WrittenReflections.com

Stale Coffee and Gladiolas 

I stand in the summer kitchen, the detached, unheated, single-room building adjacent to the modest two-bedroom farmhouse. I hug the scratchy, red and black checked wool shirt to my face. His smell washes over me. I feel that he is with me. That he will walk past at any minute, and, seeing me in here, call out, "What are you doing, honey?" Close my eyes. Hold on to that. Make it so.

* * * *

    "Daddy will be so surprised when he sees how many you have made."

    "I know," I said, glad to be able to do something special for him. Such a good daddy.

    "We’ll keep them in this plastic box to keep them fresh."

    "My fingers are getting tired, Mommy."

    "There is only a little tobacco left. Maybe you can make one or two more and that will finish the can."

* * * *

Flowers kept coming to the house. Their colors were loud. Their smells were bright. Do not force this reality on me. Thanks for thinking of us. Make them stop. Take them to the summer kitchen. Gladiolas, their voluptuous spikes and heavy perfume, banned from my life. 

* * * *

Mornings at our house before I get up, I can sometimes hear my daddy coughing. If I am nearby when he coughs, I am frightened by how red his face gets and how he folds over with each wrenching cough. The veins on his temple bulge, and I am afraid they will burst. One of us always asks, "Are you all right?" Frightened emphasis on the "all right." Or, I will touch his arm to reassure myself that he will be okay. Sometimes he goes to the kitchen sink and removes the drain basket and hacks up mucus that he spits into the pipe. He runs water to wash it away. "Almost lost a lung on that one." He laughs. My mother looks worried. Whenever I use the kitchen sink to help peel potatoes or to wash dishes, I do not want to touch the drain basket because I remember the times he spits in there. And I am ashamed of myself.

* * * *

As long as I can remember, my father has smoked. We all knew the cigarette jingles from the commercials on our black and white TV. I could do the dance along with the dancing Old Gold cigarette boxes. I remember the midget dressed as a bellhop who would belt out, "Call for PHIL. . . IP MOR . . .RIS!" Later it would be, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should!" And the Marlboro man rode into our living room. People smoked on TV shows. Mostly men. In real life, smoke was a part of the atmosphere. No one questioned its presence. Cleaning ashtrays was a reasonable chore for a child. As a teenager, kissing someone with smoke and beer on his breath added danger and excitement to stirring emotions.

* * * *

The greatest increase of smoking is among young people, young women in particular. Guilty tobacco companies, exposed at home, export cigarettes, too. Corporate foreign aid. Don’t bother to thank us. It’s the least we could do for you. Really.

* * * *

I remember Dad telling us that he started smoking when he was in his early teens. When he told us, this was not a shock to us, just a matter-of-fact statement, one more detail from his youth like telling us about the communist party holding socials for young people in the Depression years. Or his story about how he painted his father’s prized chickens all different colors. Or about the American Indian who wore moccasins inside his mandatory steel-tipped work shoes. Interesting, but nothing to do with the present. In the 40's and 50's there were no health warnings in any medium. Many men smoked. It was a masculine thing.

* * * *

Don’t fret. Equality will come, ladies. Even as early as 1929, there was a Lucky Strike ad which shows
Lady Grace Drummond Hay, the only female passenger on the Graf Zeppelin, with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, "It’s toasted," written on the package. The bubble above Lady Grace reads, "I smoke a Lucky instead of eating sweets." Nice legacy, Lady Grace, but there is that cough.

* * * *

 

My daddy is an electrician in the Saucon Shipping Yard. Dangerous work, particularly in bad weather when he climbs over the supports of the cranes and works on the icy cranes themselves. When the first snow comes on the heels of still, damp, cold air, I feel guilty, but excited, wanting more. I like to play in the snow and maybe have a day off from school. For my daddy it means working with electricity in dangerous, high places. I try to keep in mind the story he tells of the man who fell off one of the cranes three stories up and somehow landed on his feet. But, how could I want something that would put my daddy at risk? On those days and nights when my father works in snow and ice, worry lines carve my mother’s face. She waits uneasily for his return.

* * * *

When the Bethlehem Steel Company goes on strike, every few years in the summer time, we eat surplus food that the union provides, chunks of yellow surplus government cheese, white butter, flour, sugar, supplemented with purchases made by what savings we may have since the previous strike. In the early days, when men organized for better conditions and wages, there were armed troopers on horses who swung billy clubs at the protesters. My father told us of one mounted policeman who pursued a man into a hotel and road his horse up the staircase to the second floor after the man.

