There is nothing good to say about the habit of smoking, but sometimes the people we love the most smoke, and when they die, they leave a part of themselves behind.

My grandmother chain-smoked Lucky Strikes and then later, in her 70s, Winston filtered. When she died at the age of 79, her house and all of its contents smelled like cigarettes or like the smell of decades of smoking, which is not quite the same as the smell of cigarettes.

The walls in her house had long since turned nicotine beige, and her beautiful Victorian and Mission-style furniture was saturated with the smell of smoke.

Smoke was just part of the package when we visited my grandmother. She kept an ashtray in every downstairs room. Terrified of fire, she would check and double-check her cigarette butt to make sure it was out before leaving a room or going to bed. She never smoked upstairs.

Today, if I want to remember my grandmother, all I have to do is put my nose to her buffet, which we keep at work to store the mismatched coffee cups, and take a good long sniff.

My Great-Aunt Bernice, who did not have children and was, therefore, considered the cool aunt, was the first to give me a puff. I think I was 5. We were playing cards at my grandmother’s house and I begged and begged to try her cigarette. She gave in, and I took a tiny drag off her nonfiltered cigarette.


The house I grew up in with my four siblings was pretty much smoke-free because my mother, who smoked for about eight years in her 20s, quit when she couldn’t shake a cough she had for weeks on end.

As a child, I thought it was more important that my mother had quit smoking than if she had never started smoking at all. If a 6-year-old can be proud of her mother, I was. The knowledge that she had quit may have kept me from becoming a real smoker. If she was strong, I could be, too.

My father smoked a pipe, but only while golfing because it improved his score.

Anyway, when my grandmother visited our house, the air was as clear as a bell until about 7 in the morning, when the smoke from her first cigarette snaked its way up into our bedrooms. I must admit, I loved the smell of her first cigarette, in the same way that I loved the smell of fresh gasoline when it was being pumped into our family car.

When I first started visiting my husband’s parents in Kansas in the early ’90s, they both smoked several packs a day wherever and whenever they wanted. Eventually, their seven adult children forced them outside and onto what they called the “smoking porch.” The smoking porch is where I got to know my mother-in-law, Gladys.

Central air was not installed in their home until the late ’90s, which meant that my choices on a hot Kansas day (110 degrees hot) were to sit as close as I could to the very loud window air-conditioning unit with dozens of other family members or to head out to the smoking porch with Gladys.


About 50 percent of the time, I chose the smoking porch. On occasion, I bummed one of her cigarettes. Like my Aunt Bernice, she passed no judgment. We talked about nothing in particular, but it was my alone time with her.

Last week, after a long illness with undiagnosed lung cancer, she died. Her children made sure their mother – small as a bird toward the end of her life – was fed and loved.

Our first stop after arriving in Kansas for her funeral was her house, where all of my husband’s brothers and sisters were waiting for us before we headed to the church. My first thought as I entered her house was that Gladys will be here for a long time, just as my grandmother is still part of the furniture she left behind.

During her service, one of her many nephews shared a conversation that Gladys had had with one of her nurses on one of her last days.

“Are you hungry?” the nurse asked. Gladys replied, “Yes, I’d like a cigarette.”

Disclaimer: I do not believe in smoking. I do not think anyone should start smoking. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States. If you are ready to quit, call the Maine Tobacco HelpLine at 1-800-207-1230.

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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