I’ll never miss the smell of cigarette smoke. With my sincerest apologies to the late, great Dr. Seuss:
I cannot stand it in a car.
I cannot stand it in a bar.
I cannot stand it in the air.
I cannot stand it anywhere.
If there is one scent that I would associate with my late grandmother, it would be that–the stale, bitter, choking smell of cigarette smoke. Well, that and the rich, tomatoey aroma of her gravy (spaghetti sauce to many people) cooking on the stove. But that one I do miss.
Stereotypical but true, this was a Sunday tradition in our house–chairs borrowed from every other room and a table so full it asked for help from the nearby counter. Gravy, macaroni (spaghetti to many), meatballs, pork spare ribs, breaded veal cutlets, and tomatoes and onions in olive oil, all mixing with chatter and clanking silverware and plates to form my weekly sensory overload.
And then, after the sights, smells, and sounds had just about disappeared (although, let’s be honest, garlic sure does hover), my grandmother’s cigarette to celebrate.
An intoxicating aroma of food and love snuffed by one puff.
Mam Mam was a small Italian lady with a raspy voice perfected by decades of her favorite pastime: smoking. It drove me crazy. No matter what I did to show my disgust, it didn’t matter. Coughing violently. Swishing the air around with force. Hiding the cancer sticks. Nothing made a difference.
She had smoked since I could remember, and indeed, as she later told me, since she was thirteen years old, but I never did adjust.
She said her smoking was a favor to me; by stirring up my hatred for the dirty habit, she was ensuring that I’d never light up myself. A tricky card to play, it seemed, but maybe she was right, because I’ve never even been tempted to try it.
Whenever I saw my friends light up, I was transported back to a time when I couldn’t get far enough away from that smell, that burning in my eyes, that restricting of my throat. And I know I’ll never try it, because, quite simply, I *hate* it.
But my favorite little smokestack also gave me something far more essential to who I am: my love for the written word. No, my grandmother wasn’t a writer, and honestly, she wasn’t much of a reader either. I don’t know that I could have convinced her to read a novel if there were a carton of cigarettes in it for her.
Her first love was sewing, which she did for both a living and a hobby for most of her life. When she was young, her cat always had the latest gear, and when I was young, my dolls were beyond stylish; our dogs, to their relief, were spared.
So if she was neither a reader nor a writer, then how did she inspire my desire and need to write? Like many of my best and most influential childhood memories, the answer was found on Sundays.
The Sunday crossword.
If you put a crossword puzzle in front of my grandmother, you’d see the blank spaces reflected in the gleam of her eyes. I believe she was personally offended by the open squares, because she had already coffee brewed and pencils sharpened by the “good sharpener” in the basement by the time the paperboy delivered her weekly mission.
In any event, those strategically placed blocks and cleverly worded clues nourished her fascination with words and began a hunger in me that still continues. And Sunday was the best day to sate both our physical and mental appetites with its gluttonous Italian dinners and the paper’s perpetually perplexing puzzles.
Yeah, I still like me some alliteration.
Even when I was young and had no chance of knowing any answers, my grandmother let me poke around the puzzles. I read the clues and her answers, filing away that okapi fills the blank for “elk” and Edam is cheese. And of course I asked a lot of questions.
Eventually, when Mam Mam would hand me the mostly filled-in grid, I could offer a tidbit here and there–sports, pop culture, music, typical teenage topics were my specialties. And then as I learned more history and literature in school, I started to feel like I actually contributed.
Finally one magical Sunday, we finished a puzzle together, each of us filling in a few letters before handing it back. But that one Sunday soon blurred with many others because this happened frequently thereafter. We grew bored without a challenge.
And so, to up the ante (another crossword word!), Mam Mam asked me if I could find puzzle books–the hard kind, New York Times–in the bookstore in Philadelphia where I lived. So whenever I went home, I toted tomes of Times teasers, and they’d keep her busy for a few weeks.
Unfortunately, though, I was never home long enough to really play the old back-and-forth game. As a result, Mam Mam compiled an impressive collection of partially-completed crosswords before she died in 2001. I inherited those mindbenders, but they’ve lost something without my partner, the one to whom I could hand back the real stumpers.
Beyond that, I’ve noticed another interesting phenomenon–I am hesitant to change what may be her miscues (and to think in my youthful arrogance I had been proud to point them out!).
Now I have learned that when you’re left with a finite number of tangible memories of someone, it’s hard to erase them. Quite literally.
I know my Mam Mam, however, and I know that she would privilege the right answers over my odd sentimentality about the flag of her “E” that never touched the vertical line, the peculiar arch of her A, or even her O that had just the tiniest curl of hair hanging inside it. So I take eraser to paper gently now, and only when I am sure of what I am changing.
I do these crosswords with the reluctant but utter awareness that there is no one to double check my answers.
But I hold the intangible memories–yes, even the now-nostalgic smell of cigarette smoke–in my heart, where they have been written indelibly.
Happy Love Thursday everyone!