My smoking story

I wrote this piece for my memoir class last week. I don’t think I’ve ever written about this subject before – so I thought I’d share it here. Bottom line: I feel very lucky I was able to quit smoking when I did and be able to live and write about it.


 In the mid 1950s fifties when I was in high school, the thing to do was smoke. No one thought anything was wrong with it. Even our major movie and radio stars smoked and looked so beautiful or handsome in their cigarette ads. And doctors endorsed certain cigarette brands.

I hung with a smallish group of girls and boys. We didn’t go on many real dates, but we knew how to party. Most Saturday nights my best friend Sylvia would have us over and we’d gather in her dark basement to dance, eat, smoke, and make out. Either her parents were not home or didn’t pay attention to us if they were. We also went to one of the boys’ houses after school. It was there that I first heard Elvis Presley sing Blue Suede Shoes. Every time we were there one of us would call our favorite disk jockey to play that tune for us.

It was at one of those parties that the boy I had a huge crush on gave me my first cigarette and taught me how to inhale. He also gave me my first French kiss. The next summer he deserted me for a girl he met at camp. They ended up marrying. Unfortunately, he died too young from the effects of all those cigarettes.

I started smoking when I was fifteen, and in those days a pack of cigarettes was pretty cheap – a quarter a pack. Plus I didn’t have a hard time buying them. On Saturday mornings my dad would drive to his office in Chicago instead of going on the North Shore commuter train that he took during the week from our Glencoe suburb. I’d usually go with him to take my piano lesson at the De Paul University’s music school. After my lesson, I’d buy a pack Pall Mall’s, my smoke of choice, from the man who ran a sundries concession stand next to the school. He never asked how old I was. Then I’d walk over to my father’s office near the Merchandise Mart. I heard on the car radio about the death of James Dean in a car wreck while on one of those drives.

I smoked more and more through my high school and college days until I was a two pack a day person. I accompanied those cigarettes with about ten cups of coffee a day as well. Neither of my parents smoked and needless to say, they weren’t happy about my habit. But there was nothing they could do about it. My brother and his fiancé were also heavy smokers – his habit eventually killed him too. He quit way too late.

I married for the first time too young and for all the wrong reasons. But the one good thing my ex-husband did for me was get me to quit smoking. It was 1964 and the U.S. surgeon general’s report had just come out stating smoking caused lung cancer. The very next night after we read the report, he and I had dinner at my parent’s house. We sat at the table in their breakfast nook. When I finished eating I got up as usual to grab my after-dinner cigarette and go outside to smoke it. My parents didn’t want the smell or the carcinogens in their house. But as I went toward the door my husband stood in the doorway, he put his arms out, not allowing me to get around him. He said, I didn’t need that cigarette. He also said I didn’t need to get lung cancer, and he wouldn’t let me through.

I had such a bad smoking habit, I always smoked a cigarette first thing after waking up. The next morning I didn’t have that first cigarette either. And that was the end of smoking for me. But I didn’t yet admit I had quit. I carried them with me in my handbag for a while in case I had to have one. Then I put them into a box on the coffee table in our apartment’s living room, leaving them there until they got stale and dried out. Then I threw them away. I managed to get that stale smoke smell out of my clothes and apartment as well.

Even so, cigarette come-ons were everywhere. There were hordes of smokers at work where ashtrays were on every desktop. People smoked on planes and in restaurants though they laughingly had no smoking sections either one row or one table away from the smokers. Did they think those kinds of accommodations would save lives?

Luckily, I never went back to my high school and college bad habit. I truly thank my ex-husband for that.

Eventually I stopped drinking coffee too.







  1. Doug Hicks says

    Wow, Madeline. That was quite evocative! You really took me there.

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