I received my first cigarettes around the time I got my first iron, stove, and refrigerator. This was the sixties, and the appliances were toys. The cigarettes were candy.
Looking back, I don't know what bothers me the most these days. The fact that I was being prepared for housework at such a young age, or that I was being prepared to smoke!
We see the commercial of the woman with the hole in her throat describing how as a young girl she was encouraged to light up. We also see her depicted as a young teen admiring herself in the mirror with a cigarette in her hands. I did this as an even younger child with the candy cigarettes!
I, like her, grew up in a different time. The adults around me smoked, drank more than twice a week, and kept guns under their beds. But also, the men wore suits on Sunday, we had family dinners often, and children were expected to be respectful to adults. We emulated adults but were careful not to cross the line. We knew not to look under their beds.
I was given candy cigarettes the way kids today are given chocolate bars. The adults figured kids wanted to act grown-up and this was one way to do it. Even with alcohol, there was a 'children's version' and it was a treat for me to order a Shirley Temple whenever we went to a restaurant that served liquor.
I also remember my first adult drink... one that was offered and poured especially for me! I was around fourteen, and it was at my next door neighbor's house in South Los Angeles.
Our neighbor, Miss Cassie, was an older woman, probably around 60 at the time. Her husband worked at night and slept during the day. He was off on Mondays and this was the only time we would see Miss Cassie leave the house - always riding with him. Even though she stayed inside, we figured she knew everything going on in the neighborhood because she was always peeking out of her window.
Finally, one day my mom managed to catch Miss Cassie outside and introduced herself (that's how we found out her name). After awhile, Miss Cassie would come outside to talk to my mom and eventually invited her into the house. After that, about twice a week my mom would visit Miss Cassie and some afternoons she would bring me.
We would sit in the small, tidy, dark living room and 'chat.' The drapes were always drawn. We found out that Miss Cassie's husband worked at Chasen's... a famous Hollywood restaurant that was known for its delicious chili. Miss Cassie's husband always brought home plenty of Chasen's Chili and we would sit and eat it. The women discussed the goings-on of the neighborhood and I would sit and listen. (In those days, kids weren't allowed to join in adult conversations unless asked a question.)
Miss Cassie would "serve cocktails" as she called it, and one day, with my mom's permission, she offered me a glass of Scotch-on-the-rocks... their drink of choice. I felt so grown up and 'privileged' to be joining these women in their afternoon cocktail; however, one taste of the Scotch made me sick to my stomach. (I still get nauseated just thinking about it.) I refused Miss Cassie's offer of cocktails after that.
I'm not going to say I don't drink occasionally today, but I never became a heavy drinker or developed a taste for the hard liquors. I prefer mixed drinks (I love margaritas!) or wine. Strangely enough, I also like beer. (It was the bitterness of beer that turned a lot of kids against drinking.)
But... back to those candy cigarettes. Around the same time I was holding them and pretending to inhale, I also started developing an aversion to cigarette smoke. I hated being in smoke-filled rooms and eventually would cough when exposed to smoke. My mom quit smoking around this time, although it took my dad many more years to stop. He wouldn't smoke much in the house however and never in the car. Still... as an adult I developed asthma and I think all the smoke I was exposed to as a child and teen didn't help. The Los Angeles smog might have contributed also.
I don't fault my parents or Miss Cassie for my early exposure to cigarettes and alcohol. It would have happened anyway... possibly in a worse environment. Maybe adults in those days knew this and this was their way of trying to control things. Like I said... it was a different time.
(first appeared in Huffington Post 2/1/11)