Where there’s smoke

My aunt Esther, who died a few years ago at the age of ninety-eight, was the only non-smoker I knew who did not oblige her smoking guests to go outside for their nicotine fix.

Moreover, for thirty years of her adult life she shared a house with a heavy smoker – her friend Pat.   

When Pat died, Essie was left in possession of most of a carton of Pat’s favourite fags.  These she regarded as a sort of inheritance and she smoked them, one a day, with her morning tea, till they were all gone.  It took her months, and after that she never had another one.  

By modern standards this was curious behavior to say the least.  I asked her about it, and for one thing she did, like so many of her generation, tend to misinterpret the epidemiology on smoking.  You know the kind of thing:  ‘So-and-so smoked his whole life and is still fit as a fiddle.’  Even Pat’s premature death didn’t change her mind.     

Was she a reformed addict who relished this final fling with the dreaded coffin nails at a ripe old age?  Nope.  Having flirted briefly with the habit in her youth she gave it away because, she said, she had been ‘too mean’ to keep it up.

A comfortably retired ‘career girl’, she could now afford to keep on smoking if she wished.  But she didn’t.  And it wasn’t about health or money, it was about her generation’s attitude to men and manly ways. 

Essie was in her twenties during World War II.  For five years of her young adulthood she lived with the threat of an imminent disaster whose likelihood escalated with every radio broadcast:  the invasion of Poland, the fall of France, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the sinking of ferries in Sydney Harbour, the bombing of Darwin.

As she saw it, nothing stood between her and impending catastrophe but the courage and heroism of her male peers who were ready to go off to some hellish foreign battlefield or jungle to fight to the death if necessary to defend their families, their country and their way of life. 

And their sweethearts.  Essie had one who was killed during the war, a fact I only discovered through these discussions.  No wonder she held the view, expressed often and with the bluntness and repetitiveness of advanced old age, that men are a superior form of human being.  Men are brave and strong and therefore entitled to certain privileges, such as smoking, in her day still very much a male habit.  Cigarettes were the comfort goods you denied yourself so you could send them to the boys at the front to ease their fearful burden.  They were definitely not to be wasted.

Nowadays in some quarters it’s traditional masculinity that’s regarded as toxic – almost as toxic as nicotine.  How times have changed.