I’ve always been a goody-two-shoes, a square, maybe even a prude. I suppose I am too afraid not to be. Growing up at home, Daddy didn’t put up with much. I knew exactly how I was expected to behave.
Until I was about sixteen years old, I was intimidated, maybe even a little afraid of Daddy. It was only recently he told me his secret to parenting was “making you believe I would kill you if you went too far.” Fact.
I desperately wanted to please Mama and Daddy, so I tried not to disappoint them. Still do.
To be fair, it wasn’t just Mama and Daddy’s influence. My high school was fourteen miles away from home in a rural farming community only slightly bigger than my own. By the time I was a senior, most of the twenty-three students in my graduating class had been in school together since Kindergarten. All our parents knew each other, grandparents too.
The majority of my classmates were high-achievers. In our class, we had six Eagle Scouts. Over half of us were honor graduates, and three or four of the top students in the class were separated by only tenths of hundreds of points from overall averages of 100 or higher. We were competitive, athletic, goal-oriented.
I’m sure there were parties and drinking, but honestly, I didn’t know much about them. I had a high school sweetheart, and we spent most of our spare time with each other.
Because we lived so far out in the country, and because my curfew was 11:00pm, that meant we had to be on the way home from any town that had a restaurant or movie theatre by at least 10:15pm. There was no lingering on the front porch either. “Don’t make me flick the front porch light, Elizabeth,” Daddy said.
Mine weren’t the only parents with expectations: good grades, good manners, football games on Friday, church on Sunday. It wasn’t too bad. All we had to do was what we were told.
After such a sheltered environment, college provided an opportunity to spread my wings.
I began college assuming I’d be an English Literature major, but I auditioned for “Fiddler on the Roof,” was cast as a chorus member, and was hooked. Once I found a home at the theatre, I never wanted to leave.
After the thrill of that first play, I declared theatre as my major and spent every waking moment at the theatre department.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I picked up smoking. Almost all the theatre majors were smokers, at least casually. We put in such long hours together: in practice, set construction, classes. Smoking allowed us a quick break, a way to get outside for a few minutes to unwind. Besides, it was cool—the flick of that lighter, the curling smoke pluming from between just slightly opened lips.
I felt so grown. So mature. I was a rebel.
That quarter, I returned home more confident and self-assured than ever before. Ginny was still in high school. Mama and Daddy hadn’t retired. Coming home for a weekend was like slipping on a comfortable sweater, an opportunity to fall back into the familiar and rest.
After eating family supper together at the table, I helped clean up the kitchen. As the last glass was dried, I made up my mind to state my independence. Turning from the kitchen sink, bare heels on our white linoleum floor, I announced that I was going to the front porch for a cigarette. If that scene had been a movie, we’d have all heard a record needle scratch its way across the record.
Leaving mouths agape in the kitchen, I strolled into my bedroom and grabbed my pack of Marlboro Lights from my purse. I liked the way they felt in my hand: a sophisticated, cardboard rectangle. Inside my childhood bedroom, I unwrapped the cellophane from around the package, already able to smell the tobacco.
I turned the pack upside down in my right hand, as the upperclassmen had shown me, and popped the full pack four times on the heel of my upturned palm. Flipping the pack upright, I pushed open the perforated cardboard top. As I pulled away the flimsy aluminum wrapper, I encouraged myself quietly, “You’re doing this, aren’t you? Gutsy move, Sanders. Gutsy move.” I pulled one white cylinder out of the pack, threw the rest of the pack back in my purse, fumbled for my lighter, and went outside on the front porch.
Daddy was already there, rocking slowly in the wooden front porch rocker. In his left hand, he held his iced tea glass from the supper table in place on the arm of the rocking chair. His left thumb and forefinger forming a “c” around the bottom of the glass already covered in condensation from the humidity outside.
That left the porch swing for me. It felt like a setup from the get-go. I stepped in front of him, contraband palmed in my left hand. “
I’m a grownup now. This is my chance to claim my independence. You’ve gotta do it,” I pep-talked to myself as tiny beads of sweat began to form at my hairline.
I sat down on the front porch swing, its familiar creak and squeak a comfort. Daddy followed my every move with eyes squinted and slanted at me. I was immediately reminded of Clint Eastwood in every spaghetti Western, sizing up his dueling partner. This wasn’t going to be the simple act of rebellion and independence I’d planned.
He never said a word. Not a single word. All my self-assurance, self-determination, and big girl sass, fell right through the spaces between the pine porch planks.
I had a decision to make, and it felt monumental. My mind raced. My heart beat fast in my throat. “If I don’t smoke the cigarette, he wins. Just like he always wins. I mean, what’s he going to do to me if I do smoke it? What’s the worst that can happen? At some point, I have to do things on my own. I have to grow up and decide things for myself. I cannot just bend to Daddy’s rules for the rest of my life. I have to smoke it. There’s no alternative.”
Daddy sat still, his eyes penetrating.
I licked my lips, terrified but determined. My hand shook as I raised the crisp, white, perfect cigarette to my lips between two quaking fingers. Putting the cigarette to my wet lips, I looked down the cigarette’s barrel and flicked the tiny cylinder of the lighter.
He didn’t blink.
I heard the familiar pop and burn-curl as the cigarette lit. I inhaled. My hand was still shaking as I placed the lighter on the porch railing. One deep exhale. As the smoke curled to the front porch ceiling, I said, “Well, if you’re going to stare at me like that, I can’t enjoy this at all.”
The tiniest smile crossed his lips as I snuffed it out.
I never smoked a cigarette in front of my father again.