very reasons!
Fast forward to my senior year. I so badly wanted to quit. I even bought Nicoderm off an infomercial knowing I couldn’t stop on my own, to no avail. I was in tears talking with the 1-800 customer rep for the company as I gave my name and mailing address.
One night I was enjoying a casual evening out with my friends, in my college town where everybody pretty much knows everybody. A guy at the bar walks up, confidently smiled as he walked closer, and silly me thought he was going to try and flirt. He then leaned in with a whisper. He truly was not being a jerk, but some sort of sage advice giver. I had never seen him before. I’ll always remember the words that flowed so freely as he spoke: “You’d be so much prettier without that cigarette hanging out of your mouth.” Then he walked right out.
I don’t even remember how I responded, probably telling him off in my mind, but deep inside I knew it was true. I wanted to quit and couldn’t.
Fast-forward to one year later, and I’m living in Colorado. The altitude alone is one way I’m convinced we don’t have as many smokers (well of the cigarette kind these days anyway) as the air is thinner and it’s harder to breathe.
Months after dating Todd and admitting I used to smoke, he told me that if he had seen me smoking the night we met, he probably wouldn’t have talked with me. He couldn’t stand smoking.
The night of our first date, I distinctly remember coming home and lighting up while calling my girlfriend in SC. It was probably 2 am her time yet she talked with me and heard every detail of my exciting first date with this boy named Todd. I hadn’t had a cigarette all night, so I was due one, right? That’s what I thought. It was January, winter in Colorado, so I opened my sliding door and sat on my carpet close to the balcony, put a blanket around me, and jabbed away on my cordless phone. We talked and talked. Actually, I did most of the talking I’m sure, as she listened all about my evening with this tall blonde haired boy.
One of our next dates we ended up at sports bar downtown, watching games and having a beer. In walks three of Todd’s friends, who later I found out of course knew we were going there and wanted to “meet” this new girl their buddy was spending so much time with. Surprise, surprise, they showed up! We had a great time, then I excused myself to go to the ladies room. In the hallway, by the bathrooms, out of sight, I sneaked half a cigarette. It calmed my nerves.
A month after meeting him, just a month, I quit. He had invited me up to the mountains to snowmobile with his family, and I had run out of my pack that Friday. I knew it was just as good of time as any. I had none and would not be anywhere to purchase or partake in them for three days.
He helped me quit an addiction he didn’t even know I had.
A couple months later when I revealed I was a new ex-smoker, Todd’s face lit up. I didn’t understand. He then told me he swore that night at the sports bar he thought of a cigarette after kissing me goodnight, but convinced himself he must just be imagining things as he knew I didn’t smoke.
When he found out that I had been a smoker, even when he discovered I had a relapse when we had broken up (because I smoked in front of him at a friend’s wedding after getting back together, just for “let’s see how he handles this”), he still accepted me for me. He never said one thing about it except “I wish you didn’t, but I’m not going anywhere.”
I quit all on my own cold turkey (twice, the last time for good 15 years ago) because of his positive influence. It was honestly one of the easiest things I’d ever done, when before meeting him I absolutely couldn’t do it alone.
Changing out of fear doesn’t seem to last. People just sneak around anyway, sometimes not for the act itself but just to spite the enforcer. Changing from the heart does.
I’ve found when we’re able to have conversations around mistakes and be there for each other when we fall, effective change can happen.
I have forgiven myself for breaking a promise to my Papa, which used to haunt me.
I have forgiven who hurt me as a teenager.
I am proud of the young woman who made a decision to change for herself because of someone else, not in spite of another.
One of my kids especially is offended by the smell of smoke. I can’t be around it now because it’s nauseating to me. I’ve heard once you quit, your nose becomes extremely sensitive to it. That’s true in my case. I can smell it on someone / in a car / in an area when others can’t.
My kids have asked me, “Mom, why do people smoke? Mom, does anyone in our family smoke? Mom, have you ever smoked?” and I’ve answered honestly to each one.
I have to remind them it’s not a scarlet letter if people smoke. It doesn’t make someone a bad person. Mine don’t know anyone who smokes, so for them, it’s a big deal when they see people lighting up.
My personal experience with smoking was so much more than a kid testing the waters. My children don’t need to know all the details, but I’ll share with them should the conversation merit going deeper one day. It sounds so small, but it’s not. I have wounds not from the smoking itself like my Papa did, but because of it. Then, Mindy the woman experienced healing for Mindy the teenager through a man named Todd.
And through it all, God is good.
My hope for my children is to know they can come to me with any question and I will answer honestly. As the kids get older, the topics get deeper. As parents, we don’t have to be scared as the conversations get more intense. It’s a beautiful privilege to raise young people with inquisitive minds!
Our level of authenticity (the truth of our words + actions) should never waiver although the amount of transparency (how much we share) may shift depending on the situation.
My prayer is for the words which flow from my heart be what’s “pretty” coming out of my mouth, no matter how difficult they may be to say. Not because it looks perfect on the outside, but because it’s overflowing truth from the inside. No buts or “butts” about it.