I was probably 10 when my parents decided it was time to take control of the air in our home around holidays. Until then, either the current of smoke was too strong, the number of smokers too many, or the resolve too faltering. This year, Uncle Phil, Uncle Jack, Uncle Pat, Dad, and Grammy would be relegated to the “office” to fix their nicotine cravings.
The office was really only called the office because it had a desk and a phone in it. It was one of those rooms that was the last to be finished in the building of the house. It was a forgotten place, an inconvenience. It smelled cold. Putting a door on it was important because that meant we could close it and not look at it and not remember how much unfinished business was in there. The desk in the office was actually two metal filing cabinets supporting a wide board between them. The newsroom era metal desk chair must have weighed 50 pounds. It had some limited green vinyl upholstering on the arms and back, and with a cut in the seat, revealing yellowed cotton fill. Its wheels, which were intended to work in unison, seemed to each have its own mission in mind. There was an answering machine next to the phone on the desk made of black plastic and wood laminate on the sides. It recorded on a miniature cassette tape that made a squeaky and bubbly bird chirpy sound when your rewound it. The covers weren’t yet installed on the light switches, which made turning on the lights a bit more skilled and graceful an act than typical. We did manage to scrape together the wherewithal to buy a cheap scrap of wall-to-wall carpet and cut it to fit the shape of the room, thereby covering the particle board floor that would give you splinters if you dared walk barefoot upon it. The carpet was a dark teal green and it wasn’t properly affixed to the floor or walls. We let the spare furniture hold it in place, and though it did curl at the sides revealing white polyester fringe at its edges, it served its purpose to keep the chill at bay and provide just enough sense of utility.
It was this room, the office, which was to be the official smokers’ lounge of that Christmas. I remember Mom and Dad strategizing before the arrival of our guests– that they would simply explain that we were trying to keep everyone comfortable to enjoy the day and so to please, when you decide you’d like a cigarette, to please go into the office and close the door. That last part was the sticking point. It was hard to make sequestering your guests to a forgotten space sound happy and welcoming.
Being simple, happy, and rather young, the uncles were easily sold on the plan. I think they liked that there was a special place for smoking, where few children would spend time and they could speak freely. Dad was glad to role model happily using the space, though later he would end up going outside where there were no relatives at all. Even with temperatures in the teens, being among the trees and surrounded by silence was better still than sharing the office with the in-law smokers.
It was Grammy whose hackles jumped at the request. “What am I?! An outlaw?!” She resented the office and she saw it for what it was– a forgotten place where we stored the things we didn’t otherwise know what to do with. “What about my rights?” This was also a raging debate in the mid 80s– how to honor and defend the right to smoke while acknowledging that perhaps there were some health risks to smokers and those around them… perhaps. Grammy was having none of it. She would not be stored in the office with the chair and the rug with the unfinished edges.
Instead, Grammy intentionally smoked louder and longer, and more dramatically than ever before. She lit her Slim 100’s one after another in the kitchen, in the living room with the cathedral ceiling, magical swirls of smoke up, up, up. Her arms gestured grandly and her voice cracked and she would pull and swallow that smoke and ahhhhhh…. it went everywhere. It wound around her hands and her face and head, over the dining room table, past the candles and across the mirror on the sideboard, through the kitchen, the smell of ham and smoke. She was like Tinkerbell, but her wand was a Slim 100 and her glitter, tar and ash.
Dad was furious and started doing a thing he would do when he didn’t know what to do– his brow would crunch and his look took on the look of someone in search of a weapon. He would walk around erratically. (Really he was in search of a reasonable reaction, as they didn’t easily reveal themselves to him.) Mom’s voice became high-pitched, “Mom, please! It’s not that big a deal.” The tension filling the house postured to take over the smoke in every hidden nook and cranny, from Mom to Grammy, and Dad to Mom and Grammy, which didn’t make sense, but there it was anyway. Dad’s tension spread to everyone really, for not taking up arms, rocks, pitchforks, charge!!! Where was the sanity in this family?, he would wonder.
Uncle Phil, Uncle Pat, and Uncle Jack enjoyed the office and laughed in there all day, coming out only for gifts, dinner, and the occasional refill. They had the merriest Christmas of all. Grammy enjoyed herself to a degree that would annoy my father for years to come. She would tell the story of that Christmas as “The Year They Tried to Lock Me Up.” I remembered the video game under the tree that year, and how sad I was when Christmas was over, despite the madness. When everyone was gone, the office door was opened and the smell of Marlboro’s stood stale in the hallway.