My father enlisted the four of us kids to help my mother quit smoking. If we could show him that we had stopped her from finishing a cigarette, we could have an extra half hour of TV each night.
My mother, taking a long drag on her cigarette, smiled and told us that she wanted to quit — nasty habit — and she would not get mad at us for helping her. The only rule we had was not to lecture her, at least not in public.
My brother, the oldest of the litter, was the most ingenious. From the Joke Store in downtown (he was old enough to take the bus alone), he had bought something called cigarette loads, which were essentially little firecrackers that you poked into the cigarette and when the burning tobacco hit one, it would make a fairly good pop, and sometimes put out the cigarette.
The first few times that the cigarette popped, Mom laughed over it, and then she would give us the dead cigarette, complete with lipstick smudge, to show as proof that we had done our jobs.
When she realized that she was running out of cigarettes, she would light them again. Our TV rations suffered.
So we escalated and took to putting several loads in the cigarette so that the pop became a boom and the cigarette was no longer smokable. Thus we again had proof that we had stopped her from smoking, and we got an extra half hour of TV.
Like all good generals, my mother learned from the tactics of her adversaries and had taken to examining the cigarette for signs of tampering. The loads being black were easily spotted against the light brown of the tobacco, and so she would avoid those cigarettes. Our TV rations declined again.
I had figured out that if I poked the filter of her cigarette with a needle a few times that she could not draw and so that was effective for a while as we had a pile of war trophies (cigarettes with her lipstick on them and negligible usage), but she learned to look for the damage to the filters. One sister, with deadly aim, had taken to using her squirt gun to put out the smokes, but that was quickly confiscated.
My brother, when he realized that our mother had out-smarted us with looking at the tobacco end first, he then turned the cigarettes upside down in the package so you only saw the filters. This bought us another day of TV, but Mom adapted quickly.
My brother adapted too, and started using a sewing needle to poke the load deeper into the cigarette so she could not see it. She went back to relighting them and finishing her smoke. We started pushing multiple loads deeper and deeper into the cigarettes. Sometimes she would take a puff, and then it would explode, she would relight, and there would be another explosion. Sometimes if the loads were not too far apart the cigarette would go pop-pop or pop-pop-boom. Our TV rations were on the mend.
So, as you can see with the escalating war amongst us, everyone was nervous when my very proper and very French grandmother announced that she would make a state appearance for Thanksgiving.
My mother (her daughter) was a terrible cook, was giving up smoking with a pack of wild children running amok; my father had what can only be described as an open hatred for his mother-in-law that bordered on the psychotic. The decision was made, quickly, to entertain her in the public place of her choice.
My relationship with my grandmother was doomed before I was born. “This one,” she said pointing to the bulge that would someday be me, “will ruin your figure,” and offered the name of a man who could take care of things for my mother. And for the next six years she treated me as the miserable interloper that ruined her only daughter’s chance to find happiness, perhaps with a better man than my father, who would be more worthy of her.
The previous Christmas I asked her if I could call her granny. “Non,” was the reply.
So you can see that I had what HR departments would call “a troubled relationship.” My parents were determined to somehow have me wheedle my way into her heart. They sent me to a French preschool where I learned some basic French, how to bow, and (strangely) how to dance the minouette. They bought me a very proper grey wool shorty suit and a real bow tie. And for some weeks I practiced bowing, pulling out the chair, opening the door, and my very small yet suave Charles Boyer greeting.
The big day arrived and we were drove into San Francisco to have Thanksgiving dinner at the Palace Hotel. My family waited at the end of the hallway while I went to her room and knocked on the door.
“Je suis énchanté, Madame,” I said with a very polite and stiff little bow, and escorted my very proper and elegant grandmother into the Garden Court — a high Victorian room full of gilt, mirrors, palms and ferns, and huge chandeliers, and waiters whisking about silently. I pulled out her chair and waited for her to be seated before assisting my mother, and my sisters. My father and my brother and I sat down and dinner commenced. From the left-most fork to the right-most spoon, I was the model of a polite 6-year old garçon.
And at some point, after very much practice and nudging by my father, I walked over to my grandmother and with all the dignity I could muster, asked her if we could be friends.
“On se tutoyait?”
She smiled enigmatically, and that was when she reached into my mother’s bag, pulled out a cigarette and asked me to light it for her.