Thursday, January 3, 2013

Aunt Sonia and the Cigarette

July 1959 (age 4)
Aunt Sonia was an iconic figure of my childhood. Uncle Eddie, my mother's brother, was a local hero in my hometown of Hazleton, PA, having almost single-handedly saved the city from obscurity (more on that another time). He married Aunt Sonia somewhat late in life, when he was almost 40. Unlike almost all of my other relatives, who thought I was terminally adorable, Aunt Sonia suffered no adorable kids, adults or anyone else - you proved yourself to her, or you were a ninny. I was a ninny.

One bright summer day in 1959, my parents took the three of us to the Conyngham Valley to visit Uncle Eddie and Aunt Sonia's house, which was under construction at the edge of the Valley Country Club golf course. Somehow, while everyone else was wandering around in the nearly-complete frame of the house, I found myself sitting on a log in the front, tossing rocks at frogs and looking for new-construction treasures (caulking tubes were a favorite). I found a pack of matches, a serious find, and had just picked them up when I found Aunt Sonia glowering down at me, smoking a cigarette.

Now before I go any further, I should mention that cigarettes were different in 1959. Well, in fact, they were exactly the same, but attitudes about cigarettes were different. As fate would have it, I also had a cigarette - a candy one, made of some kind of chalky white stuff with a dab of red food coloring at the end. Everyone smoked back then, and candy cigarettes were just another sweet treat.

"What are you doing?" Aunt Sonia asked (one of the more civil things she said to me back in those days).

"Smoking a cigarette. Want one?" I proferred my pack of Lucky Streaks or Pale Molls or some other not-very-clever variant on a popular brand name. This earned me a terse "no."

"Can I have one of yours?" I recall getting a slightly less baleful look at this question. After a moment, Aunt Sonia untwisted the clasp at the top of a long fabric cigarette case (an accessory every woman smoker had), shook out a cigarette and tossed it to me. 

I chewed up the tiny stub of my candy version and replaced it with her Parliament. It had a hollow tip at the end of the filter, something I thought was quite cool. I put it in my mouth and mimicked her smoking. At this point, Aunt Sonia stubbed out her cigarette and left to rejoin the tour.

Back to the matches. My dad smoked, my mom sometimes smoked, all of their friends smoked. I knew what matches were. I knew what cigarettes were. I now had both. I did the obvious. I don't remember what it tasted like, but I do remember that blowing smoke out of my mouth was way cool.

And that's how my parents came out of the house and found their four year old, sitting on a log, smoking. My mother stormed over, snatched the cigarette from my fingers and stomped on it as though it had poisonous fangs. 

"WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?" she shouted.

I looked up at her, then at Aunt Sonia. I'd like to say that I heroically protected Aunt Sonia, lied and said I found it on the ground with the matches. But hey, she called me a ninny.

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