When I hear all the talk about tobacco, I think of my Uncle Rollins, a green-visored straw hat on his salt-and-pepper head and a two-day stubble on his seasoned farmer face. He is standing in a field or by an unpainted barn as he crumbles a yellow-brown leaf and sticks a wad of ‘bacca in his mouth to chew. August mornings and fields of the University of Maryland’s number 64 plants topping out with white blossoms also come to mind when I reminisce about the raising of the infamous crop. During childhood summers blessed by just the right amount of rainfall, the tobacco would be tall and heavy with exquisitely shaped leaves. Midlife reverie sometimes takes me back to the dark, cool interior of my father’s own barn, a place where children would build houses out of tobacco sticks and where copperheads were inclined to hide in the fall.
Autumn on a tobacco farm is gentle and slow and belies the reality of brutal July and August labor and men working and praying for the tiniest puff of breeze blown across the peninsula from saltwater rivers. I ache when I recall the dusty September smell of the harvested plants curing and with such a remembrance can briefly visit a life antithetical to what passes for living in these times. I am but one more old fogey, I suppose, looking to the past and dreading the future, but I consider myself fortunate to be able to mourn the passing of my tidewater, country heritage. At least I have known such a life.
I am grateful that I was not raised like some hothouse flower, living in air-conditioned isolation from the natural world. I was never belted into a minivan and catapulted down a highway at 75 m.p.h. to be delivered by a stressed-out and preoccupied driver to the childcare center so both parents could go to work to pay an $1,800-a-month mortgage on a poorly constructed development home where today’s family abides for a time before career changes or the divorce. Any child who has not run barefoot down a row of tobacco is disenfranchised by my standards.
But in spite of an appreciation for my primitive, rural upbringing and my reverence for the tobacco-growing traditions, on a November morning in 1990, I quit smoking. I was home from work, sitting around drinking coffee and lighting up one Marlboro Light after another, when I ran out of cigarettes. In an instant, on that morning, I understood how tired I had grown of a habit that was more a burden than a pleasure. Since my father had died of a heart attack in 1987, I had been smoking but constantly worrying over what it was doing to my health. Daddy had smoked for about 25 years. I remember that as a little girl, I would hug him and that his white shirts had always smelled of Winstons, a soothing fragrance to a child who loved her father and who was growing up in tobacco country. His dying was not necessarily attributable to smoking since he had quit the habit several years before his death, but his passing away at the age of 65 had made my own glassy essence, at last, a reality to me.
Even as my anxiety had grown over the years, I never thought I would be able to overcome the addiction. But something happened that morning six years ago. Just about to go out to buy more cigarettes, out of the blue, I said to myself, “You are now a nonsmoker.” I did not say, “It’s been two minutes since you quit.” I was at that very moment, and with the help of God, a nonsmoker. Although I did fall off the wagon at my brother’s oyster scald on that bitterly cold New Year’s Eve following my big decision and sank so low at one point during what turned out to be a sad and never-ending January that I ate a box of Krispy Kreme sugar-glazed doughnuts while sitting in front of my kerosene heater, I have remained relatively thin and smoke-free to this day.
But I am a reformed smoker who does not rant and rave against tobacco, tobacco growers, or the industry in the manner of today’s politicos. Admittedly, I am not objective concerning this particular subject. After all, I am the granddaughter of a man who was said to have raised some of the prettiest tobacco in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. The tobacco- growing culture which shaped me is a part of my Southern heritage, and I recognize that the vestiges of a tobacco-based economy link Maryland with the rest of the tidewater South even as carpetbaggers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York stream over the Mason-Dixon. As old Maryland disappears, what is most disturbing is that people, including the majority of Marylanders, are pitifully unschooled in the state’s geography and history. They might not know, for example, that while cotton and other crops have been raised here, tobacco has always been king in Maryland. Nevertheless, while I am one nonsmoking Marylander with a warm spot in her heart for all that tobacco represents, I am glad to be free from the cigarette habit.