We watch our spending carefully. Although we can’t go on vacation, we pile into the car with a picnic lunch and drive to Danner’s Grove in the mountains. There, for a quarter, a carload of people can come and swim in the spring-fed swimming pool, the coldest water in the world and one of the reasons I don’t like to swim. While we don’t buy from the hot dog stand or put nickels in the jukebox in the dance hall, we can hear the music as we gather on our blanket on the grassy lawn. One summer we must have heard the line "in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" a hundred times until we could all whine the town name with the singer.

* * * *

My daddy smokes Lucky Strike and Camels, mostly. He switches to homemade cigarettes during strike times or whenever money is scarce. I make them for him on a little machine. It has a small piece of canvas stretched over its curved frame. There is a handle, which pulls the roller. I fill the loose canvas trough with Prince Albert tobacco. Then I pull the handle so that the tobacco is rolled up inside the canvas to the top of the small hill. There, I put the cigarette paper’s unglued edge under the canvas roll and move the roller down the other side of the hill. Before all the paper is rolled into the canvas, I wet the edge of the thin, white paper. When I finish pulling the handle to the bottom of the hill, I have another cigarette to add to the box. I have become good at making cigarettes my daddy tells me.

* * * *

College graduation in May. I didn’t want to go. My grades fell in the final month. Family insisted. I wasn’t ready to pick up and move on. Why wouldn’t my grades fall? He, who had wanted his children to have what he never could, would not be there to smile proudly, to make corny jokes, the third and last of his children to get a college degree. A picture of me that day shows me seated on a bench in a quadrangle. My hair was in a ponytail under my mortarboard. I hadn’t worn a ponytail since sixth grade. No smile for the camera. My mother held a party at the farm with her sisters and brothers, my grandparents. Everyone painfully cheerful but quiet. Mom frenetic in the kitchen, hiding her pain in work. My legs carried me, but I wasn’t really there.

* * * *

 My dad didn’t want us to smoke. He, himself, tried switching to a pipe from time to time, sucking on them and puffing smoke rings for our entertainment. (One brother experimented with pipes.) Dad had a stocky build. His cheeks were full and ruddy. In my teens he took great pride in dressing up as Santa Claus. He wanted the white eyebrows to be glued on carefully. At Christmas time, he and mom, Mrs. Claus, drove to our town’s public housing and handed out oranges to the children there. Funny about the oranges. My parents had had childhoods where an orange, a few nuts, and new socks or mittens were the sum of Christmas. I wonder how the oranges went over with the kids in public housing? I never asked. Why didn’t I pay more attention?

I remember the sweet smell of Cherry Blend tobacco in the house, and, for a time, my brother and dad shared different tobacco blends. Male bonding, I guess. By my late teens, dad smoked mostly a pipe, or a smelly pipe, as my mother called any one of an assortment my dad had accumulated. With this change in habit, we could now switch from buying him cartons of cigarettes for a Christmas gift and add tobacco, pipe cleaners, lighters, fancy pipes, and a humidor to our lists. Gifts of love. Men are so hard to buy for.

* * * *

When my dad taught me to drive, he often smoked a pipe. As I learned to use the clutch and shift gears, he would pay particular attention to the pipe. From the corner of my eye, I could see him trying to load tobacco into the bowl of the pipe as the car bucked along from one gear to another. Tobacco spilled onto his lap, but he made no notice, continuing to fill the bowl, with a singular detachment, and light it, without comment. How I loved his patience.

* * * *

So many lies for profit. No word of cancer, heart disease. Coupons for free gifts. To work in an industry that is knowingly poisoning a nation. You CEO’s, you ad executives: How do you live with that? Behind a smoke screen. Buying birthday gifts for your children. Taking vacations. Hook one more person and win a trip to Hawaii. Buy your wife pearls. Teach your sons and daughters to drive expensive cars. Teach them right from wrong.

* * * *

I tried smoking twice. The first time, I was twelve or thirteen and in the back seat of our blue, four door, Plymouth sedan. My parents were in the front seat. My next older brother and I were in the back seat. He had the window cracked and was smoking his pipe. He poked me in the ribs and gestured to me. Did I want to have a puff? Yes, I did. He handed the pipe to me. I stuck it between my teeth, sealed my lips around it and sucked in hard. Something green burned in my stomach and traveled up my esophagus. It curled hotly up the back of my throat and twisted into my nostrils and ears. My eyes watered. My stomach contracted in upon itself and knotted. I feared I would throw up and my parents would know what I had done. I wanted to disappear so I could compose myself. I didn’t want my brother to know the full extent of my illness, nor did I want my parents alerted. I passed the pipe back to him, and shut my eyes, which only intensified my focus on the insult to my innocent body. I slumped against the seat and waited for the bilious waves to pass. For days, I could taste the bile and smoke. Surprised, my brother suppressed laughter by blowing smoke out of the window and concentrating on the passing scenery. 

The second and last time I smoked I was eighteen. Two of my girl friends and I went to Ocean City, NJ, for an off-season weekend at the end of high school. This was a big adventure for each of us and a taste of our new freedom as high school graduates. The label "off-season" is used for good reason. The ocean was cold. There were sand flies. And it rained a cold, clammy drizzle for our stay. None of us had much money, so we bought some cheap food and spent hours in our dreary, rented room in the SandAway Hotel. There, during yet another pinochle game, my two friends lit up cigarette after cigarette. As interest in the cards waned, my friends turned to each other and decided it was time that I learn to smoke. They lit up a cigarette and, with some basic advice, handed it to me. I took it with an air of assurance. I had seen people smoke for years. There would be nothing to it. Indeed, I did just fine, except my two friends were rolling all over the bed with laughter. They said I looked really silly. The way I held the cigarette was wrong, they said, but, in general, I just looked silly. I didn’t like the burning sensation in my mouth, anyway.

* * * *

My father never met my husband, my daughters, and my niece. He didn’t cook scrambled eggs and bacon after the middle shift on New Year’s Eve ever again. His desire for a high school degree and some courses at the community college went unfulfilled. The travel planned for when I, the last of three kids, left home would not unfold. He would not buy the pigmy donkey, the sheep, the goat he had wanted to lure grandchildren to the farm. Someone else would have to give out the oranges.

* * * *

I came home around 11 o’clock after spending some time with friends the April of my senior year in college. I was the only child living at home anymore. My parents had moved to this house in the country, my father’s dream come true, just eight months before. My mother and I were alone because my father had worked the 3-11 p.m. shift and hadn’t come home yet. We heard a car on the quiet road next to the house. Strange. It couldn’t be dad. He would have driven his car up the lane and to the garage. Taffy would have barked. The speckled Guinea chickens, roosting in the trees, would have rattled their strange warning cries, as they did when I came home late from dates.

Someone had dropped dad off. He came into the house stumbling and looking ill. My mother rushed to him and asked what had happened. He said he didn’t feel well. Before he could say much more, he threw up in the sink, the smell of coffee from his vomit imprinting on my memory. He began to moan and clutch his chest. I called my brother who lived several miles away and he called the volunteer rescue squad.

I cannot clearly remember the next six hours. Cliches are needed here: time stood still; everything was a blur; people moved in slow motion; tears welled in my eyes. The drive to the hospital took a long half-hour. It was a Saturday night, a bad night to be taken to an emergency room when the number of drunken fights and accidents increases. The waiting room was full, awash with pain and suffering. They took my dad right in. I couldn’t stop the tears. What could be wrong?

A weary resident came to us and told us we could go behind a curtain to see Dad. The resident said it was just a bad case of indigestion and we should go home. They would keep Dad overnight and we could pick him up in the morning. We all wanted to believe that. We each saw him alone for some reason. I remember trying to reassure him, but I remember his telling me to take care of my mother.

The call came about 5 a.m. We should come to the hospital. I shook and fumbled with my clothes. If I don’t get dressed, it won’t be true. Somehow we got to the hospital. My father had died in the night. The exhausted resident was sorry for our loss. Weeks later the autopsy revealed that my dad, 52 years old, had died of an aortic aneurysm. The report went on to say that he had advanced hardening of the arteries. A doctor explained to us that this was most unusual for someone my father's age.

                                                            * * * *  

I have lived to be older than my father. Now the smell of stale coffee takes me back 33 years and gladiolas suffocate me.