As a nonsmoker, I enjoy many benefits. I feel and look better, spend less money, and my clothes and hair smell sweeter. I’ll never have to go out in the middle of a snowstorm to buy cigarettes as I did one winter or experience the disappointment every smoker feels when he discovers there is only one left in the pack. Smokers, who are resourceful people, must always plan ahead for mornings, for hurricanes, for blizzards. No one, the smoker reasons, should have to get out of bed, especially on a Monday morning, and have that first cup of coffee without the accompaniment of a cigarette. Unlike the smoker, I don’t have to fret about the future as much now.
Inconsistent with my relatively newfound freedom from nicotine is a tolerant attitude toward the addicted. Oddly enough, I don’t care if I sit in the nonsmoking section of a restaurant. In fact, my favorite cafe, located in Lusby, Maryland, to my knowledge, has no policy of segregating smokers from nonsmokers, but does have the best fatback-seasoned string beans I have ever tasted. Furthermore, people might consider me strange because I believe that there is nothing as rude as a hostess who invites people to her home and then asks guests to smoke outside. I can’t imagine a Christmas Day on which nonsmoking kinfolk, cups of Virginia eggnog in their hands, look out frosty windows at some poor soul puffing away and sitting at the picnic table in the backyard. What a violation of the rules of hospitality.
When I first quit, I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to act around the nicotine addicts in my life. My best friend in the world is a Kentucky girl and a smoker. I wondered how she would react to me as one of those holier-than-thou health nuts? Fortunately, everything has worked out for our friendship. I have discovered that I am as tolerant or as intolerant as I was in the old days when I inhaled. Even before I quit, a very heavy concentration of smoke, such as I once experienced in an Amtrak car filled with chainsmoking Japanese tourists on their way to Philadelphia, would make me sick. Otherwise, a little smoke here and there is no problem for me. I can still sit at the kitchen table with a smoking friend talking and drinking coffee for hours.
Truthfully, sometimes fellow nonsmokers get on my nerves a little. They are often overly precise and tend to complain of allergic reactions to smoke. Why can’t they just say they don’t like smoking rather than coming up with ailments? Reformed smokers, in particular, can be tedious in their enthusiasm. They can detect a puff of smoke from 50 feet away and are offended by even the slightest suggestion of fumes. While I believe that smokers have a responsibility, as we all do, to consider others as much as possible, some nonsmokers, typical of many people these days, want a perfect world and think that they will live forever if they just avoid or eliminate all perceived threats to their health.
The truth is that no matter how judiciously we live, we are all going to die. It’s just a matter of when. And some of us can do all the wrong things and still manage to live a long time. My grandmother, Madeleine, who died at the age of 100 and who was happy and healthy almost to the end, lived with heavy smokers for at least 40 years of her life and broke all the nutrition rules (Granny would fry oyster fritters in lard and then butter them). Who knows exactly what combination of factors determine how long we will live?
What I do know is that my grandmother did not make staying alive the focus of her life; she just lived with purpose and left the rest to God, not to a President with a vendetta against R.J. Reynolds and other free enterprisers. My purpose is not yet apparent to me, but has something to do with history and politics. I am addicted to historical nonfiction and neglect housework and other responsibilities to read. And since I quit smoking, I have come out of the closet. I am now proud to call myself a conservative. There is no correlation that I can see between not smoking and becoming a conservative. Discovering my true political nature was simply a matter of time. Quitting smoking just coincided with my emergence as a mean-spirited right-winger who thinks the tobacco companies should be left alone even if it is trendy to pick on these evil corporate interests. Inevitably, my traditional conservative inclinations hidden all these years have surfaced because I have grown older and wiser and have actually taken a moment to read the Constitution. As it turns out, I was destined to give up sophomoric liberal views along with my other bad habit. I am glad on both counts because life gets interesting after you go cold turkey.
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